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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Crimes of Elagabalus

Martijn Icks

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To purchase The Crimes of Elagabalus

Title: The Crimes of Elagabalus
Author: Martijn Icks
Genre: Novel
Written: (Eng. 2011)
Length: 223 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Crimes of Elagabalus - US
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  • The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor
  • While not credited as such, The Crimes of Elagabalus is surely a revised translation of Icks' Heliogabalus, een denkbeeldige biografie published in Dutch in 2010

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly informative overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Literary Review . 9/2011 Peter Jones
Times Higher Ed. . 10/11/2011 Judith Weingarten

  From the Reviews:
  • "(O)nce you have done the historical job on him, which Icks has, the rest is intellectual froth" - Peter Jones, Literary Review

  • "This is a serious, stimulating study of Elagabalus (also known as Heliogabalus) (.....) The second half of the book takes us on a tour of Elagabalus' reception through the ages." - Judith Weingarten, Times Higher Education

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Kurt Vonnegut liked to use an anecdote about Heliogabalus -- as the Roman emperor Elagabalus was also known as -- to show the depravity of humankind. As he explained in the acceptance speech he gave when he was named American Humanist of the Year:

Heliogabalus had a hollow iron bull in his banquet hall that had a door in its side. Its mouth was a hole, so sound could get out. He would have a human being put inside the bull and then a fire built on a hearth under its belly, so that the guests at his banquets would be entertained by the noises the bull made.
       Vonnegut had used the same anecdote some two decades earlier, in his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions -- with Kilgore Trout adding as an aside to his parakeet: "We're all Heliogabalus, Bill".
       Whether it was, in fact, Heliogabalus who 'entertained' in this fashion remains very much open to doubt -- as does so much about the boy-emperor who ruled the Roman Empire a mere four years, as Martijn Icks shows throughout The Crimes of Elagabalus. Indeed, another recent book on the same subject, Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado's The Emperor Elagabalus (Cambridge University Press, 2010 -- and reviewed by Icks at Sehepunkte) is subtitled simply: Fact or Fiction ? as though everything about the man, down to his very existence, might be considered pure invention. Icks' book examines both the (very limited) facts, trying to piece together some picture of the man and the times, as well as the voluminous creative literature that has arisen around the man and his legends.
       The facts are very limited -- beginning with his name: Elagabalus / Heliogabalus, and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (as the emperor styled himself) are names he took later; possibly he was born as Avitus, or Bassianus, or Varius (or some variations on these ...). There are only three contemporary accounts of Elagabalus' life and reign that Icks can rely on, and even they are of questionable value. Born in Syria, Elagabalus was an unlikely outsider to ascend the Roman throne; doing so at age 14 -- the youngest ever --, in 218, was even more unlikely. But after the death of Caracalla -- with Elagabalus presented as the bastard son of the emperor (unlikely to be true, Icks notes, but certainly used as one of the arguments in his favor in getting him the head job) -- circumstances and some clever maneuvering put the teen in a position to lead the Roman Empire. (Yes, Roman history can make even the American political process look good.)
       Aside from a few religious reforms -- which may well have been his undoing -- Elagabalus' reign was, especially for the times, an almost boring one:
After Elagabalus had defeated Macrimus in 218 and gained the throne, he seems to have taken no decisions of great importance. No wars were waged during his reign. There were no important economic reforms, nor were there any grand monuments added to the face of the Eternal City, with the exception of one or two big to Elagabal.
       Indeed, Icks points out:
Compared to the political and military upheaval which would follow, the years 218-22 can be considered one of the most tranquil and peaceful periods of the third century.
       His 'Oriental' roots -- and allegiance to a different religion -- of course proved problematic, and presumably helped foster many of the rumors that sprung up about his wild ways. Among his reforms was the dethroning of Jupiter as the chief Roman god -- replacing him with his hometown idol, sun god Elagabal -- , which unsurprisingly did not go over well; Icks notes that among the other stories circulated about the boy-emperor was that he married a vestal virgin, a defilement of the local religion and tradition that would be considered truly shocking.
       Of course, the really juicy stuff is found in all the unsubstantiated stories that sprung up about his decadent and wild ways. For example, not only is he reported to have circumcised himself (yes, himself -- apparently that was the Elagabalian way of doing this), but one source adds that he:
had planned, indeed, to cut off his genitals altogether
       From claiming that Elagabalus wanted to turn himself into a woman to claims that he married a man, his manhood was repeatedly called into question. There are also reports of other sorts of somewhat cruel excesses and some pretty wild partying.
       What fascinates about this figure is how these few bits of dubious information and limited historical fact have been inflated and perverted into this lasting reputation, leading to such invention as Vonnegut's iron bull. Much of Icks' book is devoted to later accounts, and specifically creative fictional adaptations of aspects of Elegabalus life; a four-page appendix lists chronologically 'The Nachleben of Elagabalus in Art and Literature', and several of the major works here are discussed more closely by Icks in his analysis -- including works by the great Louis Couperus (the untranslated De berg van licht), Antonin Artaud, and even ... Neil Gaiman (see Being An Account of the Life and Death of the Emperor Heliogabolous by Neil Gaiman).
       As Icks notes, the figure has gone through several phases, and especially the twentieth-century works portray him in a much more favorable light.
       The fact/fiction divide proves very difficult to handle in any treatment of Elagabalus. The fiction is so good -- what folks have imagined that this boy was capable of, and did -- that it completely overshadows the very limited historical information available.
       Even the early Vita Heliogabali reports that Elagabal was:
a man so detestable for his life, his character, and his utter depravity that the senate expunged from the records even his name
       Which might be a (cheap) excuse for why so little factual information about the emperor is available, but doesn't help much in trying to recreate his actual life-history. Instead, 'Elagabalus' exists almost entirely as fiction -- adapted in differing ways in differing times, but a template of the extreme that has attracted many artists (and quite a few historians), and allows authors to make of him whatever they will.
       Icks tries to have it both ways, offering the (limited) history and the extensive re-imaginings based on it. It's an entertaining exercise, but not quite as fruitful as one might hope. In particular, the fictional treatment of the boy -- and even the most reliable historians' accounts sound a lot like fiction -- deserves more detailed analysis -- even as it must always be emphasized that the picture that is formed is not of the historical Elagabalus, but of 'Elagabalus' a super-fictional (re)creation only very loosely based on a real person.
       The Crimes of Elagabalus is certainly an interesting book -- though it would be hard to write dully about Elagabalus -- but it still only scratches the surface of this fascinating subject-matter.

      Petty copyediting note: In the appendix of 'The Nachleben of Elagabalus in Art and Literature' the name "Edgar Allen Poe' is listed three times. It's: Allan. Edgar Allan Poe. Not the sort of slip that should be found in a Harvard University Press title.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 February 2012

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The Crimes of Elagabalus: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch scholar Martijn Icks was born in 1981.

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© 2012 the complete review

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