In a bold move towards inclusivity, the North Hertfordshire Museum has decided to re-label its exhibition after concluding that the Roman emperor Elagabalus may have identified as a transgender woman. This decision marks a significant departure from traditional historical narratives, as the museum now opts to refer to the emperor using English feminine pronouns like “she” and “her.”
Challenging Conventions and Respecting Pronouns
The catalyst for this decision arose from claims in classical texts suggesting that Elagabalus once declared, “Do not call me Lord, for I am a Lady.” A museum spokesperson emphasizes the importance of sensitivity in determining pronouns for historical figures, stating that it is a courteous and respectful practice to do so for individuals in the past.
A Glimpse into LGBTQ+ History
Among the LGBTQ+ artifacts frequently showcased in the museum’s collection is a coin featuring Elagabalus. The decision to consult with the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Stonewall is highlighted in the statement, emphasizing the commitment to making exhibitions, introductions, and discussions as current and inclusive as possible.
Elagabalus: A Brief Reign, a Lasting Controversy
Known more commonly as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Elagabalus ruled the Roman Empire for only four years, from AD 218 to AD 222, until his assassination at the age of 18. His brief reign was marked by increasing controversy, fueled by his unconventional and often scandalous sexual liaisons.
Senator Cassius Dio, a contemporary of Elagabalus, recorded five marriages, including four with women and one with Hiercoles, a former slave and charioteer. In the final marriage, Dio notes that Elagabalus was bestowed the title of wife, mistress, and queen.
Unraveling the Enigma of Elagabalus
Debates over Elagabalus’s gender identity have persisted, with scholars often divided on the matter. Dr. Shushma Malik, a Classics professor from Cambridge University, points out the inherent bias in historical accounts, cautioning against accepting them at face value.
Dr. Malik underscores that Roman literature frequently used feminine language as a political tool to criticize or undermine figures, making it challenging to decipher the true nature of Elagabalus’s identity. References to Elagabalus engaging in activities like makeup, wearing wigs, and removing body hair might have been written to discredit the unpopular emperor.
Acknowledging the fluidity of gender in Roman society, Dr. Malik notes that pronoun changes in literature were more symbolic than descriptive, often tied to mythology and religion rather than real individuals.
However, Keith Hoskins, a council member and executive member responsible for Business and Arts at North Hertfordshire Council, argues that texts like Dio’s provide concrete evidence of Elagabalus’s preference for female pronouns. He asserts that acknowledging Elagabalus’s self-identification as a woman is consistent with contemporary practices elsewhere.