Weird History
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Roman Emperor Elagabalus Was A Capricious Tyrant Who May Have Invented The Whoopee Cushion

Updated August 21, 2020 130.8k views10 items

Emperor Elagabalus was the Roman emperor for a brief time from 218 to 222, but he packed a lot of scandal into those years. When it comes to the weirdest royals throughout history, Elagabalus might be the wildest of all. It's hard to separate the fact from the fiction in these legends about him, but with tales this eye-popping, who would want to?

A devotee of the Syrian god he was named for, Elagabalus brought the deity's cult to Rome and tried to make it the main religion of the empire. He wasn't above physical aggression, either; Emperor Elagabalus stories have him harming unsuspecting guests while they dined on bizarre Roman cuisine, and even depict him as making human sacrifices. But he got the most attention for his private life. Elagabalus had multiple wives as well as a husband, and some reports suggest he was transsexual and enjoyed dressing up in traditional female garb.

If that wasn't intriguing enough, consider this: Elagabalus was only 14 when he became emperor, but the good times didn't last. At the age of 18, the young emperor was slain by his own soldiers.

  • Photo: Glst2media / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Had 5 Wives And One Husband

    Elagabalus married five women while he was emperor. Historians only know the names of three of the women, but perhaps the most famous was Aquilia Severa. According to Historia Augusta, she was a Vestal Virgin, sworn to chastity and the worship of the goddess Vesta. That didn't deter Elagabalus. He violated her vows and married her, declaring that their union would produce "godlike children."

    Rumor had it that Elagabalus also married a man. His identity has been disputed by scholars, but it was likely one of Elagabalus's favorites: either the athlete Zoticus or the chariot driver Hierocles. Apparently, Elagabalus liked to get caught committing adultery by his husband.

  • He Opened The Royal Baths To Attract Well-Endowed Men

    It would have been blasphemous for an emperor to bathe in public, let alone with the public. But Elagabalus didn't care. He opened the palace baths and the baths of Plautinus to the general populace, but he had an ulterior motive: "by this means he might get a supply of men with unusually large organs."

    That wasn't all he did. Elagabalus supposedly "also took care to have the whole city and the wharves searched for onobeli, as those were called who seemed particularly lusty." The word is a rough combination of the Greek words for "donkey" and "weapon," and you can fill in the blanks from there.

  • Photo: Helene Guerber / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Was Rumored To Sacrifice Children To His God

    Historia Augusta made a shocking claim that Elagabalus sacrificed children in honor of his god:

    Elagabalus also sacrificed human victims, and for this purpose he collected from the whole of Italy children of noble birth and beautiful appearance, whose fathers and mothers were alive, intending, I suppose, that the sorrow, if suffered by two parents, should be all the greater. Finally, he kept about him every kind of magician and had them perform daily sacrifices, himself urging them on and giving thanks to the gods because he found them to be well-disposed to these men; and all the while he would examine the children's vitals and [physically harm] the victims after the manner of his own native rites.

    It's unlikely these claims were true, as human sacrifice was rarely practiced in Syria or Rome at the time.

  • Photo: Antonio Tempesta / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Pranked People By Siccing Animals On Them

    Elagabalus loved playing jokes on dinner party guests. During the dessert course, the emperor would let in lions and leopards, "which had been rendered harmless and trained by tamers [...] causing an amusing panic, for none knew that the beasts were harmless."

    Once, Elagabalus collected a ton of snakes and proceeded to let them loose in a crowd "when the populace usually assembled for the more frequented games," causing people to be harmed "by their fangs as well as in the general panic."

    Even the streets weren't safe: Elagabalus also had a habit of riding chariots driven by exotic animals like camels or elephants.