top of page
  • Writer's pictureValeria Pugliese

Heliogabalus: Ode to Anarchy

One month ago I was in Rome.

When in Rome, in almost a 40 degrees inferno, I prioritised my visit to the Capitoline Museums; no one really cared, rooms were blissfully empty and silent, and that room, the Hall of the Emperors, finally welcomed me after years of fantasising about it.

The Emperors stared at me, with a blank yet penetrating stare, with composure and austerity.

Hall of the Emperors, Capitoline Museum

Imperial profiles

Their powerful profiles moved me to one of my usual cyclical phases of the wider and well-known "Should I get a rhinoplasty?" crisis; this particular phase is called "I have a Domina nose which makes me look like a Roman Empress, I must learn how to fully embrace it".

Right, enough about my nose.

I kept observing each bust, I found HIM at last: Heliogabalus, the Emperor of Decadence.

The transitioning face of a boy becoming a man, the full sensual lips, the doe-eyes yet that lustful naughty gaze; Oscar Wilde thought of Heliogabalus' appearance as "rather like a young Oxonian of a very charming kind".

This is the best-known sculpture of the Emperor, a rare and perfectly preserved treasure surviving damnatio memoriae.

Heliogabalus, Capitoline Museums

Travelling back and forth to City Road yesterday, I had the time to finally complete reading the book The Mad Emperor - Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome by Harry Sidebottom.

A narrative biography of Heliogabalus and his ephemeral four years as emperor (218 AD to 222 AD), raising to the principate at merely 14 years of age in an army revolt instigated by his grandmother Julia Maesa, this book is a fully referenced, accurate, scholarly though readable historical account exploring the most fabulous yet perplexing among Roman Emperors.

The "Religion" and "Sex" chapters were the most fascinating, of course.

Polytheism elevated Heliogabalus to the roles of both Emperor and supreme high-priest of Elagabalus, Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun god, although did not seem to justify Heliogabalus' exoticism and excesses.

Silver disc of Sol Invictus (III century), currently at the British Museum

Today Heliogabalus would have She/Her pronouns; the second marriage with the vestal virgin Julia Aquilia Severa served solely to elevate his priest status and, allegedly, practice how to be a woman with women. His taste for male-male sex became publicly recognised with him taking the two lovers Hierocles, an ex-slave and chariot driver from Caria, and Zoticus, an athlete from Smyrna, noticed for his "huge capabilities" and allegedly seduced by the emperor explicitly stating "Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady!".

The explanation of Apollonian/Dionysian cultural perception of small/large-sized penises in ancient Rome was especially lovely.

Heliogabalus, every so often, is referred to by Decadence scholars.

An anthology to consider, with the splendid painting The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tademaon on the cover, is the book Decadence: An Annotated Anthology, edited by Jane Desmarais & Chris Baldick.

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Roman Decadence forms the basis for the etymology investigation of the modern definition of the terms Decadence & Decadent.

Personally favourite definition:

"Decadence is an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity"

Arthur Symons

Just perfect!

Two books read within the past two years also deserve dedicated attention.

  • The Dedalus Book of Roman Decadence: Emperors of Debauchery edited by Geoffrey Farrington

  • Heliogabalus: Or, The Crowned Anarchist, a book by Antonin Artaud (read in Italian)

The first being a "decalogue" of a variety of Roman Emperors' turpitude and debauchery, the second a theatrical, explicit, vulgar biography by the French dramatist Artaud, said to be almost an embodiment of himself and of his own insurgency in art; he was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum three years after the book’s publication.

Why this post?

No particular purpose, really; merely:

  • Circumstances - back from Rome, seeing HIM, finishing Sidebottom's book

  • Coincidences - currently being possessed by an insufferable and "anarchic" attitude against social expectations

  • Conversations - on decadence, taste, passions, sexual discernment, and roses

Ode to Anarchy

My 30s are loomingly approaching: next to my necessary hypocritical social persona, "anarchy" may be my shield against social pressures, the golden armour that makes me shine even if I am generally perceived as idiosyncratic and far away from being an adorable "pick-me".

I will make every effort to avoid any farcical mid-life crisis; anarchy, after all, transcends the highs and lows of transgression against the laws, it elevates us to the careless status of a life without laws at all or, possibly, to blind obedience to the sole principle of pleasure.

Last Sunday I took part in a historical society event; wondering and punting in Cambridge, I cross-dressed as an 1890s flâneur sir, never being afraid of showing off my Freudian penis-envy, embracing my androgyny, catching glimpses from other women which, quite unexpectedly, were the ones who complimented me and asked to be photographed with me the most.

On Monday, when the intrusive and rude question "What did you do on the weekend?" (I am Italian and I will never stop finding this as an unacceptable invasion of my privacy!) came, I tried to share my weekend adventures, receiving as a response perplexed and judgmental looks ("She is weird", "She can do that because she does not have children") and a complete lack of understanding of what this experience meant to me.

Ah, just ah...

Heliogabalus, the "Crowned Anarchist", embodied the value of anarchy through the most decadent attitude, poisoned, therefore, with narcissism, covetousness, ennui, androgyny, and the darkest perversions, making him transcend his dreadful fall and a horrifying death (often a canon even for Decadents) through a perpetual controversiality and immortal uniqueness.

He may not be a Muse to me although he certainly has been the historical epitome of the unification of the Jungian principles of Animus & Anima: a young high priest, a religion whose mysteries are rooted in the devotion to the feminine principle of chaos, rising to the powerful masculine role of the emperor through the evil political plots of Julia Maesa, branding both her daughters as sirens, adulteresses and prostitutes in order to claim Caracalla's paternity for her two grandsons; Heliogabalus, now emperor of Rome, intensely desiring, mainly, to feel and physically be a woman; toxic integration of two opposite principles to rational eyes perhaps, absolutely fascinating and highly intriguing to mine.

This section from Artaud's book, explains the decadent Beauty of Heliogabalus excellently:

"The entirety of Heliogabalus' life is anarchy in action as Elegabalus, the unifying god, merging manhood and womanhood, marrying all contrasting opposites, being both the ONE and the TWO, is the epilogue of any contradictions, the end of the war through war and, in a land of inconsistencies and turmoil, he is also the embodiment of implemented anarchy.

And anarchy, to the extremes touched by Heliogabalus' experience, is poetry transmuted into reality."

In this "Land of Confusion" (yes, I am exactly thinking about that song from Genesis), Heliogabalus' story shall serve as a poignant reminder of the complexities of human nature, the sanctimonious contempt society has against anarchy, "Decadent Anarchy", and the eternal struggle to seek balance and meaning within ourselves, being through acceptance, integration or a never-ending cult of uniqueness.


bottom of page