Newsletter 519

Published November 27, 2023
Elagabalus.. no way to treat a lady

It was reassuring to read this week that after 1,800 years, the much-maligned Roman emperor, Elagabalus, has had “her” pronouns respected at last. The teenage emperor, who reigned from 218-222, came to a sticky end at the age of 18, being assassinated, decapitated and dragged through the streets, until “her” body was thrown into the Tiber. This is generally considered by historians to be a significant mark of unpopularity.

It doesn’t get much better for Elagabalus if one reads the accounts of Cassius Dio and every subsequent historian, who consider “her” to be one of the greatest perverts and psychopaths ever to rise to the imperial throne of Rome – and the competition was pretty stiff! Aside from upending the religious rites of the Capitol to install a favourite sun god in top spot, the delinquent emperor had a habit of marrying and divorcing, then remarrying the same women, including a Vestal Virgin. “She” also had a passion for hunky charioteers and athletes, loved to wear womens’ clothes and make-up, and allegedly insisted: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.”

“She” apparently loved to frock up and dance in front of the Senators, whose reviews were less than enthusiastic.

And so it’s reassuring that the North Hertfordshire Museum, which possesses a coin with the Emperor’s image, has decided – after consultation with the LGBTQ+ charity and lobby group, Stonewall – to assign the Emperor the pronouns “she” and “her”. Apart from the fact that this puts Elagabalus in the unique position of being the only “female” official ruler of Roman Empire, it completely disregards the fact that “she” was biologically male (“she” insisted on being circumcised), albeit polymorphous perverse.

In this enlightened view of the world, gender is what you say you are, no matter if you are five years old or have been dead for a thousand years. Exponents of Queer Theory have also recategorised figures such as Joan of Arc and Boudicca, as well as the female Pharaoh, Hatchepsut, as “transmen”.

These posthumous gender reassignments, whereby historical figures become the opposite sex or non-binary, make rather large assumptions about the person in question. On the basis of an ambiguous, frivolous or unsubstantiated statement, we are expected to completely revise our ideas of someone who was seen straghtforwardly as male or female by everyone during their lifetimes. Elagabalus and Joan of Arc didn’t have the option of going “non-binary”, and insisting their pronouns were them/they. It’s ridiculous to rewrite history according to our own preoccupations, making the broadest assumptions on the slenderest of evidence, but that is exactly what’s happening.

It also has the peculiar effect of making trans heroes out of figures such as Elagabalus, who were almost universally reviled, not just for their sexual deviations, but for being evil and incompetent. The “Lady not Lord” story is suspected of being mere hearsay, intended to make Elagabalus look even more effeminate in the eyes of readers with reliably maculinist views. It would be an irony if “she” is reassessed positively because of a deliberate historical slander.

The fact is, at this distance we simply don’t know the facts. All our theorising about figures such as Elagabalus is mere self-indulgence, treating history as ideological wishful thinking. It’s no better than the fictions about the Aryan race dreamed up by Nazi historians to justify Hitler’s racial beliefs, or the attempts by noble Greeks and Romans to trace their lineage back to the Gods. Whenever we seek to make large generalisations from the patchy evidence that remains of the past, we are overstepping the mark and stepping into the realm of fantasy.

Museums, more than other public institutions, should be wary of this kind of aggressive use of questionable data. All history, we know, is a kind of fiction, but this makes it all the more imperative to be cautious and conservative in our interpretations. Cross the line and history becomes mere propaganda.

Politics raises its head, ever so briefly, in the Portia Geach Memorial Award, which is the subject of this week’s art column. By giving the prize to Kate Stevens for a portrait of whistleblower, David McBride, who is currently in court on charges of leaking classified documents, the judges have – knowingly or unwittingly – bought into the case for the defence. The argument is that this was simply the best entry, in their estimation, regardless of subject matter. What the rest of us think is of no real relevance so long as the judges stick to that ‘objective’ line.

There’s a huge difference in taking an outspoken stand on behalf of a political position – as the ‘decolonisers’ of the museum would have it – versus the incidental promotion of a particular point of view. The Portia Geach presents a very broad field in which there’s room for many different approaches. As in most art prizes, judges have the unenviable task of deciding between utterly incommensurable items.

The movie being reviewed is the new Hunger Games, subtitled The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, which surprised me by being much better than anticipated. This origin story of Panem dictator, Corioanus Snow, is a well constructed study of an ambiguous character. “Coryo” is a hero for most of the film, but villainous traits gradually find their way into his make-up. Were he an actual historical figure, like Elagabalus, Snow would be open to widely differing interpretations, although it would take quite an effort to rearrange his pronouns.