The popular image of a Roman emperor is probably determined by Nero: fat, corrupt and doomed but determined to go out in a blaze of orgies, alcohol and mayhem. Elagabalus (actually Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), worshipper of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal, whom he intended to replace Jupiter at the head of the Roman pantheon, makes Nero look an amateur. Brought to power by his family in AD 218, at the age of fourteen, in a desperate bid to maintain Antonine rule, he lasted four years before being done to death in the arms of his mother after a reign of which Gibbon said that its ‘inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country’. Even if accounts are only half-accurate, one can see why.
Here are some extracts from one of the three sources for his life, the Historia Augusta (so named in 1603), a collection of lives of the emperors put together probably sometime in the fourth century AD. Its authorship is debatable – the great Sir Ronald Syme thought it