Featured Elagabal - The sun god of Emesa

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Jochen1, Nov 25, 2020.

  1. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    Dear Friends of ancient mythology!

    The Roman emperor Elagabal (218-222) was actually called Varius Avitus Bassianus and was given the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus as emperor. Elagabal or Heliogabal he was called much later. But Elagabal was actually the name of the god he worshipped, the sun god of Emesa, today's Homs in Syria. To distinguish these two, I will always call the emperor Antoninus. So Elagabal here always means the sun god!

    In this article I would like to show where Elagabal comes from and into which cultural landscape he is to be classified.

    1st coin: The Holy Stone of Emesa
    Syria, Emesa, Antoninus Pius, 138-161
    AE 23, 10.19g, 180°
    struck 138/9 (RY 1)
    Obv.: [AVT KAI TI] AIΛ A [NTO - NEINOC CEB EVC] Awarded head n.r.
    Rev.: EMI - [C]HNΩN
    Eagle with closed wings standing r. on the Holy Stone of Emesa, head with wreath in beak turned.l., [stone decorated with a star in the middle at the top and a pellet on the left and right].
    in right field A (RY 1)
    Ref.: BMC 1; SNG Copenhagen 307; RPC IV online temp 5782
    About VF, black-green patina with light green highlights
    This is the only pre-Severan coin with the Sacred Stone of Emesa. The stone itself was brought to Rome by Antoninus and returned to Emesa after his death. That this is the stone in the Kaaba in Mecca is only a rumour.

    The name Elagabal is composed of the Aramaic word 'LH = ilaha (god) and GBL = gabal (mountain), which means "god mountain", not "god of the mountain", because ilaha is in the status emphaticus and not in the status constructus (Jean Starcky). This is a subtle but not insignificant difference. The word for mountain is also known to us from Arabic, e.g. in Djabal al-Tariq, (mountain of Tarik), the name for Gibraltar. However, the mountain at Emesa was only about 30m high!

    Elagabal was first a local mountain god of Emesa on the Orontes, as there were so many in the Near East. But very early on he had a claim to universality due to his solar character, as was characteristic of the Semitic Baalim.

    Elagabal formed a triad with two female astral deities. Such triads were not unusual in Syria and Mesopotamia. His female consorts were Juno Caelestis and Pallas. Juno Caelestis=Tannit=Urania introduced the goddess of the moon and Pallas as Aphrodite=Astarte=Atargatis as the Venusian star the Arab Al-Uzza. As Athena Allath she was also the Arabian goddess of the moon.

    Elagabal had his solar character together with the East Semitic sun god Shamash from Mesopotamia, who was also depicted on Severan coins in Emesa. The cult of Elagabal also later came under his influence.

    Elagabal was not worshipped anthropomorphically (in human form), as it was common in the western religions, but aniconically in the shape of a black stone in conical form, a baetyl (from Semitic bet el = house of God), which probably was a meteorite. Mountain gods were already known in Anatolia, Syria and Palestine since the times of the Hittites. It was adorned on top, as we know from coins, with an eagle, as a sign of the highest god, as was the case with Jupiter.

    Many things point to an origin in Arabia. For example, it has the baetyllic format of its black stone together with the likewise solar Dusares of Petra. The priestly princes of Emesa have Arabic names: Azisos, Soaemus, Samsigeramus (Strabo), as well as later the female members of the Severan dynasty Maesa, Soaemias and Mammaea.

    According to Herodian, the worship of Elagabal was not only a local phenomenon in Emesa, but was also known from other places in Syria. Sacrifices were brought to Emesa by all the inhabitants of the surrounding areas, which became richer and richer. It is believed that the cult of Elagabal was the main cult of Syria and that Emesa was its religious centre. It is interesting to note that the cult of Elagabal was already widespread in the Roman Empire long before Antoninus. For example, a stele from 196 B.C. was found in Augsburg in what was then Raetia, dedicated to the sun god Elagabal, and another for the sun god Elagabal and Minerva in Woerden/Netherlands, the then Laurium in Germania inferior, i.e. from the other end of the world. This one is from the time of Antoninus Pius, which fits well with our coin.
    The stele in Augsburg

    There is nothing left of the temples on the mountain near Emesa today. And the city itself, today's Homs, a UNESCO world heritage site. has been almost completely destroyed by the long civil war in Syria.

    Elagabal in Rome
    After Antoninus had been elevated to emperor by his soldiers in May 2018, he set off for Rome after his victory over Macrinus. He used the land route, spent the winter in Nicomedia and carried the Holy Stone with him. In late summer 219 he reached Rome. Since he was already murdered in March 222, he was only in Rome for 2 1/2 years. From his magnificent entry into Rome we know descriptions The Sacred Stone of Elagabal was pulled on a chariot by horses. Antoninus in white priestly garb walked backwards in front of them so that he did not lose sight of his God. An unusual sight for the Romans.

    As soon as he arrived, he made Elagabal the supreme god of the Roman pantheon. He had two temples built for Elagabal. One, the Elagabalium, on the Palatine in the area of the imperial gardens, of which remains can still be seen today, and a second outside the city in what is now Trastevere. To decorate his new temple, the most sacred relics of the Roman religion were transferred from their original sites to the Elagabalium, the statue of the Great Mother, the fire of Vesta, the shields of the Salians and the Palladium. There should be no cult outside the priesthood of the Elagabal, all other deities were only the servants of his God. Herodian writes that Antoninus forced the senators to watch him while he danced around the altar of Elagabal to the sound of drums and cymbals.
    The relics of the Elagabalium on the present Vigna Barberini

    2nd coin: Antoninus sacrificing
    Antoninus, 218 - 220
    AR - Denar, 3.51g, 18mm
    Rome 220 - 222
    Bust, draped, laureate, r., with "horn" on the forehead
    Antoninus in Syrian priest clothes stg. l., holding in his outstretched right hand
    patera over burning altar and club in the left arm; behind the altar a lying bull
    in upper left field a star
    Ref.: RIC IV, 88; C. 61
    almost EF
    (1) Antoninus wears here parthian trousers and a long-sleeved short tunic with a decorative cast buckle in front of the belly, in addition chlamys and imperial diadem. Because of this costume he is called "the Assyrian" by Dio! But all in all this was more of an approximation to Roman customs. His clothing is different from Syrian and is not known there. Dirven thinks that this is an approximation to Caracalla's Germanic dress and the attempt to make himself more familiar to the troops and to profit from his father's military victories. Also the bull is not unusual
    (2) The star in the field is probably intended to indicate the divine status of Antoninus and his belonging to the domus divina. Curtis Clay: Let it be a sign of the mint of Rome
    (3) Since an upper ray of the star is much longer, it is also interpreted as Halley's comet, which must have been visible in Rome in 220.
    (4) Elke Krengel interprets the "horn" as a dried bull penis as a sign of power and strength. However, this interpretation is not undisputed. At the beginning of 222 the "horn" disappears from the coins again, probably because the soldiers started to grumble.

    At the summer solstice he had a big festival celebrated, which was very popular with the masses, for example because food was generously distributed. During this festival Elagabal was put on a chariot, decorated with gold and jewels, and taken across the city in a pompous procession to the suburban temple outside the city. Presents were thrown into the crowd. Antoninus walked backwards in front of the chariot as usual. Several officers took care that he did not stumble. Then, from towers he had erected, vessels of gold and silver, clothes and cloths were thrown at the mob. The actual purpose of this procession has not been clarified to this day. Perhaps one reason was that many Syrian citizens lived in these districts.

    The Holy Weddings
    The Holy Wedding ('ιερος γαμος) was widespread in oriental religions. With the actions of Antoninus in Rome one should know that these were mirrored events in his pantheon. This means that when Antoninus married a Vesta priestess, it was actually about the marriage of his sun god Elagabal to the Roman goddess Vesta. But he himself was never the incarnation of his god. These weddings were very unusual events for the Romans.

    First Antoninus married Julia Paula. This probably went back to the clan of Emesa under his mother Julia Maesa and is seen as an attempt to connect him with the Roman aristocracy. However, he rejected her because she had a physical mark, which was not compatible with his idea of divinity. He also had his own ideas about marriage, which were intended to spread his faith.

    And this led him to Aquila Severa, the chief Vesta priestess. By marrying her he wanted to establish a connection between his Elagabal cult and that of Vesta, the holiest cult of Rome. Moreover, divine children were to emerge from this marriage, with whom Antoninus wanted to found a divine dynasty. This marriage took place parallel to the marriage of Elagabal to Athena, which according to Halsberghe, however, arose from the misunderstanding that Antoninus considered the palladium to be Vesta because it was kept in the Vesta temple. His marriage with the supreme vestal virgin caused great unrest in Rome, as the vestal virgins were considered untouchable, so that Julia Maesa convinced him to break his connection and that of Elagabal.

    He then married Annia Faustina, a descendant of Marcus Aurelius. This had the advantage of creating a real connection between the Severans and the Antonines and especially with the popular philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Children from this marriage would have had a strong dynastic claim to the throne. Parallel to this marriage he married Elagabal to Urania, whom he had brought from Carthage and who, as goddess of the moon, was to be an expression of divine harmony together with Elagabal as sun god.
    Aphrodite Urania.jpg
    Sicilopunian, tetradrachm, 320-313 B.C., Künker, Jenkins III, 271st Vs: Aphrodite Urania. €180.000.-

    But Annia Faustina did not match his ambitions. He divorced her and brought back Aquilia Severa. His religious convictions had won!

    Antoninus was lucky to have ruled in a rather peaceful time. There were no warlike entanglements and the officials of the empire worked as usual with routine in the administration of the empire and the maintenance of the infrastructure. He was never actually active as emperor. He saw himself as the high priest of his god Elagabal, to whom he wanted to gain global recognition as the supreme god. A local Syrian cult was to become a comprehensive world religion. But this was not a monotheism, as some wrongly assume (e.g. Gaston Halsberghe). Other deities also existed under Elagabal, just as a kind of servant and under him. So he is not a forerunner of Christianity.

    In March 222 Antoninus was murdered by his Praetorians after he had tried to hide in a latrine. His cousin and adopted son Severus Alexander became his successor. Immediately after his elevation, Alexander restored the old circumstances. The relics of the Elagabalium were returned to their old locations and the temple was rededicated to Jupiter Ultor, the Avenger. A convincing name! He had the Sacred Stone of Elagabal brought back to Emesa. With that the haunting was over. One can see where religious fanaticism can lead!

    It is reported that after his victory over Zenobia of Palmyra (272), Aurelian offered sacrifices to the Elagabal at the altar of the sun god. This homage, however, was not so much to the black stone but to his own idea of a universal and supranational Sol invictus (Pauly).

    (1) Cassius Dio, Roman history
    (2) Herodian, History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus
    (3) Historia Augusta

    Secondary literature:

    (1) RIC
    (2) BMCR
    (3) Hans-Joachim Hoeft, Coins and Ancient Mythology, 2011
    (4) Artaud, A., Heliogabale ou l'anarchiste couronne, 1943
    (5) Dirven, L., The emperor's new clothes: a note on Elagabalus' priestley dress, 2007
    (6 ) Halsberghe, G.H., The Cult of Sol Invictus, 1972
    (7) Martin Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus, I.B.Tsuris 2013
    (8) Der Kleine Pauly
    (9) Dietmar Kienast, Roman Imperial Tables, 1990
    (10) Elke Krengel, The so-called "Horn" of the Elagabal - The tip of a bull penis. A reinterpretation as a result of interdisciplinary research, 1997

    Online sources:
    (1) Livius.org
    (2) Halley's Comet: A Visual Record on Coins of Elagabalus, 2020 https://nnpsymposium.org/exhibit-hall/f/halleys-comet-a-visual-record-on-coins-of-elagabalus
    (3) Wikipedia

    Best regards
    Amit Vyas, Factor, robinjojo and 43 others like this.
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  3. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Well-Known Member

    Another great article by Jochen1 :D! Pictured below is my favorite Tet depicting Elagabalus. There is no horn pictured on this portrait.
    IMG_9010.JPG IMG_9020.JPG
  4. NewStyleKing

    NewStyleKing Beware of Greeks bearing wreaths Supporter

    Beatyls are interesting things. They represent the God Mountain and often as meteorites have a celestial link too making them even more sacred.
    The god(s) of high places has long been a religious pull and is common in the old testament and other close by religions, eg in Nabatea and Arabia.
    There is a Beatyl in a museum somewhere and it is noteworthy that that faith which must not be mentioned probably has a small portion of one tucked into a representative of one in a fabled ground. The omphalos is a Beatyl and is associated with the sun god Apollo so appears on Greek coins of the Seleucids, on Myrina Apollo Grineious tets and on this Athens NewStyle which is a post-Sullan coin.
    Athens New Style Tetradrachm 84/3 BC
    Obs : Athena Parthenos right in tri-form helmet
    28 mm 16.47 gm Thompson issue 81 Thompson catalogue: Obs 1160 ? Rev: NEW
    Rev : ΑΘΕ ethnic
    Owl standing on overturned panathenaic amphora
    on which month mark B control [] below
    2 magistrates : KLEOPHANES EPITHETHES
    RF symbol : Beatyl with Fillets
    All surrounded by an olive wreath.
    Sacred objects were often covered with coloured strips of cloth to denote their sacredness, Beatyl above,Thyrsos and animals due to sacrifice.
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2020
  5. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Enrich the soldiers...ignore all others

    Here is a tet of Antioch, no horn.

    Elagabalus, 218-222 A.D., Antioch, Seleucis and Pieria
    AR Tetradrachm, struck 218-220 A.D., 25mm 12.02 grams

    Obverse: Laureate head of Elagabalus right

    Reverse: Eagle standing left, wreath in beak, star between legs, delta epsilon in field

    Reference: Prieur 249A; McAlee 760

  6. Hamilcar Barca

    Hamilcar Barca Well-Known Member

    I have mentioned previously how much I enjoy posts like this one. Informative and a fun read. Thank you Jochen1. Something special to put a spark in my day.
    Jochen1 likes this.
  7. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    The "horn", the presumed bull penis, can only be found on coins from Rome and this only within a certain time.

  8. panzerman

    panzerman Well-Known Member

    Thanks for another great write up by Jochen! Always learn from your excellent posts:)
    Jochen1 likes this.
  9. Shea19

    Shea19 Supporter! Supporter

    Great post, @Jochen1 ! I especially like the first coin you posted with the sacred stone...I haven't seen that type before.

    Here's my example with the emperor wearing a "horn" and with "ELAGAB" in the reverse legend.


    Elagabalus, AR Denarius (19 mm, 3.13), Rome, 220-222. Laureate and draped bust r., wearing 'horn' over forehead./ Rev. SACERD DEI SOLIS ELAGAB Emperor standing r. holding patera over lighted altar in his r. hand and club in his l.; star in field to r. RIC 131
  10. Terence Cheesman

    Terence Cheesman Supporter! Supporter

    Elagabalus Ar Denarius Antioch. 218-219 AD Obv Bust right laureate draped and cuirassed seen from back. Rv, Slow quadriga right bearing the sacred conical stone of Emesa. RIC 195 2.97cgrms 18 mm Photo by W. Hansen elagd2.jpg
  11. PeteB

    PeteB Well-Known Member

    Here is one of mine, pre-Elagabalus, about which I cannot find much, but definitely related to this discussion:
    Macrinus. 217-218 AD. Emesa/Emisa, Syria. Æ (31MM, 22.26 gm, 1h). Obv: AYT K M OΠEΛ.... Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust, right, Rev: Baetyl of El-Gabal (inscribed with eagle with wreath in beak, right?) flanked by parasols within hexastyle temple. Central steps leading to central intercolumniation and inscribed rectangle, upon which the stone sits; trees above/behind left pediment? HNΦ(?) in exergue. Holed in ancient times. BMC__; SNG Cop__.
  12. Julius Germanicus

    Julius Germanicus Well-Known Member

    Awesome writeup!

    Here are my Sestertii of Antoninus III and the love of his life, Aquilia Severa:

    Bildschirmfoto 2020-11-25 um 19.18.31.png

    Bildschirmfoto 2020-11-25 um 19.16.39.png
  13. Valentinian

    Valentinian Supporter! Supporter

    @Jochen1 , that is a wonderful writeup.

    Since Elagabalus used the name "Antoninus Pius" on his coins, it is desirable to have one with "ELAGABAL" somewhere on it, as we have seen above. Here are two:


    Elagabalus as "ANTONINVS PIVS AVG[ustus]". Denarius. 19 mm. 2.84 grams. Bust right with horn. Reverse legend
    Emperor sacrificing right over flaming altar, star in right field with top point longer.
    RIC 131.
    ex Tom McKenna list 96, lot 29, May 1979.


    Elagabalus as "ANTONINVS PIVS FEL[ix] AVG[ustus]".
    Denarius. 17 mm. 2.88 grams.
    Triumphal car, drawn by four horses right, carrying stone on which sits eagle, about it, four parasols
    RIC 195d
    ex NFA Winter Mail Bid Sale December 1989 lot 990. ex Dr. Paul Stadler Szego collection.
  14. Spaniard

    Spaniard Well-Known Member

    @Jochen1........Thoroughly enjoyed the write up as always. Thanks!....

    Elagabalus. 218-222 AD. AR Denarius (3.22 gm, 19mm). Rome mint. Struck 219 AD.
    Obv.: laureate and draped bust right.
    Rev.: Providentia standing left with legs crossed, leaning on column to right, holding rod over globe in right hand and cornucopia in left.
    RIC IV 23; RSC 144
  15. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Great write-up!

    Here's Elagabalus complete with horn and Persian trousers. Is he the first Roman Emperor ever to be depicted wearing trousers?

    Elagabalus AR Denarius, 221-222 AD, Rome Mint. Obv. Laureate, horned & draped bust right, bearded, IMP ANTONINVS PIVS AVG/ Rev. Elagabalus standing left, sacrificing from patera over lit tripod altar, holding branch, star in field left, SVMMVS SACERDOS AVG. RIC IV-2 146, RSC III 276 (bearded), Sear RCV II 7549. 17.71 mm., 3.97 g.

    Elagabalus - bearded with horn - jpg version.jpg

    And here's Aquilia Severa, the Vestal Virgin herself, also with a depiction of a sacrifice on the reverse, and also with a star in the field.

    Aquilia Severa (second wife of Elagabalus), AR Denarius 220-222 AD, Rome mint. Obv: IVLIA AQVILIA SEVERA AVG, Draped bust right/ Rev: CONCORDIA, Concordia standing left, holding patera over lighted altar and double cornucopiae; star in lower right field. RIC IV-2 226 (Elagabalus); RSC III 2. 18 mm., 3.2 g.

    Aquilia Severa jpg version.jpg
    Does anyone have any idea why it looks like smoke is coming out of the cornucopiae on the left?
  16. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    The most likely explanation is a die break.

    DonnaML likes this.
  17. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Thanks! The effect kind of fits the coin.
  18. NewStyleKing

    NewStyleKing Beware of Greeks bearing wreaths Supporter


    The Beatyl(us) of Aphrodite from Palaepaphos, Cyprus
    Aestimare, Marsyas Mike and Jochen1 like this.
  19. 7Calbrey

    7Calbrey Well-Known Member

    The following first coin reveals the spherical sacred stone of Sidon-Phoenicia. It's within the Cart of Astarte, the goddess of love. This Baetyl is thought to be the oldest of sacred stones, or among the most ancient. The coin was struck under Elagabalus. The second coin represents the sacred stone of Zeus. Wildwinds cites that archaeological excavations there have proved that the found blank stones in the outskirts are parts of the Baetyl, and that they turned to be Meteorites. I managed also to post a relevant item. Black Meteorite. CarAstart O         Elagabal.JPG CarAstone R   Sacred.JPG StonStraja R.JPG MetBig 2.7Kg  obverse.JPG
  20. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Fantastic write-up, @Jochen1! Entertaining and educational as always!

    Here are coins from my collection featuring the ancestors and wives of Elagabalus:

    Grandmother Julia Maesa, struck under Elagabalus AD 218-220 at an unknown eastern mint (RIC IV –; Thirion 430; BMCRE p. 540, * note; RSC 7b; CRE 469):

    Maesa FECVNDITAS seated denarius.jpg
    Mother Julia Soaemias, struck under Elagabalus AD 220-222 (RIC 241; BMCRE 45; RSC 8):

    Soaemias VENVS CAELESTIS Standing Denarius.jpg

    Elagabalus himself (note "Parthian trousers"), struck AD 221-222 (RIC 131; BMCRE 225-226; Cohen 246; RCV 7542; Thirion 302):

    Elagabalus SACERD DEI SOLIS ELAGAB denarius.jpg

    1st wife, Julia Paula, struck AD 219-220 (RIC 211; BMCRE 173; RSC 6):

    Julia Paula Concordia seated Denarius Antioch.jpg
    2nd and 4th wife, Julia Aquilia Severa, struck AD 220-222 (RIC 225; BMCRE 336; Cohen 2; Thirion 476; RCV --; CRE 458):

    Aquilia Severa denarius.jpg

    Third wife, Annia Faustina, Pisidia, Isinda, AD 221 (Ex Lindgren I A1322A, ex von Aulock, Pisidia I 833 (Plate coin for both references)):

    Annia Faustina Isinda.jpg
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2020
  21. philologus_1

    philologus_1 Supporter! Supporter

    Great write-up @Jochen1 ! Elagabalus' life makes quite interesting historical fodder for thought and conversation.

    I've shown it before, but despite its poor condition I'm proud enough to own it that I'll re-post. It's pretty scarce (although more "scarce" than "pretty"). ;-)
    Elagabalus. 218-222 AD. Samaria, Neapolis.
    Obv.: AVT K M [AVP-ANTWNI]NOC Laureate, cuirassed bust r., seen from front.
    Rev.: [ΦΛ NEAC ΠO] -C-V-ΠAΛ Frontal horse quadriga bearing Stone of Emesa decorated with eagle (left), and Mount Gerizim with temple, altar, steps, and colonnade (right).
    Diam. 22 mm. Weight: 9.8 gr.
    Attrib.: BM 102. SNG ANS 1006 var. Rosenberger 40. Lindgren I 2433.
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