A teenaged Roman emperor will be considered a transgender woman with “she” used for her personal pronoun by a museum in Hertfordshire.
North Hertfordshire Museum has said it will be “sensitive over how it identifies the third century ruler Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who is better known as Elagabalus and identified as a woman.
The emperor, who ruled from 218-222AD, asked to be called “lady”, according to classical texts cited by the museum as justification for applying female pronouns to Elagabalus.
Cllr Keith Hoskins, executive member for enterprise and arts at North Herts Council, said: “North Herts Museum has one coin of Elagabalus, which we periodically put on display as it is one of a few LGBTQ+ items we have in our collection.
“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.”
Museum policy states pronouns used in displays will be those the individual in question might have used themselves or whatever pronoun “in retrospect” is deemed “appropriate”.
The Hitchin based museum owns a silver denarius minted in the reign of Elagabalus, who ruled until his assassination at the age of 18 in 222AD.
North Hertfordshire Museum pointed to extracts from a classical text of Roman history by Cassius Dio who was a contemporary of Elagabalus and as a senator would have known the emperor in person.
In one part of the work, Dio records Elagabalus as saying: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.”
Another notes the Roman emperor was “bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress and queen”.
Dio served the emperor Severus Alexander who rose to power after Elagabalus’s assassination.
Accounts use Elagabalus’s reputedly “deviant” behaviour to justify his assassination.
Historians have said feminine behaviour would have been a dishonour to Roman men, suggesting accounts of Elagabalus’ life include the worst slurs which could be levelled at a Roman.
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, a Cambridge classics professor, told the Telegraph: “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 due to Elagabalus being Syrian and not Roman, there was racial prejudice in evidence too.
Professor Christian Laes, a classicist at the University of Manchester, told the same publication ancient accounts of the emperor’s life should be taken with a huge pinch of salt.
He added: “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.”
Mr Hoskins argued inaccurate, past translations had referred to Elagabalus as “they”, but historians now know this was the result of the Classical Greek language making no distinction between gender when referring to people in the third person, making many translations inaccurate.
He added: “It is now known through evidence – such as Dio’s text – that Elagabalus most definitely preferred the ‘she’ pronoun and as such this is something we reflect when discussing her in contemporary times, as we believe is standard practice elsewhere.”
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