The North Hertfordshire Museum in the United Kingdom has reclassified a Roman emperor as a transgender woman and will refer to the ruler with she/her pronouns. The institution cited Ancient Roman writings claiming that Elagabalus, who held power between 218 and 222 CE before being assassinated at the age of 18, wore women’s clothing and preferred to be called “lady.”
While the official classification is new, scholars have long discussed Elagabalus’s sexual and gender identity, and the British Museum’s biography of the emperor states that she sought a gender-affirming surgery and frequently wore women’s garments. Depictions of the ruler in recent centuries have emphasized her feminine qualities, beauty, and opulence.
Elagabalus, who was born and lived in Syria before assuming the Roman throne at age 14, was also described as being sexually promiscuous. Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that she had five wives, the last of whom was a man, and that she was “termed wife, mistress, and queen.” Some scholars have pointed out that Elagabalus’s contemporaries may have intentionally written discrediting text about the leader, who was ultimately overthrown and assassinated by high-ranking political leaders.
Zachary Hertz, a Classics scholar and Elagabalus expert at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Hyperallergic that he struggles with the concept of retrospectively assigning identity, adding that these texts were “almost certainly meant to discredit [Elagabalus]” and that the authors of these accounts were working for the statesman who overthrew Elagabalus in a coup.
Although none of Elagabalus’s own writing survived, coins and portrait busts issued under the emperor’s reign are still around today.
“The people making these coins and statues would have had a strong incentive to depict Elagabalus the way he wanted to be seen, so you can use these media to see what Elagabalus wanted to look like,” Hertz said. “It happens that these coins and statues all depict Elagabalus as male, right down to the sad teenage-boy mustache.”
“On the other hand, if a trans person today reads about Elagabalus and feels less alone it’s hard to begrudge them that,” Hertz continued. “My own personal take is that Elagabalus doesn’t show us ‘trans people in antiquity’ but does show us other ways of doing sex, gender, and sexuality.”
The North Herfordshire Museum owns one coin featuring Elagabalus’s face. A spokesperson for the institution told the BBC that it is “only polite and respectful to be sensitive to identifying pronouns for people in the past.”