In the Lives of the Sophists, Philostratos offers a tantalizing anecdote about a political invective, composed by the contemporary writer Claudius Aelianus, against a recently assassinated emperor. Aelian titled his invective the Indictment of the Little Woman (Katêgoria tou gunnidos), “for that’s what I call the tyrant who was recently killed, because he disgraced the Roman empire with his utter licentiousness” (VS624.22-625.2). The young emperor Elagabalus (r. 218-222), who came from Syria and was famously reviled for his effeminacy and licentiousness, fits well the assassinated tyrant to whom Aelian refers. Though the text of the Katêgoria tou gunnidos is generally thought to be lost (see bibliography), I suggest that certain fragments from the Souda on a “Syrian hetaira” or “Syrian mime” and known to be by Aelian (fr. 123Hercher; fr. 126a-e Domingo-Forasté) may be helpful in reconstructing Aelian’s diatribe against Elagabalus. Moreover, such a reconstruction, even while tentative, leads to a necessary re-evaluation of Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado’s rejection of the interpretation of Elagabalus by Dio Cassius. My argument works by a comparative analysis of Aelian’s individual fragments with the evidence for the life of Elagabalus offered by Philostratos’ anecdote, as well as by Dio Cassius and Herodian, the most important contemporary sources. In one fragment, for example, the behavior of this “womanish thing (gunaion) from Syria,” who debased the people to a “swinish and mad licentiousness (aselgeian),” fits Aelian’s description of the womanish tyrant (gunnis) who “shamed Roman affairs with his total licentiousness (aselgeiai)”: the fragment contains strong verbal echoes that resonate with Aelian’s remark in the anecdote of Philostratos’VS, discussed above. The second fragment also says that its female/effeminate subject was known to be a courtesan who, “by means of posturing that was on display for all to see,” enticed “those who saw her to experiences of the body” (fr. 123.7-9 Hercher;126b Domingo-Forasté). Dio, too, tells of how Elagabalus would wander the streets of Rome at night wearing a woman’s clothes and wig and visit taverns and brothels, where “driving out the courtesans, he would become the prostitute himself” (D.C. 80.13.2); eventually he even transformed the imperial palace itself into a brothel. The dangerous erotic enticement of the movements of the courtesan’s body in the fragment also fits with Herodian’s description of Elagabalus’ ecstatic ritual dancing in honor of the Sun God and the astonished reaction of his Roman onlookers (Hdn. 5.3.8-9; cf. D.C 80.11.2). I contend that these and other such parallels reveal Aelian’s fragments as echoing the anti-Elagabalan rhetoric both leading up to and following upon the emperor’s assassination in 222 CE. Leonardode Arrizabalaga y Prado nowhere mentions Aelian in his recent book, because the evidence of Aelian’s Katêgoria tougunnidos did not meet his criteria for selection (“original proposal of distinct propositions about Varius or his avatar,” p. 27) – Aelian never names Elagabalus/Varius explicitly. In an attempt to discredit Dio’s historiographical thesis that the sexual depravity of Varius (the emperor’s real name) was the primary cause of his overthrow by the soldiery, Arrizabalaga y Prado highlights an inconsistency in the perceived tolerance of the privately passive sexual behavior of Varius’ predecessors, Severus and Caracalla. But Arrizabalaga yPrado, focused almost exclusively on the question of passive sexual penetration, does not consider the role that Varius’ extreme effeminacy, his troublesome gender presentation, would have played in arousing the antipathy of the army; Severus and Caracalla were, by contrast, despite the rumors of sexual passivity, far more manly figures. Dio’s narrative of the reign of Elagabalus is certainly full of distortions, exaggerations, and outright fiction. But the above fragments on the “womanish thing from Syria,” reflecting the contents of Aelian’s Katêgoria tou gunnidos, provide a strong contemporary corroboration of Dio’s thesis. For Aelian, too, the emperor’s effeminacy was the primary, or at least the easiest, target of his invective.
- Arrizabalaga y Prado, L. de. The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction? Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Kindstrand, J.F.. “Claudius Aelianus und sein Werk.” ANRW II.34.4 (1998): 2954-2996.
- Maspero, F. “Introduzione.” In Claudius Aelianus, La natura degli animali. Milano: Biblioteca universale Rizzoli, 1998.
- Stamm, C. Vergangenheitbezug in der Zweiten Sophistik? Die Varia Historia des Claudius Aelianus. Frankfurt am Main and New York: P. Lang, 2003.
- Prandi, L. Memorie Storiche dei greci in Claudio Eliano. Roma: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 2005.
- Schettino, M.T. “Il passato e il presente di Roma nell’opera di Eliano.” In Lucio Troiani and Giuseppe Zecchini (eds.), La cultura storica nei primi due secoli dell’impero romano, 283-307. Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 2005.
- Whitmarsh, T. “Prose literature and the Severan dynasty.” In S. Swain, S. Harrison, and J. Elsner (eds.), Severan Culture, 29-51. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.