May 16, 218: Elagabalus Becomes Emperor of Rome, Invents Whoopee Cushion!

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A Brief History

On May 16, 218, Elagabalus was proclaimed the true emperor of Rome by his mother and grandmother. After plots, intrigues, and some battles, Elagabulus captured and executed the previous emperor, Macrinus, and had the throne to himself at age 14.

Digging Deeper

If you think, “hey, a 14 year old emperor of Rome, what could go wrong?” then you would be thinking along the right track. After initially making peace with the Senate by granting amnesty for those who opposed him, and promising to obey the laws of Rome, Elagabalus went right off on his own, cracked track.

Head of Elagabalus, from the Capitoline Museums

Elagabalus had Gannys, the soldier who basically won the battles for the throne, executed and upset the religious status quo by placing the god Elagabal above the usual Roman chief god, Jupiter. Forcing high officials to pay public homage to the god he was named after, Elagabalus also scandalized his position as emperor by marrying 5 times during his 4 year reign and taking many lovers, male and female. Marrying a Vestal Virgin outraged Roman sensibilities as well. Elagabalus is even said to have offered a large reward to any physician that could perform sex change surgery on him!  In fact, many historians have speculated that Elagabalus was indeed transgender, or certainly strove to be.

Probably the best stunt he pulled was using whoopee cushions at dinner parties, which apparently did not amuse the stuffy aristocracy. In keeping with his disregard for decorum, Elagabalus is said to have prostituted himself in his own palace!

An inflated whoopee cushion

Not only the Praetorian Guard (kind of like the Roman version of the Secret Service, the emperor’s bodyguards) become distraught at his antics, but the common people lost respect and support for him. When Elagabalus’ own scheming grandmother (the one that basically put him on the throne) had enough, the reign of Elagabalus was soon over. Assassinated at age 18, he was replaced by Alexander Sevrus as emperor.

If you wonder why you have not heard much about this wayward youth that became emperor of Rome, it is probably because he is considered to be one of the worst emperors in the long history of the Roman empire. (No surprise there!) Historians have said of him the he “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures” (Edward Gibbon) and called his time on Earth “unspeakably disgusting life” (B.G. Niebuhr).

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

As is the fashion of royalty even today, the official name Elagabalus took upon ascension to the throne was much more complex than just, Elagabalus (kind of catchy in its own right). Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was the name he used as emperor, a fabrication to give his claim to the throne more credibility.  The British royal family goes by the family name, Windsor, known as The House of Windsor, although their original name was Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a Germanic name. King George V had the name changed in 1917 due to the First World War where Germany was the main enemy of Britain. (And the British people just went along with it!)

How true are all these reports of depravity and mayhem? As with the more famous Caligula, some analysts believe stories regarding the chaos of the reign of Elagabalus might be exaggerated to fit the justification for killing and replacing him. On the other hand, much of the history was written by those that actually witnessed the events, and not decades or centuries later as is the case with Alexander the Great and even Julius Caesar.

Question for students (and subscribers): With a name like Elagabalus, how could you go wrong?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Icks, Martijn.  The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor.  Harvard University Press, 2012.

Prado, Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y.  The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction?  Cambridge University Press, 2010.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Grombo of a rubber whoopee cushion on a chair, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.