One World (2023) h/b 338pp £20 (ISBN 9780861542536)

The catchpenny title and garish cover of this book are belied by its serious and scholarly contents (the author is an ancient history don at Oxford). To be sure, S. has to rely on the uncertain and sometimes contradictory light thrown by two contemporary or nearly contemporary historians, Cassius Dio and Herodian, as well as the thoroughly untrustworthy Historia Augusta of a much later date. However, good evidence sometimes comes from numismatic sources or statuary: defaced coins and damaged statues can be proofs of damnatio memoriae. S. himself says that Cassius Dio and Herodian were ‘far closer in their methods to a modern historical novelist than to a modern historian’: doubtless knowingly, S. opens this book in a similar fashion (‘After nightfall they took the boy…’).

The book—which is structured under a dozen main headings, each with up to eight subheadings—opens with the murder of the emperor Caracalla in AD 217, son of the formidable Julia Domna and Septimius Severus: the boy mentioned above would become Heliogabalus. The circumstances of the murder are unclear, but it is probable that Macrinus, the praetorian prefect, had a hand in it: Macrinus, a Mauretanian and former lawyer, no hero in battle, of only equestrian rank, was now proclaimed Emperor, though his Principate—reminiscent of those of Otho and Vitellius in AD 69—was short, lasting barely a year, in which he never visited Rome. Domna, who had been residing in Antioch virtually as Empress, distressed by the murder of her son, and possibly fearing for her own future, began to plot against Macrinus, with her sister Maesa and niece Soaemias. A revolt began to be constructed: S. is good on the locations, names, and (often) commanders of the relevant legions on both sides: as S. says, ‘prosopography is useful to us here…it does involve quite a lot of names of secondary characters’. (We surely see here the influence of Sir Ronald Syme). At first sight, the odds seem to favour Macrinus, but in the event, in the battle at Immae (AD 218), we find Maesa and Soaemias urging on the rebels, Heliogabalus brandishing his sword, the rebels carrying the day, and Macrinus fleeing the scene. After some adventures, Macrinus was captured, and before long was executed: the same fate befell his son, and co-Emperor, Diadumenianus, who was only nine years of age. The way was open for Heliogabalus, son of Soaemias.

Here S. pauses in the narration of events to consider, in chapter 4—really an Excursus, the first of three—were the Romans racist? Cassius Dio wrote that Caracalla ‘combined the fickleness, cowardice and recklessness of Gaul, the harshness and cruelty of Africa, and the cunning of Syria’. If you left your house and the first person you saw was black, it signified bad luck (says S., but no citation). Of course, there were not many black people in the Roman Empire and ‘it is axiomatic (among modern scholars) that the Romans lived Before Color Prejudice’ (a book by Frank Snowden, though S. does not name him), but how does that square with Juvenal’s complaint, iamdudum in Tiberim defluxit Orontes (not cited by S.)? ‘Easterners might appear as possessors of ancient and alien wisdom’—or as shifty hordes. We shall see later how Heliogabalus, as high priest of Elagabal, a cult centred on Emesa, south of Antioch, would convey the black stone (a meteorite) of Elagabal in a chariot to Rome, with the intention of embedding the Emesene god in the Roman state religion, placed in front of Jupiter, according to Cassius Dio; two temples for Elagabal were ordered to be built, one of them on the Palatine.

It will be convenient here to consider chapter 6, ‘Power’, in which S. looks at the basis of the emperor’s imperium: by what right did an emperor rule at all? Were his actions constrained by law? This enables S. to introduce Fergus Millar’s justly famed The Emperor in the Roman World, a truly monumental work. ‘The emperor was what the emperor did’, amounting to the conclusion that the emperor`s role was largely bureaucratic, and essentially passive. This is not a conclusion accepted by S., for whom ‘Petition and Response’ is not enough. Rather, there were four constituencies whose support an emperor needed to cultivate: the senate, the plebs urbana, the army, and the staff of the imperial palace. S expands on these constituencies in what amounts to a strongly argued response to Millar—perhaps more suited to the pages of JRS than a work of popular (but still scholarly) history.

At chapter seven, the halfway point of the book, and having toured the garrisons in the provinces through which he passed, Heliogabalus arrives at Rome in summer AD 219 (and readers who are only ‘seeking a low enjoyment’ to quote A.E. Housman in a markedly different context, may well start here). ‘Religion, sex and social life were the three big life choices of Heliogabalus’, says S., who goes on to recount stories of his social and ‘private’ life, including numerous marriages and donations to the plebs—though as much of this has the Historia Augusta as its source, all or almost all should be taken with large helpings of salt: that chariot-driving was a popular recreation, is attested both by Cassius Dio and Herodian and may be accepted as veridical.

As has been mentioned earlier, Heliogabalus sought to exalt his god Elagabal—as represented by the black stone—above Jupiter, which caused contemporary outrage (and after his death, the ‘god’ was sent back to Emesa, and the temple on the Palatine was rededicated to Jupiter Ultor). An interesting point here is that Heliogabalus was accused of monotheism—or was he? S. has no difficulty in showing this to be a fiction: only in the 4th century AD, when Christianity was the state religion, was Heliogabalus` ‘monotheism’ invented. On another matter, however, evidence abounds: Heliogabalus bled cities of the empire dry, by continuous exactions, notably for his four (or may it have been seven?) weddings. Understandably, Heliogabalus was unpopular in the provinces.

Your reviewer sees little need to sum up chapter ten, ‘Sex’, beyond quoting S., who writes that Heliogabalus ‘drove a chariot through the acceptable sexual behaviour of his time’, whereas if ‘it is true that Julia Domna was accused of adultery, it did not convince her husband, Septimius Severus’ (though her sister Maesa branded both her daughters adulteresses, to claim Caracalla’s paternity for her two grandsons). Suffice it to say that the emperor did not choose his companions for their intellectual attributes: S. here (one might punningly say) never hesitates to call a spado a spado, though Heliogabalus only wanted to be castrated (and to be forcibly feminised) and danced among the castrated priests to worship the Great Mother.

Heliogabalus alienated the senate, the people, the army and the familia Caesaris. His days were numbered, though S. has to take the reader through a long and complicated account of how there was sufficient opposition finally to bring about his brutal assassination and that of his mother Soaemias in AD 222, in a coup organised by his grandmother Maesa (whose influence throughout his life was wide-ranging); the butchery 1700 years later of Mussolini and Clara Petacci was scarcely less barbarian. He can have been no more than 18 years old. That is not the end of the story: in the Introduction S. discusses Alma-Tadema’s notable painting, The Roses of Heliogabalus, and he returns to it, with full iconographic detail, in chapter 13, ‘The Afterlife of Heliogabalus. The story of the suffocation of dinner guests by a torrent of roses released from a false ceiling, is, we can be confident, wholly fictitious. The reproduction of the painting in the book is regrettably monochrome—for one in full colour, see (e.g.) Wikipedia. The painting itself was a product of the Decadent Movement, which made (says S.) much use of the Historia Augusta. Who composed this work, and why? The answer, says S. may lie in the ‘sly’ words of Sir Ronald Syme, who believed that the author was a schoolmaster, who, sick of the mockery of his pupils and the contempt of the wider world, decided to get his own back with an inventive literary fraud.

The book contains a map of the Roman Empire, with useful detail of the most relevant area (in today`s Syria); there is a simplified genealogical table, and a five-page list, with occasional commentary, of recommendations for further reading under various headings. A list of 21 images is provided, though detail is sometimes not quite clear (at least to your reviewer`s eyes), and attributions of subjects to (e.g.) Heliogabalus is often far from certain.

S. has skilfully managed to combine scholarship with lively readability. The reader is always kept informed where certainty cannot be attained—a frequent occurrence, given the poor quality of the relevant historians—though narrative flow is not lost.

Colin Leach