Roman Historians: Unreliable Narrators? Part 1 of 2

Cheryl Morgan is a trans woman, a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT History Month events. She tweets from @CherylMorgan. In this two part entry, she examines Roman history through a trans inclusive lens presenting one case below and another in part two coming next week. 

The Roman period has a great deal of attraction for historians because we have so much written history. It was one of the more popular literary forms of the period. However, almost all of the history produced by Rome was written by well-to-do, middle-class men. That needs to be taken into account when evaluating what was written. Rome was a very patriarchal society. Indeed, words like patriarch and virile derive directly from Latin. Roman historians are therefore particularly unreliable when discussing matters of gender. How we, as modern historians, interpret what they wrote is critically important.

From a trans history point of view, one of the most important Roman figures is the boy emperor, Elagabalus, of whom it is said:

“He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.”

Was Elagabalus, therefore, an early trans woman, or is this simply a lie made up to discredit him?

Martijn Icks, author of the most recent biography of the emperor, The Crimes of Elagabalus[i], favours the latter explanation. The quote above comes from Cassius Dio (Dio 80:16), who was a contemporary writer. However, Dio’s work was not written during Elagabalus’s lifetime. It was, instead, written during the reign of Severus Alexander, a man who was probably responsible for ordering Elagabalus’s murder.

Icks argues that both Cassius Dio, and Herodian who wrote at the same time, would have been obliged to discredit Elagabalus in their work. Herodian makes no mention of the transgender story, whereas Cassius Dio goes all-in on the effeminacy theme, invoking the legendary Last King of Assyria, Sardanapalus.

The idea that people from the East were dissolute and effeminate was very popular in Rome. The fall of the Assyrian empire was put down to the degeneracy of its last monarch. This story was believed true at least as far as 1821 when Lord Byron published a play about Sardanapalus, and 1827 when Delacroix used the king as the subject for an oil painting. Thanks to modern archaeology we now know that the whole story was a nasty piece of Greek propaganda, and that Sardanapalus never existed, but the proudly virile Romans doubtless lapped it up.

Icks, then, concludes that Cassius Dio is using the fact that Elagabalus was born in Emessa – modern day Homs in Syria – to tar him with the suspicion of effeminacy. The whole transgender thing is just gossip. How could such a story be true?

What Icks doesn’t consider is that the East really wasn’t as misogynistic as Rome. It was home to the cult of Cybele and her castrated trans-feminine followers, the Galli. Many other similar cults existed, and there are suggestions that the practice can be traced all the way back to the worship of Inanna in Sumer.

In Emessa the equivalent goddess was Atargatis. Elagabalus was known for his devotion to the gods of his childhood home. As emperor he was known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. The name Elagabalus was given to him after his death because of his fondness for the Syrian god, Elagabal. The idea of a man being transformed into a woman would have been more familiar and acceptable to Elagabalus than to most Romans.

So is Icks perhaps too suspicious of his source? It is impossible to say. What I can say is that, as a trans woman myself, I am rather more likely to believe that Elagabalus was questioning his (her?) gender. Icks, who is presumably a cisgender man, might be too willing to dismiss such a possibility.

While historians these days might be inclined to dismiss the lurid stories about Elagabalus as mere gossip intended to discredit, much less leeway is granted to Nero. He may not have done all of the terrible things attributed to him, but he was certainly a very strange man. Members of his court, understandably, get tarred by association. This, inevitably, allows historians from both Roman and modern times to vent their disgust of anyone who transgresses gender norms, as we shall see in Part 2.

[i] The title of the book comes from a line in the Major General’s song in The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan