He had made Julia Domna secretary both a libellis and ab epistulis – of petitions and correspondence. She joined or replaced him in greeting high members of the state or foreign dignitaries. Gossip whispered that she controlled him by incestuous means; the wits of Alexandria maddened him by referring to her and him as Jocasta and Oedipus. Partly in revenge against these insults, partly because he feared that Egypt might revolt while he was fighting Parthia, he visited the city and superintended (we are assured) the massacre of all Alexandrians capable of bearing arms. Nevertheless, the founder of Alexandria was his model and envy. He organized 16,000 troops into what he called “Alexander’s phalanx,” equipped them with ancient Macedonian arms, and dreamed of subduing Parthia as Alexander had conquered Persia. He tried hard to be a good soldier, sharing the food and toil and marches of his army, helping it to dig ditches and build bridges, bearing himself bravely in action, and often challenging the enemy to single combat. But his men were not as eager for the Parthian campaign as he was; they loved spoils more ardently than battle; and at Carrhae, where Crassus had been defeated, they stabbed him to death (217). Macrinus, prefect of the Guard, acclaimed himself emperor, and ordered the reluctant Senate to make Caracalla a god. Julia Domna, banished to Antioch, and bereft, within six years, of empire, husband, and sons, refused food until she died.

She had a sister, Julia Maesa, as capable as herself. Returning to Emesa, this second Julia found there two promising grandsons. One, by her daughter Julia Soaemias, was a young priest of Baal; his name was Varius Avitus, and would be Elagabalus- “the creative god.” The other, by Maesa’s daughter Julia Mamaea, was a boy of ten called Alexianus, and would be Alexander Severus. Though Varius was the son of Varius Marcellus, Maesa spread the rumor that he was the natural son of Caracalla, and gave him the name Bassianus; the Empire was worth her daughter’s reputation, and Marcellus was dead. The Roman soldiers in Syria were already half won to Syrian cults, and felt a pious respect for the fourteen-year-old priest; moreover, Maesa suggested that if they would make Elagabalus emperor she would distribute a substantial donative among them. The soldiers were convinced, and complied. Maesa’s gold brought over to her cause the army that Macrinus sent against them. When Macrinus himself appeared with a substantial force, the Syrian mercenaries wavered; but Maesa and Soaemis sprang from their chariots, and led the softened army to victory. The men of Syria were women, and the women were men. In the spring of 219 Elagabalus entered Rome dressed in robes of purple silk embroidered with gold, his cheeks stained with vermilion, his eyes artificially brightened, costly bracelets on his arms, a string of pearls around his neck, a jeweled crown on his pretty head. Beside him his grandmother and his mother rode in state. On his first appearance in the Senate he demanded that his mother should be allowed to sit beside him and attend the deliberations. Soaemias had the sense to withdraw, and contented herself with presiding over that Senaculum, or little Senate, of women, which Hadrian’s Sabina had founded, and which dealt with questions of feminine dress, jewelry, precedence, and etiquette. Grandmother Maesa was left to govern the state. The young emperor had some elements of charm. He made no reprisals against the supporters of Macrinus. He loved music, sang well, played the pipes, the organ, and the horn. Being too young to rule the Empire, he only asked permission to enjoy it. Pleasure, not Baal, was his god, and he was resolved to worship it in all its genders and forms. He invited every class of the free population to visit his palace; at times he would eat and drink and make merry with them; often he would distribute among them lottery prizes ranging from a furnished home to a handful of flies. He loved to play jokes upon his guests: to seat them on inflated cushions that would suddenly burst; to stupefy them with wine and let them wake up amid harmless leopards, bears, and lions. Lampridius assures us that Elagabalus never spent less than 100,000 sesterces ($10,000)- and sometimes 3,000,000- on a banquet to his friends. He would mix gold pieces with peas, onyx with lentils, pearls with rice, amber with beans; he would present horses, or chariots, or eunuchs, as favors; often he bade each guest take home the silver plate and goblets in which the dinner had been served. As for himself, he would have nothing but the best. The water in his swimming pools was perfumed with essence of roses; the fixtures in his bathrooms were of onyx or gold; his food had to be of costly rarities; his dress was studded with jewelry from crown to shoes; and gossip said that he never wore the same rings twice. When he traveled, 600 chariots were needed to carry his baggage and his bawds. Told by a soothsayer that he would die a violent death, he prepared worthy means of suicide if occasion required: cords of purple silk, swords of gold, poisons enclosed in sapphires or emeralds. He was slain in a latrine. Probably his enemies of the Senatorial class invented or exaggerated some of these tales; certainly the stories of his sexual depravity are beyond belief. In any case he perfumed his lust with piety, and schemed to spread among the Romans some worship of his Syrian Baal. He had himself circumcized, and thought of emasculating himself in honor of his god. He brought from Emesa the conical black stone which he worshiped as the emblem of Elagabal; he raised an ornate temple to house it; the stone, encrusted with gems, was carried to it on a chariot drawn by six white horses, while the young emperor walked backward before it in dumb adoration. He was willing to recognize all other religions; he patronized Judaism, and proposed to legalize Christianity. He merely insisted, with admirable loyalty, that his stone was the greatest of gods. His mother, absorbed in amours, looked with indulgence upon this Priapic farce; but Julia Maesa, failing to control it, resolved to forestall a debacle that would end this remarkable dynasty of Syrian women. She persuaded Elagabalus to adopt his cousin Alexander as successor and Caesar. She and Mamaea trained the boy in the duties of his office, and by every art drew the Senate and the people to look upon him as a desirable alternative to the priestly satyr who had offended Rome not by his extravagance or obscenity, but by his subordination of Jupiter to a Syrian Baal. Soaemias discovered the plot, and stirred up the Praetorians against her sister and nephew; Maesa and Mamaea offered richer arguments; and the Guard slew Elagabalus and his mother, dragged his corpse through the streets and around the Circus, and flung it into the Tiber. The Guard proclaimed, the Senate accepted, Alexander as emperor (222). Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, like his predecessor, mounted the throne at the age of fourteen. His mother had given herself with singular consecration to the training of his body, mind, and character. He strengthened his frame with labor and exercise, swam in a cold pool for an hour every day, drank a pint of water before each meal, ate sparingly and of the simplest foods. He grew into a handsome youth, tall and strong, skilled in every sport and in the arts of war. He studied Greek and Latin literature, and only moderated his love for them on the insistence of Mamaea, who quoted to him those verses of Virgil that called upon Romans to yield the graces of culture to others, and form themselves to organize a world state and rule it in peace. He painted and sang “with distinction,” and played the organ and the lyre, but never allowed any but his own household to witness these performances. He dressed and behaved with modest simplicity, “was temperate in the enjoyment of love, and would have nothing to do with catamites.” He showed high respect for the Senate, treated its members as his equals, entertained them in his palace, and often joined them in their homes. Kindly and affable, he visited the sick without distinction of class, gave ready audience to any citizen of decent repute, quickly forgave opponents, and shed no civilian blood in the fourteen years of his reign. His mother reproved his amiability, saying, “You have made your rule too gentle, and the authority of the Empire less respected”; to which he answered, “Yes, but I have made it more lasting and secure.” He was a man of gold, without the alloy required to withstand the rough usage of this world.

He recognized the absurdity of his cousin’s effort to replace Jove with Elagabal, and he co-operated with his mother in restoring the Roman temples and ritual. But to his philosophic mind it seemed that all religions were diverse prayers to one supreme power; he wished to honor all honest faiths; and in his private chapel, where he worshiped every morning, he had icons of Jupiter, Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, Abraham, and Christ. He quoted frequently the Judaeo-Christian counsel: “What you do not wish a man to do to you, do not do to him”; he had it engraved on the walls of his palace and on many a public building. He recommended the morals of the Jews and the Christians to the Roman people. The unimpressed wits of Antioch and Alexandria referred to him as “Head of the Synagogue.” His mother favored the Christians, protected Origen, and summoned him to explain to her his flexible theology.