Heliogabalus: unveiling the transgender empress who redefined Roman history
GenderSexuality and Gender

Heliogabalus: unveiling the transgender empress who redefined roman history

Discover the captivating story of Heliogabalus, the trans empress challenging historical norms in the Roman Empire. Explore the controversies, her bold gender identity, and the North Hertfordshire Museum’s groundbreaking decision to recognise her as a trans woman.

Unravel the complexities of Heliogabalus’s life in a journey through luxury, political opposition, and a quest for self-expression.

Heliogabalus: unveiling the transgender empress who redefined roman history | Rock & Art

Heliogabalus: the trans empress who ruled the Roman Empire

The North Hertfordshire Museum in the United Kingdom has taken a bold stance by recognizing Heliogabalus as a trans woman, using female pronouns when referring to her. This decision is grounded in historical evidence suggesting that the empress expressed her gender identity distinctly and preferred to be addressed as such. But who was Heliogabalus, and why does her figure remain so fascinating and controversial?

A brief and scandalous life

Heliogabalus, born Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in 203 AD in Syria, ascended to the throne at 14 after Roman legions in the East rebelled against Emperor Macrinus. Her reign in Rome was marked by luxury, extravagance, and controversy. She attempted to establish the cult of El-Gabal as the empire’s official religion, facing opposition from the Senate and the Roman people. Allegations of sexual parties, feminine attire, and an alleged gender transition surgery are attributed to her, though these claims are challenging to substantiate.


A transgender identity

What seems more certain is that Heliogabalus identified as a woman and sought to be treated as such. A contemporary historian, Dion Cassius, detailed her life, mentioning five marriages — four with women and one with a man named Hierocles, whom she considered her husband. The empress used feminine terms to describe herself, demanding to be called “lady,” “lover,” and “queen.” Additionally, she adopted practices that accentuated her femininity, such as makeup, depilation, and the use of wigs and jewelry.

A biased perspective

It is crucial to consider that historical sources about Heliogabalus are hostile and may have exaggerated or invented aspects to discredit her. Shushma Malik, a professor at the University of Cambridge, warns that the chronicles used to understand her life should not be taken literally. References to gender fluidity were standard in Roman politics, and effeminate language was used as a tactic to criticize or weaken public figures.


A current acknowledgement

Despite interpretative challenges, the North Hertfordshire Museum has decided to recognise Heliogabalus as a trans woman, relying on testimonies indicating her gender identity. Consulting with the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, the museum aims to make its exhibition as current and inclusive as possible.

Councillor Keith Hoskins emphasises that identifying pronouns of historical figures with sensitivity is an act of courtesy and respect. Hoskins asserts that “Heliogabalus identified as a woman and was explicit about which pronouns to use, showing that pronouns are not something new.”

Heliogabalus, also known as Elagabalus, was a Roman emperor who reigned from 218 to 222, while he was still a teenager. He was notorious for his religious and sexual scandals, as well as his attempts to introduce the worship of the sun god Elagabal to Rome. He was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard at the age of 18 and replaced by his cousin Severus Alexander. His life and legacy have been a source of fascination and controversy for historians, writers, and artists ever since.

Heliogabalus’s gender identity and expression have been a matter of debate and speculation for centuries. Some ancient sources claim that he wanted to be a woman and even sought surgery to change his sex.

Others portray him as a cross-dresser, a bisexual, or a homosexual. Modern scholars have variously interpreted him as a trans woman, a genderqueer, a drag queen, or a gay man. His gender identity and sexuality are not easily categorised by modern terms, as they were shaped by the cultural and religious context of his time.

By recognising Heliogabalus as a trans woman, the North Hertfordshire Museum is taking a bold and progressive stance in honouring the diversity and complexity of human history. The museum hopes to inspire and educate its visitors about the life and times of this remarkable and misunderstood emperor, who defied the norms and expectations of his society.

The museum also wants to celebrate the achievements and contributions of trans people throughout history and in the present day and to promote a culture of respect and inclusion for all. 🏳️‍⚧️