LONDON (Agencies): North Hertfordshire Museum in the U.K. is poised to make a groundbreaking change to its exhibit on Roman Emperor Elagabalus, recognizing a potential shift in gender identity. This decision comes after extensive research suggesting that Elagabalus might have identified as a trans woman.
Reign shrouded in controversy
Elagabalus, born Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, was a Roman emperor who ruled from A.D. 218 to 222. His reign was marked by a series of controversial and unconventional actions, including his religious devotion to the Syrian sun god Elagabalus, his lavish spending and his open display of sexuality.
Throughout his reign, Elagabalus was often ridiculed and criticized for his behavior, which was considered to be un-Roman and effeminate. He was also rumored to have engaged in sexual relationships with both men and women.
The museum intends to adjust its portrayal by referring to the emperor using female pronouns, a significant departure from the traditional historical narrative. This decision stemmed from references in classical texts where Elagabalus reportedly expressed, “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.”
Accounts from Cassius Dio, a contemporary senator, detail Elagabalus’ marriages, including one to Hiercoles, a former slave and chariot driver. Dio describes this union, stating the emperor “was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress and queen.”
A spokesperson for the museum emphasized the importance of sensitivity regarding pronoun use, even when referring to historical figures. They noted the move as an act of respect toward acknowledging gender identification in the past.
The interpretation of these pieces of evidence is a matter of ongoing debate among historians. Some scholars argue that the evidence is strong enough to suggest that Elagabalus identified as a trans woman, while others believe that the evidence is inconclusive or that it can be interpreted in other ways.
Dr. Shushma Malik, a classics professor at Cambridge University, cautions against relying solely on biased historical accounts. She highlights the possibility of effeminate descriptions in Roman literature being used to discredit political figures.
While acknowledging the Romans’ awareness of gender fluidity, Dr. Malik emphasizes that such language in literature was often linked to mythology and religion rather than descriptions of real individuals.
Despite the ongoing debate, North Herts Museum has decided to update its exhibit on Elagabalus to reflect the possibility that he identified as a trans woman. This decision was made after consultation with the LGBTQ charity Stonewall, which helped to ensure that the museum’s displays, promotional material and discussions regarding Elagabalus remained updated and inclusive.
The museum’s decision has been met with mixed reactions. Some have praised the museum for its sensitivity and inclusivity, while others have criticized the decision as being based on an incomplete understanding of history.