Book Review: The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor

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by Martijn Icks

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 276. Illus., map., tables, appends., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0674064372

A highly readable look at Elagabalus, perhaps Rome’s most depraved Boy-Emperor.

Coming to the imperium at 14, Elagabalus (r. A.D. 218-222) is less well-known that Rome’s other youthful depraved emperors, Caligula, Nero, and Commodus.  Attaining the purple after a brief civil war through the efforts of mother and grandmother, kin to the late Emperor Caracalla (r. 111-117), Elagabalus was quite a character in his own right.  Varying attempts to explain his character and reign – depraved hedonistic deviant, puppet of manipulative women, misunderstood advocate of monotheism, proto-gay rights crusader – have sparked a good deal of attention in literature, music, and art over the ages.  Prof. Ichs (Heinrich Heine University), who has specialized in the representation of the Roman Emperors, and the curious field of “character assassination across history,” adapted this work from his longer doctoral thesis.  In it, he attempts to sort through what is real and what is fabricated in what is known about Elagabalus.  He does this quite well.  Ichs gives us what is probably the most carefully researched account of the brief civil war that installed Elagabalus on the throne, following the murder of his cousin Caracalla and the short reign of Macrinus.  He also provides valuable insights into the nature of Rome’s governing, religious, and social institutions, the complexities of imperial politics and the role of the army in making or breaking emperors, and the accession of his quite different cousin, Severus Alexander (r. 222-235).

The Crimes of Elagabalus  is a valuable read for anyone interested in the historiography of the Roman emperors or pretty much any major historical figure.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


Buy it at Amazon.com




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