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Eliogabalo: Obscure Emperor, Obscure Opera

By Randall Scotting

Shockingly, the 1667 opera Eliogabalo only received its world premiere 22 years ago.

Had it not been censored, but actually performed at the Venetian Carnivale 330 years ago, those attending Cavalli’s final opera would have already known a few important historical facts about this now obscure emperor.

Elio’s short life was like a real-life Game of Thrones saga, but with more sex, backstabbing, quarrels, murder, and gender dysphoria all of which abound in this slice of history. Ultimately, the operatic telling of Elio’s story brings to stage the evergreen intersection of sex and power.

I thought I’d offer a few essential must-knows about this lusty troublemaker and rarely studied ruler from millennia past, to ensure you have all the inside dish while enjoying the West Edge Opera performances.

(L-R) Cecilia Hall as Eliogabalo in the World Premiere at Aspen Music Festival in 1999 and Eliogabalo with Franco Fagioli in the title role at Opéra de Paris at Palais Garnier in 2016.

1. Granny’s little cutie, until he wasn’t

Eliogabalo is anything but conventional. Placed on the throne at 14, his sense of privilege and invincibility were evident: he proclaimed that the stars guide and protect him, and the gods have no power in his kingdom. It was, in fact, not the stars, but the machinations of Elio’s mother and grandmother that placed him on the throne, falsely claiming Elio was the bastard heir of the previous emperor. These enterprising women probably thought Elio could easily be controlled as a puppet-ruler, but it seems obedience was not a family value. At a quick pace, Eliogabalo made enemies: he had generals executed, new deities were made supreme, his sexual companions were granted wealth, and unqualified favorites were given authority. After 4 years, grandma had had enough shenanigans and conspired with the Royal guards to have both Elio and his mother assassinated.

(L-R) Julia Maesa, Eliogabalo's Grandmother; Julia Soaemias Bassian, Eliogabalo's Mother; and Eliogabalo (born: Varius Avitus Bassianus)

2. Delicious history, brunch was different back then

Luxurious excess and a complete defiance of customs, ceremony, and tradition swirled around this spoiled young man. Elio had a swimming pool perfumed with saffron, cushions stuffed with rabbit fur, and a chariot pulled by nude teenage girls, and he filled the Circus Maximus of Rome with wine for amusing and deadly naval battles. Attending a banquet at Elio’s palace was also a precarious prospect. Tamed lions and leopards were released to get a rise out of the terrified visitors, and on one occasion a torrent of rose petals rained down upon, and nearly suffocated, guests while the young emperor looked on with delight.

Eliogabalo's entrance into Rome. Riding a chariot pulled by naked women with the symbol of sun god Elagabal, a black conical meteorite, is behind the emperor.

(Illustration by Auguste Leroux)

3. Gender dysphoria: a wife, a mistress, a queen

When a handsome blond charioteer, Hierocles, was thrown in front of the emperor's arena box, Elio was so captivated that he brought the hunk to live at the palace, and he deemed him husband. About Hierocles, Elio said, “I’m proud to be called his wife, mistress, and queen.” Elio also deliberately contrived sexual trysts in which he would be “caught” by Hierocles provoking “punishment” for this misbehavior. Elio wore golden silk dresses and a tiara, donned makeup and wigs, and removed any hair from his body. It’s written that he prostituted himself in brothels, using fake breasts and dressing as a woman. He readily offered an immense fortune to anyone who could change his penis into a vagina. In a society that so strongly valued the masculine, Elio’s excessive femininity and sexual freedom, with little regard for established taboos, was alarming and unsettling.

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma-Tadema

4. Keep your friends close, and your enemies… flaccid

Elio’s sexual appetite was insatiable and took varied forms, with an almost infinite power to procure what (and who) he wanted. At one point during his reign, delegates were sent to search out the docks and public baths for well-endowed men who could satisfy Elio’s interests. One of these, Zotico, who makes an appearance in Cavalli’s opera, was an athlete with the largest membrum virile known in all the Empire. Elio immediately made Zotico a court official and insisted: "call me not Lord, for I am a Lady." In actual history, Elio’s blond charioteer poisoned Zotico’s wine with an impotence-inducing drug to keep him from being able to perform sexually. Zotico was expelled from court in humiliation, unable to prove his talent.

5. Listen, every family’s got problems

Against his grandmother’s wishes, Elio divorced his first wife to marry a Vestal Virgin and changed the law to save her life. (Under typical Roman law, if a Vestal had sex, she would have been buried alive!) Grandma then tried forcing Elio to adopt his compliant cousin, Alexander, as his son and heir. He refused, forcing granny’s hand. She conspired with the Royal guards who eventually murdered Eliogabalo and his mother. Alexander went on to become the emperor of Rome anyway. Following Elio’s assassination, the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory) to erase any proof that he had ever existed.

6. But was he all bad? Cavalli’s music brings life and dimension

In the anti-heroic character of Eliogabalo, there is pomp, petulance, extravagance, and excess.

However, Cavalli’s musical embodiment of Elio retains some incredibly sublime tenderness, wisdom, vulnerability, and a propensity to be awed by beauty. The music of Eliogabalo comes from an established master-composer at the end of an illustrious career. Cavalli’s skill conveys the depth and clarity of a ruler who is not easily confined to stereotype or disregarded, rather an all-powerful emperor seen vulnerable, lonely, and longing for acceptance.

Photo Credits: (L-R) Carin Gilfrey and Agathe Poupeney


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