The Historically Complex Identity of a Roman Emperor

The Historically Complex Identity of a Roman Emperor

The North Hertfordshire Museum in the UK has made a decision based on recent research that sheds light on the gender identity of the ancient Roman emperor Elagabalus. After careful consideration, the museum will now refer to Elagabalus as “she” in its displays, acknowledging the emperor’s transgender identity. This move is in accordance with classical texts that reveal Elagabalus’s explicit request to be called “lady.”

This decision follows years of academic interest in Elagabalus’s gender identity. Keith Hoskins, executive member for Enterprise and Arts at North Herts Council, expressed the museum’s commitment to inclusivity, saying, “We try to be sensitive to identifying pronouns for people in the past, as we are for people in the present, it is only polite and respectful. We know that Elagabalus identified as a woman and was explicit about which pronouns to use, which shows that pronouns are not a new thing.”

Past translations inaccurately referred to Elagabalus as “they” due to the classical Greek language’s lack of gender distinction in third-person references. However, new evidence, such as Dio’s text, confirms Elagabalus’s preference for the “she” pronoun. The museum believes that reflecting this preference in contemporary discussions is standard practice.

Elagabalus, who reigned from 218-222 AD, is recognized as one of the most controversial Roman emperors. The emperor’s gender identity extended beyond pronouns. Elagabalus is known to have married a man, Hierocles, a charioteer and former slave. They delighted in being referred to as Hierocles’ wife or mistress.

The University of Birmingham website sheds further light on Elagabalus’s exploration of gender identity. The emperor often wore wigs and makeup, showing a preference for the term “domina” (lady) rather than “dominus” (lord). Elagabalus even attempted to find a physician who could perform sex reassignment surgery, offering significant sums of money for the procedure.

The reclassification of Elagabalus’s gender identity sparks an important conversation about the historical complexity of gender and identity. The decision made by the North Hertfordshire Museum is a testament to its commitment to inclusivity and respect for historical context.


1. Why is Elagabalus now referred to as “she”?

Based on classical texts and evidence, Elagabalus expressed a preference for the pronoun “she.” The North Hertfordshire Museum has chosen to honor this preference by reclassifying the emperor’s gender identity as transgender.

2. How do we know Elagabalus identified as a woman?

Records and historical accounts, such as Dio’s text, provide evidence of Elagabalus’s explicit request to be referred to as a “lady.” This form of self-identification supports the classification of Elagabalus as transgender.

3. What other aspects of Elagabalus’s gender identity are known?

In addition to preferred pronouns, Elagabalus married a man named Hierocles and often wore wigs and makeup. The emperor sought sex reassignment surgery and showed a clear preference for the term “domina” (lady) over “dominus” (lord).

4. How does the reclassification of Elagabalus’s gender identity contribute to our understanding of history?

This reclassification highlights the nuanced nature of gender identity throughout history. It encourages discussions about inclusivity in historical interpretation and recognition of diverse identities in different time periods.


The Telegraph