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Gaddafi compared to Roman emperor

An eminent Cambridge classics professor has drawn comparisons between the Roman Emperor Elagabalus’s behaviour and that of Colonel Gaddafi to show how the trademarks of tyranny have survived for two millennia.

books Updated: Dec 28, 2011 11:35 IST

An eminent Cambridge classics professor has drawn comparisons between the Roman Emperor Elagabalus’s behaviour and that of Colonel Gaddafi to show how the trademarks of tyranny have survived for two millennia.

According to Mary Beard, just as Gaddafi paraded in pantomime military outfits covered in spurious medals, Elagabalus dressed entirely in precious silks and draped himself with gems.

At one feast, Elagabalus had several of his guests lashed to a water-wheel, which turned slowly and drowned them as their horrified fellow diners looked on. On another occasion, he let poisonous snakes loose among the crowds at the gladiatorial games, causing widespread death and injury.

As Gaddafi had his all-female squad of Amazonian bodyguards, wearing lipstick and high heels, the boy Emperor apparently dreamt of surrounding himself with a new Roman senate composed entirely of women.

Both tortured their opponents with unhinged zeal, both wasted fortunes on extravagant palaces, and both met remarkably similar and bloody ends – Gaddafi cowering in a drain and Elagabalus in a latrine.

But, in truth, Elagabalus left the Arab ruler far behind in infamy.

The cruel emperor came to wear the imperial purple only thanks to the machinations of his grandmother, Julia Maesa, whose nephew Caracalla had been Emperor for eight years until he was stabbed to death by an army commander.

Everything about him confirmed the Roman suspicion that men who hailed from the East were immoral and sexually perverted effeminates who drenched themselves in perfume and surrounded themselves with eunuchs.

Said to have been an extraordinarily handsome youth, with a short military haircut and bright eyes, he had devoted his early years to the worship of the local sun god Elagabal, after whom he had been named.

As high priest at the temple in Emesa, his daily duties had included performing dances and other rituals while wearing bejewelled robes which did much to flatter his appearance.

His veneration of Elagabal appeared to be a mixture of genuine religious conviction and self-glorification.

“On his head, he wore a crown in the shape of a tiara, glittering with gold and precious stones,” the Daily mail quoted the historian Herodian as writing.

“Any Roman or Greek dress he loathed because, he claimed, it was made out of wool, which is a cheap material. Only silk was good enough for him,” Herodian wrote.

Young though he was, Elagabalus soon proved to be a headstrong and ruthless despot. When his chief adviser, a eunuch named Gannys, warned him to live a temperate and prudent life for fear of alienating those whose taxes would fund his excesses, he became enraged and stabbed the older man to death.

While clearly anxious to secure his dynasty by producing heirs as quickly as possible, Elagabalus fell far short of the masculine ideals expected of an Emperor. He preferred to spend his days in the company of the palace women, singing, dancing, weaving and wearing a hairnet, eye make-up and rouge.

“The soldiers were revolted at the sight of him. With his face made up more elaborately than a modest woman, he was effeminately dressed up in golden necklaces and soft clothes, dancing for everyone to see in this state,” an ancient historian wrote.

Elagabalus was rumoured to have consulted his physicians about an early version of a sex-change operation, and he took a series of male lovers, allegedly selecting candidates for high office on the basis of the size of their private parts.

Most eccentric of all were the arrangements he made for his own death. Following a Syrian priest’s prophecy that he would meet a violent end, he was determined that he would kill himself in style rather than die at the hands of others, and he was thorough in his planning.

If he discovered trouble was looming, he proposed to hang himself with a noose of purple and scarlet silk, stab himself to death with swords made of gold, or jump from of a specially built ‘suicide tower’.

“It was constructed of boards gilded and jewelled in his own presence. Even his death, he declared, should be costly and marked by luxury, in order that it might be said that no one had ever died in this fashion,” a recorded historian said.

However, Elagabalus never got an opportunity to use the tower, or any of his other means of suicide. In March 222 AD, just four years into his reign, Rome’s soldiers finally rebelled against their reviled, wayward Emperor.

After slaughtering his minions and tearing out their vital organs, they then fell upon Elagabalus as he hid cowering in a latrine.

After killing him, they dragged his body through the streets by a hook and attempted to stuff it into a sewer. When it proved too big, they threw him into the River Tiber.

Amid the cheers as the current swept his bloody corpse away, few would have argued with the poet Assonius when he wrote that “no fouler or more filthy monster ever filled the imperial throne of Rome”.

First Published: Dec 28, 2011 11:35 IST