Elagabalus (with Kit Heyam)

Thinking about the Roman Empire? If you weren’t before, you are now! Friend of the podcast Dr. Kit Heyam is back to discuss the fascinating life of ancient Roman emperor Elagabalus (aka Heliogabalus). Elagabalus’s reign was short, and odd, and the way it was written about (by haters) leaves many questions about their queer and trans identity. Kit is here to compassionately explore Elagabalus’s life and story.

Learn more about Kit and their work at kitheyam.com and follow them on Instagram @kitheyamwriter

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Vulgar History Podcast

Elagabalus (with Kit Heyam)

September 23, 2023

Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. My name is Ann Foster, and this is a special bonus episode. I had recorded this a bit ago, I had scheduled to release this in a couple of weeks but suddenly everyone on the internet is talking about the goddamn Roman Empire and I’m like, I have an episode about this. It’s so timely, everyone is thinking about this. And I love that I’m releasing this right now because the context of this whole internet discussion about the Roman Empire, in case you’re listening to this months or years from now, is very much about cis straight men and the ideals of this really patriarchal, or how it’s seen as this patriarchal, really macho, manly time and people are harkening back to it, or whatever. This episode is about a part of the Roman Empire that people who are into the Roman Empire may not know about.

I have such a special guest for this episode as well. It’s Kit Heyam! Last year, I think, I had them on to talk about their book, Before We Were Trans, which is a history of trans people in history and gender in history and I had such a good time talking with Kit. Honestly, ever since then, I’ve been trying to think of a way… I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for a story or a person to profile where I could invite Kit back on the podcast. So, this all lined up really nicely because I came across information about this person, who this podcast is about, who we call Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, potentially named Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus. This person became emperor as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Various names. Anyway, this is where I was intrigued because I started reading about Elagabalus and there’s, we’re going to get into it, a lot of gender stuff, a lot of non-binary, or is it trans? What’s going on with the gender stuff? But there’s not really any writing that really is trans-affirming about this person.

So, when I started reading about them, I messaged Kit just to say, “Hey, have you read about this? Can you recommend sources?” And Kit was like, “There’s kind of not really…” They weren’t aware at that time of any trans-affirming writing about Elagabalus. So, I thought that this was a great opportunity for the podcast. So, what I prepared for this conversation you’re about to hear was biographical notes based on the various biographies that exist that are all binary and treat Elagabalus as male, pronouns are male. But I wanted to see how Kit engages in their work with this sort of story.

Kit, if you didn’t hear the previous episode already or need a refresher, Dr. Kit Heyam is a Leeds-based freelance writer, heritage practitioner, trans awareness trainer, and academic. Kit has published, well obviously that book, Before We Were Trans, but also articles and things. And this is what they do, look at stories of people and really investigate them in an academic way. So, I was really curious to see how does Kit do this work? How do they approach a story like this? And to treat Elagabalus with, you know, respect and individuality. And considering that every single source is… Every source about everybody in history is always biased but these are, like, we’ll talk about it, incredibly biased.

And anyway, we’re all talking about the Roman Empire this week so I’m releasing this episode early because it’s timely and I’m really excited for you all to hear it. So, here’s my chat with Dr. Kit Heyam about Elagabalus.


Ann: So, I’m joined today by returning guest, Dr. Kit Heyam. Welcome back, Kit!

Kit: Hi! Thank you so much for having me. It’s a total delight to be back with you.

Ann: I wanted to tell you as well that I’ve been secretly trying to think of a person who I could invite you back to talk about. But also, a while ago, I did a casual poll on my Instagram Stories asking the listeners, who would you like to have on the show again? And your name came up a lot. So…

Kit: That is incredibly lovely news. Thank you, listeners. Hello. Really nice to be chatting with you and delighted to be talking about the person we’re talking about today.

Ann: So, we’re talking about Elagabalus who was briefly emperor of Rome and got a really weird reputation. I don’t know, I’m saying weird reputation just because it’s hard to understand what people are even saying this person was like and what they did. So, why I’ve invited you on is because of the trans element of this narrative. And I’m using that term in the broadest possible umbrella because as we’re going to discuss, what was this person’s identity? The challenge is that we don’t know because Elagabalus did not leave any written records of their own thoughts, right?

Kit: Exactly. So, we have this weird tension between not knowing anything at all about what was going on in Elagabalus’s actual head, but as I guess we’ll go on to talk about, all the sources pointing to really interesting gender nonconformity which has meant that for loads of trans people today, Elagabalus feels like an incredibly important ancestor. And yet, we have no access to what was actually going on in their mind or with their gender, or their sexuality, or anything.

Ann: And that’s where it’s interesting as well. First of all, we’re going to use they/them pronouns and for me, when I was preparing these notes, I was thinking the same way as in your book, Before We Were Trans, where you kind of explain– Can you explain they/them pronouns, to use that when you just don’t know how to assign a person?

Kit: Yeah. So, in Before We Were Trans, I used they/them pronouns for anyone unless we have really clear first-person evidence of them stating a different identity and that’s basically to preserve multiple possibilities. It’s like how we use they/them in a passively, gender-neutral way to talk about anyone whose gender we don’t know. And I think that really, really applies to Elagabalus, perhaps even more than most people in the past for reasons that we’ll get into. So, they/them definitely feels like the right choice for talking about this particular figure.

Ann: Definitely. This is the first podcast I’ve done where the person I’m talking about, I’m applying they/them pronouns to them and it’s… Every source I was looking at uses he/him basically, so if I mess up that’s because I probably copy-pasted something and forgot to change the pronouns in it.

So yeah, Elagabalus, I just wanted to mention first, the sources that I looked at in researching this. so, I listened to a couple of other podcasts. There’s the Emperors of Rome podcast which is a podcast where every episode is a different emperor or Rome and they’re going person-by-person which is very useful for me because it’s a very casual, fun podcast but in this one, the host had an academic guest who was explaining a bit more about this history. So, the Emperors of Rome podcast. I listened to the Totalus Rankium podcast which is another one where they go through all the emperors and then rank them. History is Gay podcast had an episode about Elagabalus where interestingly, they used she/her pronouns, that’s the only source that I found that did that. And then also an article by Alexis Mijatovic, I looked at Livius.org and the Italian Art Society Blog. But my main source was Harry Sidebottom’s biography The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome. I’m going to link all the sources in the notes and Kit, if you have other sources you want to add you can let me know as well and I can add those. But do you have anything else you wanted to especially mention that you looked at?

Kit: The other source I read was another recent biography by Martijn Icks which is called The Crimes of Elagabalus. Quite notable I think that those two recent biographies we get The Mad Emperor, or we get The Crimes of Elagabalus. I think that tells us quite a lot about the reputation we’ve been left with.

Ann: Also, I’m curious, how much research have you done in your research life into Ancient Rome in general? Because I have not done much, so this is a bit of a crash course for me.

Kit: Yeah, it’s fully not my specialism either. I am an early modern historian by specialism. So, it was really interesting, not only reading these biographies of Elagabalus but also figuring out the ways in which Ancient Rome understood gender and sexuality, and actually, there are some things in common with early modern Europe which is quite interesting in itself. But yeah, it’s been a learning experience for me as well, for sure.

Ann: Yeah, my experience of ancient Rome, I did an episode about Agrippina, and I’ve done an episode about Cleopatra, and I’ve watched I, Claudius. So previously, all I knew about Ancient Rome was really that Julio-Claudian era. And this is later on, this is quite a while later on. But I did have the sense that Ancient Rome… And there’s stuff in this story that it’s like, oh yeah, this reminds me of I, Claudius, this reminds me of Agrippina. There’s just, especially among the imperial household, there’s a lot of casual murder, that’s kind of the vibe. It’s not like Elagabalus came in and was doing stuff that no one else was doing. It’s like, no, this is kind of expected. If you usurp power, you’re going to murder the people who didn’t side with you. That’s just kind of what everyone did, right? That’s my understanding.

Kit: Yeah, that seems legit. I think also the weird thing about reading, when you go back to the primary sources, which I did a bit of for thinking about Elagabalus, when you go back to those you find that those authors are also like, lifting stuff from accounts of earlier mythical emperors and then just being like, “And Elagabalus did this too.” So, it’s no wonder it feels familiar if you’ve read earlier sources because some of it is just verbatim stuff from earlier sources that they’ve decided to apply to this figure whose story they’re semi-telling, semi-inventing.

Ann: Yeah, exactly. That’s something else I wanted to talk about right off the top, which is the primary sources if we can call it that. The one that is actually from Elagabalus’s timeline is Cassius Dio who wrote A History of Rome. And Cassius Dio actually knew Elagabalus, worked in their imperial household, and also for some previous emperors. But then, as I understand it, Cassius Dio, after Elagabalus’s reign ended with their assassination, spoiler, Cassius Dio was really desperate to be like, “I was not a part of this. I did not approve of this.” So, the one thing we have from Elagabalus’s lifetime is written by a person who was desperate to be like, “I didn’t support any of this.”

Kit: Yeah. And also, very confusingly, to really adhere to the, kind of, the damnatio memoriae, or damnation of memory that came in for Elagabalus after their death, which was like, they were effaced from all legal records and all portraits and all statues. And so, at no point in Cassius Dio’s account of Elagabalus’s name, does he actually call them Elagabalus because he’s always, like, alluding to them by some weird other way in order to adhere to this prohibition on talking about them. So, it makes it an even more difficult source to get through for that reason.

Ann: Oh yeah, let’s talk about that as well. What was it called? After Elagabalus, again, reign ended badly, very brief, assassinated, spoiler. What’s it called, the damnation memor…?

Kit: Damnatio memoriae.

Ann: What does that entail?

Kit: So, that means you are legally effaced from history. So, your name is effaced from documents, statues and portraits are destroyed, and it is forbidden to talk about the fact that you happened. So, there’s this real block on writing effective histories of Elagabalus’s reign from the moment of their assassination, basically.

Ann: And that’s interesting because I was reading other people who were quoting from Cassius Dio, I didn’t look at Cassius Dio, so I didn’t realize that the name is never mentioned. But I guess that’s a loophole they had to work around.

Kit: Yeah. Mostly, Dio calls Elagabalus, Sardanapalus, which is like, an earlier semi-mythical Assyrian king. That’s where a lot of the resonances with older sources end up coming from.

Ann: So, that was Cassius Dio, who was alive at the same time. So, that’s the closest we have to somebody writing at the same time.

Then we have writings of Herodian, who is a bit younger than Cassius Dio, so I don’t think Herodian was around during Elagabalus’s reign. This is the thing; Cassius Dio wrote this and then mostly everybody else used that as their source. But what’s interesting to me about Herodian’s writing is that Cassius Dio was a very wealthy, privileged member of Roman society. Herodian was less wealthy and influential, so his writing provides a bit of an alternative viewpoint, that of someone who is not really in the inner circle. But again, it’s drawing from Cassius Dio, I think.

Kit: Yeah, I think that’s right. Again, that means that the narratives follow each other really closely so if we’re trying to figure out what were the facts of the case, that’s very difficult because of their reliance on each other.

Ann: And then the third, ancient source is a thing called the Augustan History. Can you talk about the Augustan History and how it’s really just kind of like erotic fan fiction basically?

Kit: Yeah, I was going to say, the Augustan History is a brilliant work of historical fiction. It’s a series of biographies of various emperors, it’s written by one guy about 200 years after Elagabalus. It is wildly sensational, it’s great fun to read. It’s not primarily useful as an actual historical source but it has been really influential in like, forming some of Elagabalus’s really, really queer reputation.

Ann: And also, just some of Elagabalus’s out-of-control tyrant with… I would say, the author of the Augustan History, what a creative person. Some of these stories are just like, wow! There’s one, there’s a very famous painting of this actually and this comes from the Augustan History which is Elagabalus and I forget what the painting is called. But anyway, there’s this story in the Augustan History that Elagabalus had a dinner party and somehow suspended so many rose petals in the ceiling and then unleashed them and all the guests drowned in rose petals.

Kit: What a way to go.

Ann: [laughs] And here’s the thing with Elagabalus as well.  What I did appreciate about the biography I did read, the Harry Sidebottom one, he is saying, “This is from this source, this is from this source.” And he would say, “This is why we trust this one a bit more than this one.” And absolutely all of the wildest stories come from the Augustan History and those are… So, for me, just trying to understand the story it’s like, okay, some of this has to be true but some of this is clearly not true and it seems like the most sensational stories are the ones that I’m most dubious about, really, especially if they come from the Augustan History.

Kit: Yeah, it means I think we’re talking about someone who has a really queer history, but did they have a queer present? That question is much, much harder to answer.

Ann: Yeah. So, then we’re getting into… The Syrian background of Elagabalus. So, if we’re looking at who their family was, I’m just going to talk about that for a minute. Elagabalus was born probably around 204 CE, in the Common Era. Their father was named Sextus Varius Marcellus who was a Roman aristocrat and politician from Syria. Their mother was also from Syria, Julia Soaemias, she’s one of three people called Julia in this story, kind of a triumvirate of really interesting, powerful women all called Julia. Anyway, the family was Syrian. What was this Syrian family doing in Rome in 204 CE? They were the in-laws of the emperor who was Caracalla. Is that how you say that, by the way, do you know?

Kit: That’s how I’d say it but I’m not an Ancient Roman. [laughs]

Ann: [laughs] That’s the thing too, they’re not here to ask. So, Caracalla was the emperor when Elagabalus was born. Caracalla was the son of the previous emperor whose name was Septimius Severus which, just as a point of interest, Septimius Severus was the first African-born Roman emperor. So, there is some discussion about whether he was the first Black emperor. Which like, no. But African-born. So, Septimius Severus had been married to Julia Domna, who is another one of these Julias. So, basically, there are so many Julias it was all very confusing to me, but they’re Syrian people and Caracalla was the cousin of Elagabalus. Their grandmothers were sisters of each other. And so, all these Syrian nobles had been in Rome for something like 25 years because they were the in-laws of the imperial family.

The Syrian background becomes extremely important when we’re talking about Elagabalus, everything about them. So yeah, I’m not going to get into the Julias themselves, these three women, just know that they’re really interesting and I’ll probably do an episode about them some other day. But they were role models for Elagabalus, that’s who they were primarily raised by because Elagabalus’s father died in 215. “In 217, Caracalla was assassinated, and his prefect Macrinus took over as the new emperor.” And this is where I was like, “Oh, this is like I, Claudius.” It’s kind of like a bit of history of England in the sense of, the one king is killed and whoever killed him becomes the next king. That’s kind of what happened here.

So, Macrinus took over and in the wake of this, basically, this Syrian family, Elagabalus, and all the Julias were cast out of power because Caracalla’s mother, Julia Domna, had been trying to scheme against Macrinus, was found out about that. So, all the Julias, and Elagabalus and their family were sent kind of back to Syria. And right away, Julia Maesa, who was Elagabalus’s grandmother just started scheming like, “How can we get back in power? How can we, this Syrian family, get back in power in the Roman Empire?” And you can’t just, I don’t know, I guess if you kill the emperor, you can proclaim yourself emperor, but you need people to support you at the same time, unless, for some reason, you are the genetic son of the emperor.

So, Julia Maesa was like, “Hey, guess what? Turns out Elagabalus’s father was Caracalla. Surprise!” [laughs] I think part of this is that Elagabalus resembled Caracalla and Caracalla had been very popular, especially among the soldiers so it was easy to get people to support them because they liked Caracalla, Elagabalus resembled Caracalla. So, rumours started being spread by their grandmother that Elagabalus was secretly the son of the recently assassinated emperor. It makes the family tree really complicated and I won’t get into it because Caracalla was actually their cousin and all this stuff. But numerous battles ensued. Macrinus ended up dying by suicide and then 14-year-old Elagabalus was named emperor of Rome. I just skipped over half of Harry Sidebottom’s book because he really gets into a lot of battle history. Do you have anything to add about that?

Kit: I was going to say, one of my favourite aspects of this story is the story that Elagabalus basically became emperor because they were hot. It sounds like the soldiers kind of went to the temple where Elagabalus was working in Syria and were like, “Let’s check out this potential heir,” and then everyone was kind of, awe-struck by how hot Elagabalus was and watched them dancing and was like, “Yeah, this person can be emperor,” and claimed they kept coming back to this temple just to be involved in the religious rites or for political reasons but actually, as Herodian says, they were just coming to watch this really, really hot teenager.

Ann: And that’s the thing, after the family was sent back to Emesa, which was the place in Syria they were from, there was this temple, the temple of Elagabal which is the name of the god. So, Elagabal, this is a name that was applied to this person later on, in their lifetime they had various Roman names. So, there’s this temple of Elegabal in Emesa. Elagabalus’s family were descended from priest kings of this area and then when that place was taken over by the Roman Empire, they retained their power by just remaining the priest family, the people in charge of this temple. So, Elagabalus was named the head priest in Syria, which is why they were the one doing the dancing, which is why that’s who you would see doing this stuff. This is why Elagabalus, of all the facts that I’ve learned about this person, clearly, they were really devoted to this God and to this religion. And so, the religion, the worship of Elegabal was, I don’t know, can you explain the statue? There’s this big statue that represents the god.

Kit: Yeah, so Elegabal is a sun god, that’s why if you’ve heard Elagabalus referred to Heliogabalus, helio meaning ‘sun’ in Greek, that’s where that comes from. And yeah, is represented on Earth by a big, scary, dark obelisk. Like you were saying, it sounds like whatever you want to say about what we do or don’t know about Elagabalus, one thing that seems really clear is that they were genuinely devoted to this religion that they’d been brought up as a child priest to become head priest of this temple and that they saw being the emperor of Rome as a really key opportunity to import this religion to Rome and win more worshippers of this sun god. As we’ve been alluding to, unfortunately, did not work out so well.

Ann: We’re going to talk about this story, I don’t know if I’m skipping ahead or not but reading about Elagabalus and the devotion to Elagabal and then being named emperor and saying, “Guess what Rome? [chuckles] This is the new main god.” They weren’t trying to impose monotheism, they weren’t saying, “Your other gods don’t matter,” but they were saying that this was now the number one God. Jupiter is now a step down, Elegabal is the main one. And I’m like, how did you think this was going to end? It’s Ancient Rome! Two emperors were just recently assassinated. So, all I can think is that if they were so devoted and had such a belief in this god, they felt the god wanted this and would protect them, maybe?

Kit: And also, I think just being 14. I didn’t make very good choices when I was 14, you know? [laughs]

Ann: [laughs] Which is a really crucial point as well, this is the youngest, to that point, it was the youngest ever emperor assigned. Previously, the youngest ever emperor was Nero, who had been 16 when he was named emperor. So, it’s unusual for Rome to have somebody this young. And I think, to Elagabalus’s credit, they clearly had a point of view, and they weren’t just a puppet of their grandmother as much as their grandmother had thought that was going to be what happened. Elagabalus came in with a real point of view.

So, Elagabalus’s whole thing wasn’t saying, who is that Ancient Egyptian, Akhenaten, who came in and say, “Hey, guess what? Your religion is garbage, we’re all going to worship the sun now.” Elagabalus wasn’t coming in and dismissing the previous religion. They were just coming in and saying, “Here’s this God who is now the head God. The other gods are still there but this is the most important one.” And this is where we’re going to talk a bit more about Syrian culture and anti-Syrian racism in Rome. Can you introduce that topic, Kit?

Kit: So, it’s basically impossible to read and interpret all these primary sources that we do have of Elagabalus’s reign without realizing how racist they are. You can’t read them properly without understanding that they’re all coming from what the Ancient Romans would have called an anti-Oriental perspective. And it is a really similar perspective, to be honest, to like, anti-Asian racism today, to what we’d call Orientalism today. So, this association of people from east of the Roman Empire and especially actually from Syria, with effeminacy, with sexual transgression, with not being a proper man, with also, like, the kind of fashions and the kind of fabrics that were associated with Syrian culture were seen, again, as insufficiently many in Roman culture. So, when anyone says anything about Elagabalus’s gender transgressions or sexual transgressions, they may well be telling the truth but if they are, that’s partly because of the way they’re interpreting Syrian dress. And if they’re not, if they’re exaggerating it, that’s because it’s coming from a racist place, right?

Ann: So, it’s something about, I mean, to me, not knowing a lot about Ancient Roman history, again, having watched I, Claudius but they were wearing togas, which to me looks like a kind of gown or a kind of dress, but Elagabalus, the Syrian robes, were somehow to them, men in togas, they thought, “That’s too effeminate, that robe.” Where it’s all just robes.

Kit: I know, everyone in this story is wearing dresses. But you’ve got to wear the manly dress.

Ann: So, that’s where I really want to talk about the religious stuff because well, it’s all tied up with each other. But I guess even Caracalla, who had been the emperor for a couple of years, was half-Syrian. So, while people were saying, he was beloved by the soldiers or whatever, but it’s still kind of like “Nnh, but he’s half Syrian.” So, that was kind of like, eugh! there was this racism against him.

Yeah, so part of, like you mentioned the prejudices against Syrians specifically were that they were effeminate, they were cowardly, they were prone to weird god-worshipping, and they were also cunning and treacherous. Again, it’s a lot of things that are… It’s so similar to the way that people talk about other cultural groups today, really. So, Elagabalus came in, in this kind of rush of people were excited because they thought this was the son of Caracalla, people didn’t like how Macrinus had elevated himself, I think he was a lawyer or something and they didn’t like that. So, they’re like, “This person is great. But also, they’re Syrian so eugh! This person is going to probably be weird.” There was also in Elagabalus’s ancestry, from a Phoenician background. The Romans were also racist about the Phoenicians. Notably, the Phoenicians were thought of as especially cruel because I guess in the distant past, part of their religious ceremony had been sacrificing their own children, which was a claim that was cast about Elagabalus by some people. The Phoenicians were also thought to be sexually deviant, which, in this case, means oral sex-performing people.

So, saying all of that stuff, and then when you look at the writings about Elagabalus, you’re like, “Oh okay, check check check. Everything we just said that is a stereotype against Syrian and Phoenician people is what they’re saying about Elagabalus.” So, that’s where it’s like, for me, I’m just like how do you wade through this to be like, what can we take out of this? Because it could be that somebody saw Elagabalus in these Syrian robes and thought, “Oh my goodness! That’s a man dressed as a woman.” Where really, Elagabalus is like, “I’m just a person wearing my Syrian outfit.” So, without knowing Elagabalus’s thoughts, we just know how people were interpreting their behaviour.

Their grandmother was concerned. Elagabalus hadn’t been raised to become the emperor because it just kind of… Caracalla was assassinated, Macrinus took over, the family was cast out and then their grandmother started thinking, how can we figure this out? So, then they looked at, “Okay, well how about this?” The oldest grandchild had been raised as this priest of Elegabal, really devoted to their cultural practices. So, when the grandmother is trying to be like, “What if you wear a manly toga? What if you calm down about worshipping this obelisk?” Elagabalus would not. The religious fervour was very genuine. So, and I don’t know if this is true or not, but I like this – asterisk, I don’t know if anything we’re talking about is true – but I do like this as a detail. The grandmother was like, “You need to stop dressing like this. You need to wear a manly toga,” and Elagabalus was like, “What if I send a portrait of myself to Rome wearing this outfit so by the time I get there, they’ll know to expect this, and they won’t be weird about it?” Which, you know, that’s kind of a nice compromise, I think.

Kit: [laughs] It’s quite sweet, isn’t it? Like, “We just need to introduce them to the fact that Syrian people dress in this way.” It shows a touching kind of trust in the people of Rome which was totally not justified. [laughs]

Ann: Mm-hm, and that’s the 14-year-old aspect as well, I think. In some ways, this story reminds me a bit of Lady Jane Grey, the story in English history, who is just this young teenager who is so devoted to a religion but incredibly sheltered and just, not realizing that everyone around them is so… scheming. Yeah.

Kit: And just ends up losing their life through the political machinations that somebody decided to make them part of. Yeah, really similar.

Ann: Yeah, exactly. Elagabalus did not have any ambition in life, that I can tell, beyond just being the best head priest possible. So, this was also interesting to me, but I guess it makes sense, the distance you have to travel and if you’re travelling via chariot; it took a year and a half, two years for Elagabalus to actually arrive in Rome. But the empire was big, so they were the emperor just not actually in Rome itself.

And then there’s a detail that also in terms of the devotion to the god, Elagabalus brought the obelisk with them from Syria on its own chariot and by the time they actually arrived in Rome, there was a grand entry. So, the obelisk was in a chariot and Elagabalus was running backwards so they could be facing the statue as they entered the city, which is kind of a stunning image. Apparently, there were people with them holding their elbows so they wouldn’t trip over anything.

Kit: [laughs] That is devotion, certainly to something, maybe slightly to looking stupid. No, I’m joking, it’s pretty impressive.

Ann: It’s pretty impressive but also just kind of like… The grandmother I’m sure was just like, “Let’s tone this down,” and Elagabalus was like, “Or what about entering the city with the obelisk, running backwards? Dressed in Syrian robes? That’s going to go over well.” Even from the beginning… They were emperor not actually in Rome but right away they were being the emperor and it was really clear that they were not suited to this job, this was not something that interested them. Their main passion in life was doing ceremonies to Elegabal rather than being the emperor of Rome.

Also, in terms of the army thing. So, I’d mentioned a couple of times that Caracalla had been popular until he was assassinated, or even afterwards, I guess. But he’d been a soldier and the soldiers got him. There’s a story about Caracalla, he was so busy sitting and talking with the soldiers that he kept the door shut and the politicians couldn’t come and talk about him. So, having the support of the soldiers was really, really, really important in this setting. And although Elagabalus resembled Caracalla, they were potentially as much as, like, a pacifist; just not into being a soldier, not into wars at all. I mean, luckily, at this point, Rome wasn’t actively engaged in a war anyway, so Elagabalus wasn’t called upon to lead a legion of soldiers. So yeah, in terms of people were first excited, “This is the new emperor, it’s going to be like Caracalla.” And then it’s like, “Oh no, this person looks like Caracalla but they’re not that kind of soldier guy.”

And then of course, so part of the job of being emperor was to have legitimate children, to have specifically sons who would become the next emperors. So, Elagabalus had a series of marriages to women. So, the first marriage was to Cornelia Paula who was a woman from the most aristocratic family in Rome. There was a hugely expensive wedding ceremony, and festivity to celebrate this marriage. Elagabalus clearly really spent a lot of money throwing parties and things like that, which was also kind of unpopular, especially because they had basically one marriage per year. So, if you think about the cost of something, in modern times, the cost of King Charles’s coronation that just happened, if that was happening every year that would become unpopular and expensive. So, the first marriage was to Cornelia Paula and then the second marriage is where things… I don’t know, I’m not going to say they get strange because they’ve been strange all along.

Kit: They get really bad.

Ann: Okay, can you explain the position of a Vestal Virgin in Roman society? Just so people can understand how upsetting this was.

Kit: So, if you’re consecrated to the goddess Vesta, you take a 30-year vow of celibacy. If anyone violates that vow, whether it’s the Vestal Virgin herself or the other person involved in that violation of celibacy, the punishment is death. This means that marrying a Vestal Virgin is not an ideal thing to do. [laughs softly]

Ann: And that is what Elagabalus did. [chuckles] So, they divorced Paula – which side note, I just find it funny to have a person in Ancient Rome called Paula – to marry Julia Aquilia Severa who was one of the Vestal Virgins. Part of the reason… I mean, everyone was shocked and appalled by this because of what you just explained, the position of a Vestal Virgin. Elagabalus was kind of coming at this from the point of view where they were also simultaneously marrying the, I don’t know if it’s the god Elagabal, or the obelisk, to a goddess. So, it was sort of like a double marriage where, like, Elagabal the god/statue was being married to a statue of Juno from Carthage at the same time Elagabalus was being married to a Vestal Virgin. And this is maybe something about then their children would be godly. So, I don’t know, you know it could have been a ceremonial thing, like, the head priest of this is marrying the head priestess of this. But it was shocking, it was shocking to everyone.

Kit: Yeah. And it is kind of a symbolism of uniting the two religions in exactly the way that Elagabalus really wanted to and that the people of Rome were not up for. There’s something lovely and somewhat 14-year-old about being like, “Well, I’m the head priest and she’s a really important priestess and together we will have the most divine children and it’ll be lovely.” That’s kind of adorable and really, really short-sighted.

Ann: Of the various things that Elagabalus did that we know, this was one of the most shocking, upsetting things that they did to the people of Rome. This was one of the things they did that we know for sure happened; there’s coinage showing Julia Aquilia Severa, this marriage did happen. So yeah, everyone is shocked and horrified by this and eventually, the marriage ended in divorce in less than a year which might have just been cultural pressure, I would imagine. Just saying, “You can’t do this, you need to undo this and marry someone who is not a Vestal Virgin.”

So, this section of my notes is stuff where I’m like, I’m going to say a thing and you’ll tell me what you think about it. So, apparently, knowing the devotion to this religion, Elagabalus would – and again we don’t know the rituals and rites of this religion, all we have is a person who hated and mistrusted them explaining what their actions were. So presumably, this was part of the religious rites.

Every morning, allegedly, Elagabalus would appear in public clad in the Syrian garb, the robes and jewellery. Apparently, they were the first Roman emperor to dress in robes of pure Chinese silk. Makeup may have been involved and they performed sacrifices to their god with the help of priests under their rule. The senate, the most important men, were obliged to be present to witness this. And then there’s something about the senators when the senate met or something like that, they had to take, I don’t know if it’s kind of like the Pledge of Allegiance now in the United States, but they had to say a pledge to the gods and they had to put Elagabal first in this pledge. So, the religion was openly being practiced and everyone was being encouraged to practice it to the extent that if you didn’t, I think you probably would be executed. Thoughts?

Kit: So, all the stuff about gender is obviously, like, as a trans historian, the most fascinating aspect of this for me. There’s a lot in Dio’s texts not just about the clothes but also about like jewellery and makeup and removing body hair and, at one point, supposedly, someone comes in and calls Elagabalus lord and Elagabalus says, “Call me not lord, for I am a lady.” So, like, really clear articulations of gender. And like we’ve said, there’s this sort of feedback loop between the racism and the gender nonconformity. It’s not clear whether it was like, “Elagabalus is Syrian, so we are going to say that they are gender non-conforming” or whether it’s like, “We’ve seen that Elagabalus is gender nonconforming so we’re going to be racist about them and then also drawn on all the stereotypes of Syrian-ness to embellish those stories.”

I mean, I think given that in Roman culture, what we know about ideas of masculinity were that you weren’t just inherently masculine if you had a particular type of body, you had to earn masculinity through your actions. And it seemed really clear Elagabalus was not earning masculinity through any of their actions, or they wouldn’t have gotten that reputation. So, that much I think we can know; that they were not doing Roman manhood correctly, this was someone who was seen by their society in a way that was not masculine, despite having a certain type of body which we would now associate with maleness.

So, in a way, I think that’s where Elagabalus’s trans history comes from. We don’t know what was going on in their head, but their story tells us that masculinity could be disassociated from this particular type of body and also, there were lots and lots of ways in which someone could be understood as gender nonconforming in that period. And that, I think, is why they have so much resonance from trans people today, which is important, and an aspect of their history that I really want to acknowledge and not just sweep under the carpet, I guess.

Ann: Yeah, and what reminds me as well… So, in your book, Before We Were Trans, everybody should read it, you describe how the… I don’t know, I’ll just call it the umbrella of trans history, it’s not just you know, here’s a person who was assigned a certain gender at birth and from an early age knew they were a different kind of person, and then began expressing that in adulthood. There’s a whole umbrella of gender nonconforming behaviour. So, in terms of Elagabalus, the sources that I was looking at were either saying, this was a man who was behaving in this way. That one podcast was saying they saw this as a trans woman in that sort of conventional narrative of gender and sex not aligning initially. But can you explain about trans history, there’s so much grey area, there are so many different ways… Can you talk about that?

Kit: Yeah. The way I like to look at it is that we’re not really talking about trans people in the past unless that’s how they describe themselves because it’s really important to me to understand people on their own terms. So, I wouldn’t call Elagabalus a trans woman because we don’t know that that’s how they would have described themselves. But I would say that we can describe their story as trans history because that’s any history that helps us to understand that gender has never been uncontested or fixed or tied to particular types of body. And Elagabalus’s story shows us that really, really clearly; shows us that there is nothing new about thinking about gender as something we can disrupt and challenge and, kind of, untie from particular types of body. Regardless of what was going on in Elagabalus’s head, we know that their contemporaries, including Dio, saw them in a way that was not masculine and in fact, presented them as someone who wanted to be a woman.

The thing we haven’t mentioned is also the story about Elagabalus wanting what we would now call gender reassignment surgery. I do find that really interesting because like I said, a lot of the aspects of Dio’s narrative about Elagabalus are, you can read them as anti-Syrian racism, you can read them as just repeating these stories about this earlier mythical king Sardanapalus, but the surgery thing is new and doesn’t get applied to anyone else. That is something that really makes me think maybe there is something other than just prejudice and racism going on in these narratives of gender nonconformity because otherwise, where did that come from?

Ann: Yeah. And that was the part of the story where I was… Exactly what you just said. There are parts of this story that are similar to narratives of Caligula or Nero or other, sort of, “scandalous” nonconforming Roman emperors. But the thing that Elagabalus tried to get the physicians to find a way to give them gender reassignment surgery, that’s such a specific detail and also, I don’t know what that… It’s a specific detail that doesn’t reoccur anywhere else. Also, there’s something about, could that have been something misinterpreted by Dio about the ritual castration that might have been involved in this religion? I don’t know. That’s another thing, some of the eastern religions of this time, did have eunuchs as a part of it. So, I don’t know.

Kit: What’s interesting about what Dio says is explicitly specifies, this is because Elagabalus wanted to be a woman and it was definitely not for religious reasons. And of course, that could be a way of delegitimizing that desire and saying, “It’s not noble in any way.” But Dio does go, you know, to some lengths to specify that this isn’t about religion, this is about what’s going on in Elagabalus’s mind.

Ann: Mm-hm. And that’s the detail that really jumps out at me about this story. Again, we’re having Dio saying, “This is what Elagabalus said.” But like you just said, and I really want to emphasize, so many of the other stories are reused stories about other people but nowhere else, I don’t think, anyone else is said to have this desire. So, that’s really interesting. Yeah.

I do want to also mention, this isn’t like genital talk, but the fact that Elagabalus was married several times to several different women and never conceived a child is also interesting and could speak to physiology in some way, perhaps.

Kit: Yeah, I think that’s true. Or to the kind of sex Elagabalus wanted to have because, you know, we also haven’t talked about potentially, all the men they thought were really hot.

Ann: We’re just getting into that part because Elagabalus loved sporting events, especially chariot racing. They would drive in races themselves and during one of these races, this very hot guy called Hierocles tumbled out of his chariot apparently in front of Elagabalus, took off the helmet and just in sort of an anime sort of thing, shook out this long, curly, blonde hair [giggles] and Elagabalus was apparently immediately smitten to the point that allegedly they took Hierocles as their husband and Hierocles was elevated to a very influential role in court. So, this is similar to what you hear about royal favourites, you know like, James I/VI of England and Scotland had male favourites and stuff. This is where I’m curious to know what your thoughts are about… Because there’s the gender stuff, there’s the trans stuff, but then there’s also this kind of queer stuff where it’s like, was Elagabalus having relationships with men? What’s the relationship of those two aspects and how do you untie them from each other?

Kit: Yeah, I guess in Roman culture you don’t untie them from each other because one of the aspects of doing manhood properly for Romans is not being penetrated. So, penetration by a man means that you are gendered somewhat more femininely. So, it’s all sort of part and parcel of the same thing, it’s part of the anti-Syrian racism, it’s part of the gender nonconformity stuff, it’s part of the making poor political decisions or using how hot your chariot racer is as a basis for promotion, it’s part of that stuff too. And it’s really, really reminiscent of researching people like you said, James VI/I or Edward II in England, who I’ve done work on before. It’s really reminiscent of all of those stories of like, maybe if Elagabalus had just quietly slept with these guys and not given them important jobs, maybe it would have been fine. But much like all of those people who came afterwards, Elagabalus did not make those decisions, so it really, really wasn’t fine.

Ann: And this is again, you know, we were saying they were 14 when they became emperor. At this point they’re maybe 15, still extremely young. But to just be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m in love.” It’s a bit relatable in that way where you’re like, “This is the coolest guy I’ve ever met! He’s so hot.” Just really getting swept away with this romance perhaps.

Kit: Again, like, let 14-year-olds do that, right?

Ann: Yeah! Exactly. And I guess the thing about maybe marrying Hierocles. This is interesting because Elagabalus allegedly wanted to name them caesar to make them their heir, to make them their co-ruler and that was shut down. So, it’s showing at this point that Elagabalus did not have absolute power over everything. Their grandmother and the senators around would not let that happen, so there were some limits to what they were able to get away with.

Okay, this part, I don’t know if it’s from the Augustan History or where, but this is a wild detail. Apparently, Elagabalus was really interested in men with large penises to the point that they assigned agents to go out to the bathhouses to find men with large penises and bring them back to them. Thoughts on that? [laughs]

Kit: [laughs] I mean, sounds like a really, really 15-year-old decision. Yeah, it seems like a really good example of, if you want to make it clear that someone is not basing their political decisions on logic and scholarship, what’s the worst thing they could be basing their political decisions on? I know! Penises. So, it seems to be something that comes from that place while also, again, not being a detail that crops up in other people’s writings so potentially based on something that was actually observed as well.

Ann: Yeah. And so, out of this hunt for large penises, they find this man called Aurelius Zoticus who is an athlete from Smyrna. This was the person who met Elagabalus and said, “My lord,” or something, which is where Elagabalus allegedly said, “Call me not lord, for I am a lady.” And then, I don’t even know, allegedly there’s something about how Elagabalus liked to be caught by Hierocles with other men so Hierocles would beat them, proudly showing off the black eyes as signs of love. I don’t even know…. Could be true, to each their own.

Kit: Yeah. Maybe just kink!

Ann: Yeah. But then it’s like, well how would Cassius Dio know that? But I guess everyone knows what the emperor is up to, and Elagabalus was not a private person so everything they were doing, people would know. And I guess the emperor was never really left alone so there’s always going to be servants who see things. Cassius Dio does write about Elagabalus having sex with women, a lot of women all the time. Apparently, “Conducted themselves in the most licentious fashion,” is how Cassius Dio described it. But then went on to say that this was practice, so Elagabalus could figure out how to better have sex with men by practicing with women.

So, there’s just a lot of, this is where I’m really, I don’t know… Okay, so if I’m looking at a story about someone like Cleopatra, for instance, or Mary, Queen of Scots, women who we know of who had two monogamous relationships in a row and yet male historians are like, “She was a slut, she was having sex with everybody. She was a nymphomaniac,” where it’s easy to be like, “No, that’s just somebody slandering them. That’s obviously somebody slandering them.” But with this, I’m just like, were they having all this sex with all these people? I don’t know. Is that slander? To have sex with women wouldn’t be…? But I don’t know, there are a lot of sex details in Cassius Dio’s writings about Elagabalus.

Kit: Yeah, very much. I don’t want to be like, ”Clearly, this is slander. Clearly, this 15-year-old who suddenly had access to loads of power and hot people was not taking advantage of it.” In a way that would be extremely understandable and sensible. Again, it feels like what Cassius Dio is really angry about is that Elagabalus is doing this stuff sort of instead of being a good emperor. I think if they’d made some sensible emperor decisions and then gone off and had loads of sex, that probably would have been okay.

Ann: Yeah, you’re right. So, it’s that element of it. It’s not just… It’s the fact that they were worshipping Elagabal and/or having sex with people apparently 24 hours a day to the exclusion of being emperor. So, then Cassius Dio writes that Elagabalus “left the palace wearing a wig and went to taverns and brothels driving out the sex workers and taking their place,” and also, “equipped a room in the palace as a brothel. Elagabalus wore makeup, a hair net and worked with wool as a woman would,” again this is the effeminacy.

But the sex work stuff, there’s something about some religions at this time having ritual prostitution. So, there’s the option that maybe that’s what Elagabalus was doing. But to go out and work as a sex worker, again, it’s not something that comes up in Caligula, it’s not something that comes up in Nero. It said that they both went to the brothels but to actually go there and be a sex worker is a different accusation.

Kit: Yeah, and it’s kind of the ultimate “licentiousness” that someone would choose to have sex and probably be penetrated, that’s what’s being implied here, that the clients were men. It feels like there’s an element of Dio going, “What is the worst thing I can say about this person?” But then also, where did that come from given that as you say, it’s not something that’s been drawn from accounts of other emperors’ reigns in the way that some of the other details are. It is something that’s pretty unique, so again, really hard to tell whether it’s what we might think of as slander or whether it’s an accurate depiction, maybe not of Elagabalus doing this for money but of Elagabalus really devoting a lot of time and an investment to sex in a way that they weren’t supposed to do.

Ann: It’s interesting, in the Harry Sidebottom book, toward the end, he’s talking about… Cassius Dio was obviously appalled by all of this and wrote this part of the book being like, “Look at this stuff that this horrible person did!” But the average, everyday people, did they care? Did they support it? Harry Sidebottom suggests that maybe some people did, maybe some people thought it was kind of cool to be the emperor and to be, like, really sexually liberated or whatever you would call it back then. So, the sex acts themselves were not necessarily what was shocking, it was the fact that they were not also being the emperor… I guess?

Kit: Yeah, I reckon that’s exactly what was going on and that we would have a really different narrative if we’d had a really effective emperor who also happened to have a lot of sex.

Ann: So, Elagabalus. The last time we talked about their marital status [giggles] had married the Vestal Virgin. That marriage was ended. Then they married someone whose name was Annia Aurelia Faustina who was another aristocrat. She was already married to a man so that man was executed and then Elagabalus married her. To me, that seems kind of par for the course for Ancient Rome marriage things. That to me is the most normal part of this story. This marriage was also brief because Elagabalus divorced her and remarried Julia Aquilia Severa, the Vestal Virgin, again.

So, it’s something like, their reign was three years long or something and contained at least four marriages, potentially more. But I also noticed in terms of doing emperor stuff, archaeologists have established that Elagabalus was responsible for the creation, building structures being made, so a circus to the east of the city, and they were responsible for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. “In the gardens of the bathhouse they built shops, athletic tracks, sports fields, gardens, massage rooms, saunas, two reading rooms, a hair salon, perfumeries, cafeterias, music pavilions and a museum,” which sounds like a really great place to go spend the day. So, the building of buildings was an important part of being a Roman emperor and they did manage to do a bit of that.

Again, we mentioned this several times, but this reign was very short-lived. It was clear very early on, especially to his grandmother, Julia Maesa, that this was not the way to restore their Syrian family to a great influential position in Roman society because Elagabalus was not doing a very good job of being the emperor. So, she tried to think of a way that she could keep power, that her family could keep their influence but get rid of Elagabalus.

So, I wanted to mention too the role of women in Roman society at this time. So, women could not hold civic or military office, she could not rule as empress in her own name even though she was clearly probably fundamentally suited to that job, just based on her scheminess, her ambitions. So, her plan was to get her other grandson, Alexander, who was just a couple of years younger than Elagabalus named as Elagabalus’s heir and co-emperor. And Alexander, because he was younger and the family had already been cast out when he was young, he had been groomed in this way, raised to know how to be a good emperor in a way that Elagabalus was not. So, eventually, Julia’s plan was to have Alexander named co-heir and then to get Elagabalus assassinated, probably, so that Alexander could take over. Elagabalus didn’t know that that was the secret plan and so agreed to adopt their 12-year-old cousin.

This adoption was done in the Senate. I tried to find some more details about this because it interested me, the role of women in the Senate during this era. So, these three women all called Julia were all really powerful and really smart and very influential over Elagabalus. So, he arrived at the Senate with his young cousin as well as Julia Maesa, their mother Julia Soaemias, who sat on either side of them.

Women were not supposed to be allowed in the Senate; this was not done. I did a whole episode on Agrippina where she hid behind some sort of curtain just to listen in so she could have influence. So, women were brought in and during this brief reign, women, basically women in their family whose name was Julia were able to attend the senate for the first time in Roman history. Elagabalus perhaps created a Senate for women, and I think one of the Julias, maybe the mom, was named actually a senator. Anyway, “After Elagabalus’s death, this women’s Senate was one of the first measures to be revoked and the male senators vowed that no woman would ever enter the Senate’s house again.” So, I thought that was interesting in terms of, under the umbrella of gender nonconformity, Elagabalus viewing women as equal to men in this way that was very unconventional and unusual.

Kit: Which would potentially make sense if Elagabalus saw themselves as a woman or as you know, neither a man nor a woman, that they would have a more flexible perspective on gender, right?

Ann: Exactly. That’s another thing that I find stands out to me in this story, that they clearly were not thinking in this binary way of “Women are like this, men are like this.”

Anyway, they adopted Alexander. This is a point, they divorced the Vestal Virgin again, or maybe this was the first time, the timeline was a bit… Anyway, it’s a very short reign, there are a lot of marriages and divorces all happening. So, they kind of were playing nice, they agreed to adopt Alexander and divorce the Vestal Virgin but as time went by and Alexander rapidly became more popular across Roman society, Elagabalus was like, “Wait. Wait-wait-wait. I see what happened here,” and so plotted to have Alexander killed but he was outsmarted by the Julias who were mostly, except for their mother, supporting Alexander. To the point that their grandmother, Julia Maesa, began claiming that actually, it turns out, wouldn’t you know, Alexander was also secretly the son of Caracalla. [laughs softly] What a coincidence. So, therefore, Alexander could rule as emperor himself without having to be connected to Elagabalus.

Elagabalus began to spread rumours that Alexander was dying and when they made public appearances, they wouldn’t bring Alexander with them but the public really liked Alexander and they worried about Alexander so there was a joint appearance made, Elagabalus and Alexander. I don’t know if this happened sequentially right that day, but effectively what happened was that the crowd was really happy to see Alexander. Elagabalus got upset and ordered that the crowd be punished but instead, the soldiers rioted against the emperor and everyone who supported the emperor. Elagabalus’s courtiers were killed, Elagabalus was assassinated as was their mother and then their bodies were dragged through the city and thrown into the sewers. And that was the brief reign of Elagabalus, I guess.

Kit: And it’s really kind of sad because this is just, if you look at it one way, this is a story of a teenager having a totally fine life devoted to a religion they’ve been raised in who was then plucked from that, made emperor, tried to make it work, made some decisions that like many 14-year-olds would make but they weren’t in their best interest but were in the interest of the religion they were devoted too and probably also in the interest of being excited about suddenly having access to sex as a teenager, had their family turn against them because they were no longer useful and was murdered at the age of 18. That’s pretty tragical, don’t you think?

Ann: Yeah! And then you look at the biographies, The Mad Emperor, The Crimes of Elagabalus. The reputation is so much focused on that they were this power-mad, tyrannical, sex-obsessed weirdo where it’s like…

Kit: What 16-year-old is not a power-mad tyrannical sex-obsessed weirdo? [both laugh] Yeah. Put anyone in that position at the age of 14 to 18, the years where they were actually in power, and see what they do and only then judge Elagabalus, I think.

Ann: I think so too. So, they were, after their… You described already after their death. So, statues were taken down, some of them were chiselled off and redone to have Alexander’s face instead of Elagabalus’s face. The name was chiselled off of inscriptions, the coins were melted down, and they made new coins with Alexander on them instead and immediately as part of this, so stories were spreading about what a horrible emperor they had been, what a tyrant they were. And this is partially, I don’t know, and we don’t know, but partially as part of this, what was it called? The term that…?

Kit: Damnatio memoriae.

Ann: So, is part of that, stories of them being terrible were shared but also, it’s like, well maybe some people had been secretly thinking they were terrible and now they felt safe to share those stories. But how much of that is just racism et cetera? And then it was 200 years later the Augustan History came out which came out with all these stories of drowning in rose petals. There’s stuff about like, I don’t know, just weird things like that Elagabalus would lock an elephant and a tiger in a chapel and throw testicles in there. It’s just weird, weird stuff, a great work of fiction but really just making Elagabalus this completely unrelatable absolute monster.

Kit: Yeah, just how much scandalous stuff can we make up and get away with? Yeah, that kind of develops later on into a really interestingly queer reputation. By the 19th and 20th centuries, people mostly men, mostly gay or queer men, are kind of relating to Elagabalus. And then as we get into the 20th and 21st century, trans people are going, this person asked people to make them a vagina in the Roman Empire, that’s pretty trans. And so, we have Elagabalus going from being totally ostracized and going from this damnatio memoriae, which by the way, shout out to brilliant author Ada Palmer for teaching me how to say that and what that is. It’s not something I just know because of Ancient Rome, it’s something I know because of sci-fi. [laughs] But we go from that to actually queer communities really finding Elagabalus an important ancestor and that, in a way, for me is like the happiest thing that comes out of this. It’s a tragic story but the fact that so many people have found community and it later on is kind of redemptive in some way.

Ann: And it’s interesting too to see how the reputation developed. You mentioned in the 19th century, it’s like the Decadent movement. So, people like Oscar Wilde and that sort of people, they found the Augustan History and were like, “Oh, this person is just like us,” just a person who is into living sensually, hedonist. So, they related to that aspect of Elagabalus and now like you mentioned the stuff about Elagabalus wanting gender reassignment surgery becomes sort of… I don’t know. This is part of what your work was especially in your first book, it’s not looking at queer people from history as they’re all heroes but it’s just like, they were there and that’s just interesting and that’s important to know and acknowledge. Elagabalus was a terrible emperor but a tragic figure, just this teenager who didn’t really know what they were doing. So, I’m not here to be like, “Elagabalus, greatest emperor in history!” But an interesting and notable person and I’m glad that their story is being shared and found and appreciated.

Kit: 100% and for queer people now who are thinking, “Was there anyone like me in the past?” We have these stories and these reputations which don’t necessarily tell us that much about what was going on in Elagabalus’s head but do tell us about how they were seen and therefore do tell us that gender and sexuality have always been so much more flexible than we think and that’s important in itself.

Ann: I think so too, yeah. Even Elagabalus’s story is interesting and noteworthy but also the way that gender and sexuality have been understood throughout all of history is a really important thing for people to understand and see. It’s not just like gender was invented in America in the 1950s. No! Everything has always been fluid and flexible and interesting and there’s been grey areas throughout all of history. This is such an incredibly long time ago, 2,000 years ago, that this was happening and even then, Elagabalus proudly wore these robes that people in Rome thought were more effeminate and whatever. I think it’s really, really, really important to look at how throughout all of history, it’s not just been a binary experience.

Kit: Yeah, 100%. And if people take anything from Elagabalus’s story, I think they should take that.

Ann: Thank you so much for talking about this with me. It was such a challenging thing for me to research because there’s so little known and the sources are so incredibly biased.

Kit: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a really great opportunity to look at some weird, weird Roman texts and to think about how we do tell the story of someone whose inner thoughts we can’t access and how we talk about them as trans history while respecting the whole multiplicity of what was going on for them and for the people who were writing the story. I’ve loved it, thank you so much.

Ann: Can you tell everybody about your book which I think has just come out in paperback as well? If they want to learn more about your work, I think that book is a great introduction to what you’re doing and what you’re about.

Kit: Yeah, thank you. So, my book, Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender is a global history of gender nonconformity, of all the people who don’t really fit into modern and/or Western trans categories but who still show us that gender has always been open to disruption and challenge and play. It just came out in paperback in the UK and it’s also out in North America and I think the paperback over there will be out next year so do check it out if you’d like to.

Ann: And you have a website as well. I’m thinking that after people hear this episode, they’re going to want to learn more about you and what you’re up to. So, can you share your website and social media and things so people can see what you’re thinking about lately?

Kit: Sure, so you can find my website at KitHayem.com and find out about all the heritage and other stuff I’m working on at the moment. And my Twitter is @KRHeyam.

Ann: That’s fabulous. Thank you so, so much for joining me again for this wild ride, honestly. What a story. [laughs]

Kit: [laughs] Thank you so much for having me.


So, Kit mentioned they’re on Twitter, this interview was recorded a few months ago prior to Twitter/X kind of imploding. Where Kit is now, as well as potentially Twitter sometimes, is on Instagram @KitHeyamWriter. So, you can look them up there to keep up with what they’re doing. Actually, currently on leave but anyway, you can follow Kit there. They also have a website, KitHeyam.com. What a treat, honestly, I love talking with Kit and I’m already scheming ways of how I can bring them back on. Also, I think I mentioned this in the interview or maybe it was before I started recording but a while back, before I started doing as many author interviews, I had asked on Instagram, who is a guest that you’d like to have back? And Kit’s name was at the top of that list. Everybody loves hearing from them, I was really excited to have them on for this.

And I love the timeliness of this, to engage with this discussion of the Roman Empire where it’s not just the story of Julius Caesar or Octavian or people I’ve talked about on the podcast before, Cleopatra and Agrippina, it’s more nuanced and interesting subject matter. No tea, no shade to anyone who thinks about the Roman Empire every day but for those of you who don’t, now you did today.

I also wanted to mention that since we’re doing this surprise episode, there is a live show coming up with Vulgar History. We’re going live on YouTube on October 21 at 5:30 PM Central Time. I know that there are people listening to this all around the world so you can… If you look up on YouTube just Vulgar History and you go on Live, you’ll see where it is, and you can figure that out for your own time zone. But we will keep that up later if that’s the middle of the night for you, or whatever, you can watch it on a delay as well. Anyway, the links to all that are in the show notes and also… The emergency of this, I’m usually more prepared when I’m saying these farewell messages.

I have a website which is VulgarHistory.com. When you go on there, you can find the full Scandaliciousness Scale to see where Elagabalus fits in amongst everybody else there. Also, there’s a form there where you can contact me, email me at VulgarHistoryPod@gmail.com. And also, if you go to the website, VulgarHistory.com we’re working on getting transcripts. Aveline Malek from The Wordary has been doing amazing work, making transcriptions of some of these incredibly long episodes we’ve been doing lately. The most recent ones mostly have transcripts and then Aveline is working backwards from there. So, if you prefer to read a podcast or you want to refer back to it, if you want to quote me in your academic paper, let me know you’re doing that.

I’m on Instagram, same as Kit, they are @KitHeyamWriter and I’m @VulgarHistoryPod on Instagram. I’m also on like god knows, I’m on Threads, I’m on Bluesky, I’m on whatever. Wherever you are, there’s probably Vulgar History there and if you want to connect with me, you can tag me in any of those places. I’m also on TikTok @VulgarHistory where I’ve started TikToking again so check me out there.

We also have merch available at VulgarHistory.com/store, which is the best shipping if you’re in the US. If you’re outside the US, you can also get stuff with a bit better shipping at VulgarHistory.Redbubble.com. And in terms of Kit and the transness of it all, if you look at their first post on Instagram @KitHeyamWriter, they are in fact wearing one of the Vulgar History merch shirts, it’s the image of the Chevalière d’Éon, who was the first trans person I talked about on the show last year, then with special guest Maya Deane. It was just really special for me to see because Kit was wearing this shirt from Vulgar History and that was a design done by January Jupiter, who is an artist that I collaborate with a lot for merch. January is also nonbinary so it’s just like, it’s a beautiful thing.

You can also support the podcast, we have a Patreon which is Patreon.com/AnnFosterWriter. There for $1 a month, you get early, ad-free access to all episodes and/or for $5 or more a month you get bonus episodes of Vulgarpiece Theatre which is where I talk about costume dramas with friends of the podcast and frequent guest stars, Allison Epstein and Lana Wood Johnson. Also, with that $5 a month, you get access to the bonus episodes. Initially, it was just So This Asshole episodes where I talked about gross men from history but that was just bumming me out. So, lately, I’ve been talking about, I did an ep about Bushrangers who are Australian highwaymen and you’re going to learn more about those later on the regular feed. But I’m also going to be doing some episodes that are just like, So This Messy Bitch, just kind of like, trashy people from history who don’t quite fit in the regular podcast. Anyway, you know what? Keep thinking about the Roman Empire, or not. But thank you so much for listening to this podcast. Keep your pants on and your tits out!

Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.

Transcribed by Aveline Malek at TheWordary.com


Learn more about Kit and their work at kitheyam.com and follow them on Instagram @kitheyamwriter

Buy Kit’s book Before We Were Trans from bookshop.org and support Vulgar History with this link: https://bookshop.org/a/1419/9781541603080

Tune into Vulgar History Live!! On October 21st 2023 at 5:30 Central Time (or watch the livestream later on) at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_089jR4GZw8

Get Vulgar History merch at vulgarhistory.com/store (best for US shipping) and vulgarhistory.redbubble.com (better for international shipping)

Support Vulgar History on Patreon

Vulgar History is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, which means that a small percentage of any books you click through and purchase will come back to Vulgar History as a commission. Use this link to shop there and support Vulgar History.