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A British museum has decided that an infamous Roman emperor was transgender, and will refer to him using female pronouns in the name of sensitivity.
The North Hertfordshire Museum told the Telegraph that going forward, it will refer to Elagabalus, who ruled the Roman empire from 218-222 AD, as a woman, based on the work of contemporary historian Cassius Dio, who said that Elagabalus was “termed wife, mistress and queen.”
“Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Elagabalus supposedly told a male lover.
“We know that Elagabalus identified as a woman and was explicit about which pronouns to use, which shows that pronouns are not a new thing,” said Keith Hoskins, executive member for Enterprise and Arts at North Herts Council. “We try to be sensitive to identifying pronouns for people in the past, as we are for people in the present.”
However, later historians have debated how seriously some of these descriptions should be taken. Rome was an unapologetically patriarchal society and lacked the modern conceptions of “gender” as something independent of biological sex. While some “gender fluid” characters existed in myth, such as Hermaphroditus, from whom we get the term “hermaphrodite,” and the blind prophet Tiresius, who was transformed into a woman for seven years as a divine punishment, after which he was transformed back into a man, such ambiguity wasn’t transferred over to flesh and blood people.
Allegations of sexual impropriety or effeminate behavior were stock insults in the Roman political lexicon. Surviving histories of the era are often fragmentary and biased, with some unpopular emperors being exclusively remembered by the descriptions of their enemies.
“There are many examples in Roman literature of times where effeminate language and words were used as a way of criticising or weakening a political figure,” Dr Shushma Malik, a classics professor at Cambridge University, told the BBC. “References to Elagabalus wearing makeup, wigs and removing body hair may have been written in order to undermine the unpopular emperor.”
Elagabalus, who is widely considered to be one of the worst emperors Rome ever had, ascended to the throne at the age of 14 at the end of a bloody civil war, and was himself assassinated four years later to be replaced by his younger cousin, Alexander Severus. Aside from his reported sexual exploits (Dio tells us that he was “married” at various points to four women and one man and had many extramarital affairs), Elagabalus is also remembered for his promotion of the Syrian sun-god of the same name and his unpopular religious reforms, which were rescinded after his death.
Cassius Dio lived through Elagabalus’ reign and was a close political ally of his replacement. While he is still respected as a valuable ancient source, Dio has often been regarded as less reliable than other Roman historians and his descriptions of the late Emperor were far from neutral.
“[Elagabulus] both married and was bestowed in marriage; for he appeared both as man and as woman, and in both relations conducted himself in the most licentious fashion,” Dio wrote.
In the same account, Dio repeatedly refers to Elagabalus as a pretender to the throne (“the False Antoninus”), and accuses him, among other things, of defiling a virgin priestess, dressing and acting like a female prostitute, planning to “cut off his [own] genitals” seeking out a primitive vaginoplasty, and says that “He ought to have been scourged in the Forum, thrown into prison, and then put to death.”
That being said, the well documented sexual behavior of some modern dictators often mirrors ancient allegations of impropriety, which has led some historians to re-evaluate claims that had previously been dismissed as “fantastical.”
The claims made about Elagabalus in the historical record stand out as particularly extreme, even when compared to other Roman invective, which has led some historians to believe that he may have genuinely suffered from gender dysphoria, although others remain skeptical.