Elagabalus: A Transgender Roman Emperor?

Catherine Knight, Collections Assistant Archaeology

Elagabalus became Roman emperor when they were just fourteen and ruled for only four years before being assassinated in AD222. They were known for their extravagance and excesses and had a reputation for promiscuity. According to chroniclers, they were married several times, including to a Vestal Virgin and a male charioteer, wore female clothing and make-up, played the part of a female prostitute, preferred the title ‘Lady’ to that of ‘Lord’ and offered a large sum of money to anyone who could perform a sex change operation.

Portrait bust of the Emperor Elagabalus.

Because of this, Elagabalus is today seen as transgender and is often referred to by feminine or non-binary pronouns. It is, however, difficult to determine how many of these stories are true and how many are intended as criticism of an unpopular emperor. Romans were not strangers to same-sex relationships, but a man taking on the passive or feminine role in the relationship would have been scorned as unmanly and un-Roman. Last year North Hertfordshire Museum updated its collection records to refer to Elagabalus as a trans-woman, using she/her pronouns.

The Burwell Hoard of silver denarii in the collection contains coins issued by Elagabalus.

Silver denarii of Elagabalus from the Burwell Hoard.
Silver denarii of Elagabalus from the Burwell Hoard.
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