“To sport with the passions and prejudices of subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements… The master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex, preferred the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonoured the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor’s, or as he more properly styled himself, of the empress’s husband”.
“His memory was branded with eternal infamy by the Senate; the justice of whose decree has been ratified by posterity.”
Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter VI.
Elagabalus, obviously, is my hero. Of course she did not affect to copy the manners of the female sex, she ceased to act male and expressed her real self as female. The strength of character needed to do this in her circumstances is exceptional. I am so glad to know of her. And I read of her in what is regarded as one of the greatest works of history ever written, where she is despised and mocked and rejected and condescended to, where the author gives his contempt and disgust full rein, and where the climax of his revulsion, the thing he finds most unbearable, is her transsexuality. Is who I am. And her portrait shows her as a man. She was just eighteen when she was murdered.
With messages like this, it is so hard to get rid of my internalised transphobia. And so I- Choose- to celebrate the strength and courage of the only reigning Empress of Rome, who had the courage to transition despite all opposition and fear and ignorance. And I celebrate the strength and courage of all of us who transition.
Do I hate Gibbon and disregard his great work because of this wrong? In his London, there were “Molly clubs” where people assigned male went and dressed as women, and gay men hung out. I went to Wikipedia to find an article on them to show you, and there was none. And so I condemn Gibbon and his work for his part in the oppression and marginalisation of me and my kind. It has value as a history of Ancient Rome and exemplar of great Enlightenment English prose- and the Oppression it embodies reduces its value. Just possibly, Gibbon could not have known better, though he was rejecting people in his own city- now, no-one has any excuse.
Picture copyright: L’imperatore romano Elagabalo (203 o 204-222 d.C). Roma, Musei capitolini. Foto di Giovanni Dall’Orto, 15-08-2000).
Here is the Theodosian Code, 9.7.6: “All persons who have the shameful custom of condemning a man’s body, acting the part of a woman’s to the sufferance of alien sex (for they appear not to be different from women), shall expiate a crime of this kind by being burned to death in the public sight of the people.” That hatred hurts: yet I read “They appear not to be different from women”- it is condemning trans women, and I exult in those women’s bravery.