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  • From ‘Filthy Catamite’ to ‘Queer Icon’: Elagabalus and the Politics of Sexuality (1960–1975)
  • Mark Nugent (bio)

Elagabalus. The name evokes an image of a depraved sybarite “treading in silver dust and sand of gold, his head crowned with a tiara and his clothes studded with jewels, working at women’s tasks in the midst of his eunuchs, calling himself Empress and bedding every night with a new Emperor, picked for choice from among his barbers, scullions, and charioteers” (Huysmans 1959, 45).1 Such portraits of Elagabalus derive, ultimately, from the accounts of the emperor’s reign (218–22 c.e.) provided by Dio Cassius, Herodian, and the author of the Historia Augusta. These historians represent Elagabalus as an oriental despot prone to extravagance of all sorts and as a religious fanatic determined to impose a Syrian god upon the Roman populace.2 They also report that the emperor cultivated a feminine appearance; that he married three women (including a Vestal Virgin) and one man; that he had a sexual predilection for well-endowed males; and that he asked his court physicians to construct a vagina in his body.3 Elagabalus, if these sources are to be credited,4 was an emperor gone wild.

The exploits of bad emperors have exercised a potent fascination down through the centuries, but different forms of imperial misbehavior have drawn attention depending upon what political and moral anxieties happened to be ascendant in a given cultural moment. Moderns have tended to regard, for instance, Elagabalus’s taste for gastronomical novelties as little more than a sideshow curiosity, but have seized upon the emperor’s effeminacy and sexual ‘deviancy’ as significant factors behind his ultimate ruin.5 This tendency relates directly to the prominence that gender and sexuality have assumed, as sites of political contestation, in modern Western societies. Within this particular cultural climate, Elagabalus has become an iconic figure through whom ideologies of gender and sexuality can be naturalized, contested, and renegotiated. Elagabalus, indeed, has come to occupy an especially complex position in the [End Page 171] modern imagination, because the historical sources, in reviling the emperor as a gender and sexual deviant, enable a variety of different contemporary identifications: modern readers of Elagabalus’s lives can identify the emperor as ‘homosexual,’ ‘bisexual,’ or ‘transgendered.’6 All three of these identifications involve a certain violence to the historical sources, but all can nonetheless claim to be grounded in ancient “evidence.”

This article examines representations of Elagabalus in three texts published between 1960 and 1975: Alfred Duggan’s Family Favourites, Kyle Onstott and Lance Horner’s Child of the Sun, and Martin Duberman’s Elagabalus. Inasmuch as the publication dates of the selected texts span a formative period in the development of modern sexual politics, they can serve as an ideal site for examining different representations of Elagabalus during a time of substantial political tension and cultural change. In all three texts, Elagabalus emerges as a ‘queer icon’: a non-heterosexual representation that performs significant ideological work in either naturalizing or challenging popular constructs of the ‘queer’ (not in every case strictly ‘homosexual’) male. This study, then, delineates the different ways that representations of Elagabalus contributed to the politics of sexuality between the years 1960 and 1975.

Family Favourites; or, “It Was All at Bottom Harmless Enough”

The earliest of the three texts is Alfred Duggan’s Family Favourites. Published in 1960,7 this novel belongs to a line of quality historical fictions that the Oxford-educated author composed in rapid succession during the later years of his life.8 Writing a novel about Elagabalus was an audacious move for Duggan,9 who had cultivated a broad-based readership by the early 1960s (Waugh 1983, 626), and Family Favourites appears—if reviews in the popular press are any indication10—to have disconcerted that public, especially in the author’s Britain.11 Although most critics considered Family Favourites to be an artistic success, a number expressed reservations about Duggan’s choice and handling of material. In a review for The Times Literary Supplement (14 October 1960), for instance, Harold Beaver wrote: “[W]hy bring [Elagabalus] back on to the stage? Why . . . does Mr. Duggan turn...


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