ELAGABALUS, el"a-gab'a-lus (Varius Avitus Bassianus): Roman emperor; b. at Emesa, Syria, c. 201; killed by the pretorians in Rome, 222. He was a son of the senator Varius Marcellus and Julia Soæmias, and a grandson of Julia Mæsa (see ALEXANDER SEVERUS). Both mother and grandmother had retired to Emesa, and here they inculcated in the boy that Oriental religious fanaticism which was later to be the chief characteristic of the emperor. He was early consecrated as a priest of the sun-god at Emesa and later appropriated his name (Elagabalus=Syriac El gabal, "mountain [?] god"; by popular Greek etymologizing the name became Heliogabalus, from helios, "sun"). The intrigues of his mother and the fall of Macrinus brought him to the throne in 218. His personal beauty impressed the soldiers, and his claim to be the son of Caracalla won their respect. He did not enter Rome till 219. Unnerved by indulgence of his passions and crazed by his practise of superstitious sorcery, he had now only two aims in life, to follow his own pleasure and to introduce into Rome the worship of the sun-god as the one supreme deity ruling throughout the whole world. All the attributes of other gods, even the sacra of the city, in so far as these were not profaned and put aside, were to be transferred to this one god.
This was the dream of a crazy boy in the year 219. Ninety years later the Church had to take account of a religious speculation essentially related to the views of this dissipated youth: viz. the idea of the oneness of God, as held by the emperor Alexander Severus (q.v.), and as represented in Neoplatonism (q.v.). At first Christianity was inclined to be peaceable toward this Neoplatonic speculation; but at the beginning of the fourth century it assumed an aggressive attitude and called its adherents out for the conflict, until Constantine (q.v.) and his followers adopted a religious policy of which, it must be admitted, the boy Elagabalus was the forerunner. As Elagabalus did not have time to carry out his plans, his reign was one of peace for the Church.
Bibliography: The sources are: Dion Cassius, "Roman History," lxxvii. 30-41, Ixxix.; Herodian, "History of the Kings," v. 4-23; Lampridius, Elagabalus; Aurelius Victor, De Cæsaribus, xxiii.; idem, Epitome, xxiii. Modern accounts are: W. Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, ii. 6-7, London, 1890; V. Duruy, History of Rome, VII. 1, pp. 102-118, Boston, 1890; Gibbon, Decline and Fall, i. 141-148; KL, v. 1748-50.