A British museum is facing backlash among historians for claiming a Roman emperor was transgender despite having little evidence to support the assertion. After liaising with LGBT charity Stonewall, the North Hertfordshire Museum in Hitchin added feminine pronouns to a display of Elagabalus.
The museum, operated by a council, owns a silver denarius minted in the reign of Elagabalus, who ruled Rome from 218 AD until his assassination, aged 18, in 222 AD.
Elagabalus is widely considered one of the most incompetent rulers of the Roman Empire, and his reign was marred by countless sex scandals and controversies. He reportedly prostituted himself throughout the palace, married five different women, and took on a number of male and female lovers. He reportedly sent servants out into the city to procure sexual partners for him, and even opened the imperial baths up to the public.
In addition to his sexual deviance and incompetence, Elagabalus was notoriously cruel. After reigning for just 4 years, he was assassinated by the Pretorian Guard.
According to the Daily Mail, the decision to label the emperor as transgender stems from historical claims drafted by Roman chronicler Cassius Dio.
Dio asserted that Elagabalus was often referred to as a “wife, mistress and queen” by his lovers, and asked to have “female genitalia be fashioned for him.” He also allegedly also requested a former lover to stop referring to him as “Lord.”
Keith Hoskins, Liberal Democrat councilor and executive member for arts at the North Herts Council responsible for Hitchin, also vouched that the boy emperor “most definitely” preferred she/her pronouns.
“We try to be sensitive to identifying pronouns for people in the past, as we are for people in the present. It is only polite and respectful. We know that Elagabalus identified as a woman and was explicit about which pronouns to use, which shows that pronouns are not a new thing,” Hoskins explained.
Despite the museum’s efforts to appeal to the LGBT community, historians are decrying the posthumous transitioning, pointing out that some of the accusations regarding Elagabalus’ proclivities may have been an attempted character assassination by Cassius Dio.
Speaking to the Telegraph, Cambridge classics professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill also noted that “the Romans didn’t have our idea of ‘trans’ as a category,” and that labeling a man as a “woman” was considered an insult, not a description.
“There’s racial prejudice going on there too,” added Wallace-Hadrill referring to Elagabalus’ being Syrian, not Roman.
Sharing his sentiments, Professor Christian Laes, a University of Manchester classicist, stressed that ancient accounts of the emperor’s life should be taken with a “huge pinch” of salt.
“Most of this is related to the aristocratic and senatorial disdain for the emperor’s oriental origins and beliefs. As regards trans, this was, of course, never seen as a category by the Romans. But it remains the case that in times of troubles and crisis, so-called transgressors of the sexual norms were subject to scapegoating,” he concluded.
Despite many historians arguing that Elagabalus likely didn’t suffer from gender dysphoria, the Daily Mail points out that in addition to wanting to surround himself with an exclusively female Roman senate, he was rumored to have spent most of his time among women “singing, dancing, weaving and wearing a hairnet, eye make-up and rouge.”