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Was the son of Sex. Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana, niece of Julia Domna. Born probably in 203, as Varius Avitus Bassianus, he was holding the priesthood, hereditary in his mother's family, of the presiding deity of Emesa in Syria, in 218, when his mother and grandmother Julia Maesa used him as figurehead of a rebellion against Macrinus. He was proclaimed to be son of his mother's cousin Caracalla (M. Aurelius Antoninus) and renamed after him. After the victory, he took the cult of the god by whose name he is known to Rome, which he reached in July 219. In late 220 his intention to make Elagabalus (‘deus Sol invictus’) supreme god of the empire aroused open hostility at Rome when he divorced his first wife Julia Paula and married the Vestal virgin Aquilia Severa, a ‘sacred marriage’ to match the union of the god with Juno Caelestis. He was forced to adopt his cousin Alexianus, renamed Alexander (26 June 221), and to divorce Aquilia in favour of a descendant of M. Aurelius, Annia Faustina; but by the end of 221 took Aquilia back and tried to get rid of Alexander. This provoked renewed outrage, which came to a head with his murder on 11 March 222 and replacement by Alexander. His flouting of conventions in the choice of officials, combined with disgust at the orgiastic ceremonial of the Syrian cult, had proved too much for senate, praetorians, and plebs alike.

Anthony R. Birley

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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