New research from a museum has said that a Roman emperor was transgender.
The North Hertfordshire Museum has said it will be “sensitive” to the purported pronoun preferences of the third century AD ruler Elagabalus (also known as Heliogabalus).
Classical texts claim that Elagabalus asked to be called “lady” and asked to be termed wife, mistress and queen.
However, some historians have questioned the decision, saying the account was more of a character assassination.
Procession of the roman emperor Elagabalus led by his slaves
Elagabalus ruled Rome from 218AD until his assassination, aged 18, in 222AD.
Cassius Dio, a Roman chronicler, wrote that Elagabalus was “termed wife, mistress and queen”, told one lover “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady”, and asked for female genitalia to be fashioned for him.
However, Cassius Dio served the following emperor Severus Alexander, who took the throne after the assassination of Elagabalus.
One historian suggests that the accounts use his reputedly deviant behaviour as a justification for his assassination.
The museum’s actions have been questioned
In displays featuring the coin, information about it and Elagabalus, the ruler will be referred to as she.
Liberal Democrat councillor and executive member for arts at the Lib Dem and Labour coalition-run North Herts Council, said: “Elagabalus most definitely preferred the she pronoun, and as such this is something we reflect when discussing her in contemporary times.
“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.”
However, the decision has been queried by historians, who said the reports may have been nothing more than an insult to the emperor.
Cambridge classics professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill said: “The Romans didn’t have our idea of ‘trans’ as a category, but they used accusations of sexual behaviour ‘as a woman’ as one of the worst insults against men.”
University of Manchester classicist Prof Christian Laes said ancient accounts of the emperor’s life should be taken with “a huge pinch of salt”.
He added: “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.”
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