The Emperor Elagabalus and the Construction of Anti-Syrian Stereotypes in Roman Historiography



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This project examines how ancient historians reworked anti-Syrian stereotypes within contemporary literature to create a false narrative of Elagabalus, the Roman emperor from 218-222 CE. Elagabalus was born in Emesa (modern Homs, Syria) and lived there until he was hailed emperor around the age of fourteen. He became notorious in antiquity as one of the worst emperors in Roman history; Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta relate extraordinary tales of his extravagant behaviors, decadent lifestyle, and sexual license. Many of the accusations against Elagabalus—his decadence, religious practices, and supposed effeminacy—were actually anti-Syrian tropes found elsewhere in the literature of antiquity. Beginning in the fifth century BCE, Greek authors formulated a concept of “Eastern” decadence associated with Syria. Later authors followed this trend, expanding their stereotypes to include other unfavorable tropes, such as supposed Syrian effeminacy. Historians writing about Elagabalus’ reign used these prevailing ideas to create a new characterization of Elagabalus that fit within their own political agendas.