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Usurpers under Elagabalus

Phoebe B. Peacock
Library of Congress


Historical facts about the usurpers of Elagabalus' power are gleaned from cameo appearances, tiny bits of information scattered in a few ancient literary sources, and from minimal mention in selected modern commentaries that include references to ancient inscriptions and coins. The ancient sources are few and lack objective viewpoints preferred for historical chronicles. They do, however, provide a general picture of the third century and a few details that are specific to the individuals who led rebellions during the reign of Elagabalus. The most helpful of the ancient sources is Roman History, by a Greek senator, Cassius Dio, a contemporary of the subjects of this article. His work, covering the period 753 B.C. to A.D. 229, was written in Greek during the reigns of Elagabalus and Severus Alexander. Another third-century source, also written in Greek, is Herodian's History of the Empire After Marcus. The biography of Elagabalus that is included in Scriptores Historiae Augustae is the only ancient source written in Latin. As part of the SHA its accuracy is subject to the criticism and controversy surrounding that collection of biographies. It is viewed by modern scholars as historical propaganda, written by one person of the fourth century, rather than by individual contributors. [[1]] In addition to Dio, Herodian, and the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, minor historians such as Sextus Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Orosius, and Zosimusoffer only bits of information. Coinage provides helpful evidence of the chronology. Official imperial propaganda of the period is documented by pictures and words on the  coins issued by various imperial mints. [[2]] A clearer picture of the period is better derived by amalgamating the literary evidence with what is provided on ancient coins. The literature, often biased toward those opposing the ruling regime, is tempered by emperor-sanctioned propaganda as depicted on the coins. [[3]] Epigraphical evidence contemporary with Elagabalus is far less helpful than the coinage. Inscriptions surviving on stone are often too illegible to convey the original intent. [[4]]


The fifth-century historian Polemius Silvius names Seleucus along with Uranius, Sallustius, and Taurinus, as a usurper of power during the reign of Elagabalus. [[5]]The full identity of Seleucus is uncertain. He may have been Julius Antonius Seleucus, the governor of Moesia, or, he may have been M. Flavius Vitellius Seleucus, the consul in 221 A.D. [[6]]


Uranius Antonius came from a background of servitude and proclaimed himself emperor of Rome, but the period of his power-grab has not been established. [[7]] Polemius Silvius names Uranius as a usurper during the reign of Elagabalus. [[8]] Zosimus, on the other hand, writes that Uranius rebelled during the reign of Severus Alexander. [[9]] It is noteworthy, however,  that the evidence from contemporary coins places Uranius as a usurper several decades after the reign of Elagabalus,  in 253-254 A.D. [[10]]

Gellius Maximus

Although Gellius Maximus was a lowly physician's son, he achieved the status of Roman senator. His ambitious nature was further demonstrated when he became an officer in the Fourth Legion (Scythica) in Syria.[[11]] In 219 A.D. he took advantage of a period of unrest during the reign of Elagabalus and declared himself emperor. Elagabalus, however, quelled the revolt and ordered Gellius Maximus put to death. [[12]]


Verus was also an ambitious rank-climber who made his own path to power. From the status of Centurion, he succeeded in becoming a Roman Senator. He used the Roman military as a means to advance and he, too, became an officer in the eastern provinces. As Commander of the Third Legion (Gallica), he led soldiers who were becoming increasingly disenchanted with Elagabalus' rule during the winter of 218-219 A.D. [[13]] When his legion rebelled Verus proclaimed himself emperor in 219 A.D. [[14]] But this adventure came to an end when Elagabalus ordered the execution of Verus and dispersed the Third Legion, a military unit that had originally supported his reign. He also took the ius Italicum from the legion's central headquarters, the city of Tyre, and canceled the city's designation of metropolis. [[15]]

Ancient Sources

Cassius Dio. Cassius Dio Cocceianus (edited by U. F. Boissevain. Berlin, 1895-1931)

Cassius Dio. Roman History. Dio's Rome (translated by H.B. Foster. New York, 1906)

Eutropius. Breviarum ab urbe condita. (Stuttgart, 1975)

Herodian. Ab Excessu Divi Marci Libri. (edited by E. Stavenhagen. Leipzig, 1922)

Herodian in two volumes (edited by C.R. Whittaker. Cambridge, 1970)

Histoire Auguste (Scriptores Historiae Augustae. Latin and French. Paris, 1994)

Orosius. Historiae. Patrologia Latina database [computer file CD-ROM], vol. 3.

Polemius Silvius. Laterculus. Chronica Minora: Saec. IV. V. VI. VII (edited by T. Mommsen. Berlin, 1892)

Prosopographia Imperii Romani Saec. I. II. III (Berlin, 1897-1898)

Sextus Aurelius Victor. Liber de Caesaribus (Leipzig, 1966)

Zosimus. Historia nova (translated by J. Buchanan and J. Davis. San Antonio, 1967)

Modern Sources

Baynes, N. The Historia Augusta: Its Date and Purpose (Oxford, 1925)

Badel, C. L'Empire romain au IIIe siècle après J.-C. (Paris, 1998)

Barbieri, G. L'Albo senatorio da Settimio Severo a Carino, 193-285 (Rome, 1952)

Brauer, G. C. The Young Emperors, Rome, A.D. 193-244 (New York, 1967)

British Museum. Dept. of Coins and Medals. Catalogue of the Greek coins of Phoenicia (London, 1910)

Butler, O.F. Studies in the life of Heliogabalus (New York, 1908)

Catalogue of the Greek Coins in the British Museum (edited by G.F. Hill et al. Bologna, 1964)

Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum (edited by H. Mattingly. London, 1923-1950)

Coriat, J.-P. Le prince legislateur (Rome, 1997)

Delande, F. "La fonction des "Vies secondaires' dans les biographies antonines de L'Histoire Auguste," CEA 1993 (28) 135-144.

Fontaine, F. Douze autres Césars (Paris, 1985)

Grant, M. History of Rome (New York, 1978)

Grant, M. Roman history from coins (Cambridge, 1968)

Grant, M. Roman imperial money (London, 1954)

Grant, M. The Severans (New York, 1996)

Hay, J. S. The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus (London, 1911)

Kroll, W. "Geillius 16" in i Pauly-Wissova, Realencyclopädie (1912) 7.1001.

Lewis, N. The Roman principate, 27 B.C-285 A.D. (Toronto, 1974)

Miller, F. The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337 (Cambridge, MA, 1993)

Mommsen, T. The History of Rome (Glencoe, IL, 1957)

Notitia dignitatum (Berlin, 1876)

Sanders, H.A. Roman history and mythology (London, 1910)

Stein, A. "Seleukos 32" in Pauly-Wissova, Realencyclopädie (1923) 2A.1248.

Syme, R. Ammianus and the Historia Augusta (Oxford, 1968)

Thirion, M. Le monnayage d'Elagabale, 218-222 (Bruxelles, 1968)

Michel, A. Heliogabale et le sacre du soleil (Paris, 1985)

Thompson, G.R. "Elagabalus, Priest-Emperor of Rome." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kansas, 1972.

Wotton, W. The History of Rome, from the death of Antoninus Pius, to the death of Severus Alexander (London, 1701)


[[1]] Baynes, p. 57.

[[2]] Thompson, p. 21; BMC, V, xlvi.

[[3]] Grant, M. Roman history from coins, p. 16-17.

[[4]] Thompson, p. 21.

[[5]] Prosopographia Imperii Romani II (1897), p. 298, no. 29; Polemius Silvius. Laterulus I.5; see Pauly-Wissowa #32.

[[6]] Stein. "Seleukos 32" in Pauly Wissova, Realencyclopädie (1923) 2A.1948; Thomas, p. 93; Prosopographia Imperii Romani III (1898), p.193, no. 253; cf.Barbieri, p. 400.

[[7]] Zosimus I.12.

[[8]] Polemius Silvius. Laterculus in Mommsen, Chronica minora, I, 521; Prosopographia Imperii Romani III (1898), p. 400 no. 675.

[[9]] Zosimus. I.12; Thompson, p. 92-93.

[[10]] Barbieri, p. 399-401; Thompson, p. 93.

[[11]] Dio 79.7; Prosopographia Imperii Romani II (1897), p.115 no. 77; Thompson, p. 225; Wooton, p. 385; Kroll.

[[12]] Dio. 79.7.

[[13]] Prosopographia Imperii Romani Saec. III (1898), p. 406 no. 292; Dio. 80.7; Herodian 5.

[[14]] Dio 80.7.

[[15]] Catalogue of the Greek Coins in the British Museum (edited by G.F. Hill) Phoenicia, p. 275, cxxvi; Thompson, p. 92.

Copyright (C) 2002, Phoebe B. Peacock. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Phoebe B. Peacock.

Updated: 15 June 2002

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