Saturday, June 5, 2010


Varius Avitus Bassanius, called Elagabal and later known in his infamy as Heliogabalus, ruled Rome from 218 to 222 of the Christian Era. He was a pampered, flamboyant youth who became emperor through the machinations of his mother and grandmother. As high priest of a Syrian sun god, he attempted to impose his eastern religion upon Rome, and as a result of this as well as other transgressions, he was brutally murdered by soldiers in the army that had formerly supported his rise to power.

Unless an emperor had something to gain politically from linking himself to the person he succeeded, he generally waged a propaganda war against his predecessor. This sort of posthumous punishment, or damnatio memoriae, often took concrete form. Sculptures of an emperor were desecrated (protruding parts such as penises or noses were hacked off) and the marble recycled. Imperial portraits of a youthful Alexander Severus bear a strong resemblance to Heliogabalus, not only because the two were cousins, but also because Heliogabalus’ portraits were recarved in the image of his successor. Most surviving likenesses of Heliogabalus come from coins minted during his reign. The iconoclasm directed against Heliogabalus was so vast that intact portrait busts of him are extremely rare; one exists in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

The ideological campaign against Heliogabalus was still more effective. Tales of Middle Eastern effeminacy and luxury had furthered Roman political interests for hundreds of years. The emperor’s Syrian origins suggested perversities foreign to an officially virtuous and chaste Roman culture. Many elements of Heliogabalus’ biographyhis selecting government officials based not on their abilities but on the size of their genitals, his masquerading as a palace whore, his offering a reward to whomever could perform a sex change operation on himare likely exaggerations at the very least. There is little reliable information about Heliogabalus; on the other hand, the apocryphal literature is extensive.

The chief source of this material is the Historia Augusta, a long text by six authors including Heliogabalus’ biographer Aelius Lampridius. The great connoisseur of perversions Robert Burton and even the towering figure of Edward Gibbon took the text as authentic, but subsequent scholars have demonstrated that most aspects of the work are fictional or plagiarized, and have gone as far as questioning the very existence of Lampridius. One diligent classicist called Historia Augusta a “farrago of cheap pornography.”

Michel Foucault once remarked that fist fucking was the only sex act invented in the 20th Century. Many have repeated this statement without question, but I can’t imagine how it could be true. Fist fucking is possible in any group of people with considerable leisure and inventiveness, an obsession with power, and perhaps most importantly, an adequate plumbing system. The Roman aristocracy had all of these things, and in the absence of religious proscriptions, some men of this class must have tried it, if not on their peers, at least on their slaves.

Roman emperors engaging in fist fucking: as scholars say, it is not attested. No known history of ancient Rome describes the practice. Even fictional accounts neglect it. For instance, The Memoirs of Hadrian describes that emperor’s love for the beautiful youth Antinous with such daintiness that physical acts between them are almost impossible to contemplate. Samuel Delany’s Phallos, a literary fraud presented as a fragmentary text of obscure origin like Historia Augusta, can be understood as a corrective to Marguerite Yourcenar’s pudeur. Interest in the intimate capacities of ancient Romans persists to the present day, even — or especially — in the realm of mass culture. Caligula appeared on an episode of television’s Venture Brothers, and when circumstances required, his imperial person concealed the magical Hand of Osiris inside his rectum.

In the absence of evidence for or against fisting, it is tempting to fill the imperial void with plausible fabrication. If I had to nominate Rome’s most likely to be fist fucked, I would choose Heliogabalus. He was definitely what we moderns would call a “size queen.” His life in Historia Augusta contains the piquant Latin phrase bene vasatorum, which recent translators render as “well hung men.” The author formerly known as Lampridius wrote that Heliogabalus “received lust in all the orifices of his body” (a phrase repeated with relish in The Anatomy of Melancholy); and furthermore, that “he invented certain new kinds of vice, even going beyond the perversions used by the debauchees of old, and he was well acquainted with all the arrangements of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero.”

In speculating about what lies beyond the excesses of Rome’s most decadent emperors, I am taking a license, but one that others have taken before me. Heliogabalus as a mythic figure has inspired many artists and writers, including Antonin Artaud, who expressed a serene indifference to questions of strict historical authenticity: “I have written this Life of Heliogabablus… to help those who read it to un-learn history a little; but all the same to find its thread.” New access to data, and with it, new forms of cheap pornography, admit new possibilities for finding the thread of history. Wild speculations may be proven correct after all.

Like an ancient literary fraud, this text has served different purposes at different times. It was first a part of an (unsuccessful) application essay for the Rome Prize. An expanded version of that text became part of a conversation with Bruce Hainley published in Bidoun in a censored form. (Mention of fisting was considered to have an adverse effect upon the magazine’s distribution in the Middle East.) Finally, an unexpurgated text appeared in my book Heliogabalus, published by 2nd Cannons in 2009.