A Roman emperor has been declared transgender by a UK museum, The Telegraph can reveal.
The North Hertfordshire Museum has said it will be “sensitive” to the purported pronoun preferences of the third century AD ruler Elagabalus. The emperor will be treated as a transgender woman and referred to as she.
Elagabalus has been given female pronouns on the basis of classical texts that claim the emperor asked to be called “lady”, but some historians believe these accounts may simply have been a Roman attempt at character assassination.
Information on museum policy states that pronouns used in displays will be those “the individual in question might have used themselves” or whatever pronoun “in retrospect, is appropriate”.
The council-run museum, in Hitchin, owns a silver denarius minted in the reign of Elagabalus, who ruled Rome from 218AD until his assassination, aged 18, in 222AD, and the coin has been used in LGBT-themed displays.
In displays featuring the coin, information about it and Elagabalus, the ruler will be referred to as she.
The museum consults the LGBT charity Stonewall and the LGBT wing of the trade union Unison on best practice for its displays, to ensure that “our displays, publicity and talks are as up-to-date and inclusive as possible”.
Keith Hoskins, Liberal Democrat councillor and executive member for arts at the Lib Dem and Labour coalition-run North Herts Council, said: “Elagabalus most definitely preferred the she pronoun, and as such this is something we reflect when discussing her in contemporary times.
“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.”
The pronoun choice is based on an account by Cassius Dio, a Roman chronicler, who wrote that Elagabalus was “termed wife, mistress and queen”, told one lover “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady”, and asked for female genitalia to be fashioned for him.
However, Cassius Dio served the emperor Severus Alexander, who took the throne following the assassination of Elagabalus, and the accounts use his reputedly deviant behaviour as a justification for his assassination.
Historians have said feminine behaviour would have been a dishonour to men in Rome, and suggested that accounts of Elagabalus’ life are replete with the worst accusations that could be levelled at a Roman because they are character assassinations.
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, a Cambridge classics professor, said: “The Romans didn’t have our idea of ‘trans’ as a category, but they used accusations of sexual behaviour ‘as a woman’ as one of the worst insults against men.”
He added that, as Elagabalus was Syrian and not Roman, “there’s racial prejudice going on there too”.
Prof Christian Laes, a University of Manchester classicist, said ancient accounts of the emperor’s life should be taken with “a huge pinch of salt”, adding: “Most of this is related to the aristocratic and senatorial disdain for the emperor’s oriental origins and beliefs.
“As regards trans, this was of course never seen as a category by the Romans. But it remains the case that in times of troubles and crisis, so-called transgressors of the sexual norms were subject to scapegoating.”