British Museum Says Roman Emperor Was Trans

Eighteen centuries after the reign of Roman Emperor Elagabalus, the North Hertfordshire Museum in the U.K. is now saying he is transgender and, as such, will be referred to with she/her pronouns by the museum.

The museum says the change in referring to Elagabalus, who ruled the Roman Empire from 218 to 222 AD, aligns with the museum’s policy, which emphasizes using pronouns that the individual might have chosen for themselves or that are deemed appropriate in retrospect.

Keith Hoskins, Executive Member for Enterprise and Arts at North Herts Council, explained the museum’s approach, stating, “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.”

“We try to be sensitive to identifying pronouns for people in the past, as we are for people in the present,” Hoskins added.

This decision is based on the work of contemporary historian Cassius Dio, who documented that Elagabalus was often referred to as a wife, mistress, and even queen. Dio recounted an instance where Elagabalus asked one of his lovers not to address him as “Lord,” but rather as a “Lady.”

The infamous emperor was also said to have expressed a desire for female genitalia.

While North Hertfordshire Museum says it is basing its decision on history, interpretations of these historical accounts have varied among historians, some of whom have pointed out that Rome, during Elagabalus’s time, adhered to a patriarchal societal structure that lacked the modern concept of any gender distinct from the one assigned to a person at birth.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, a Cambridge classics professor, shed light on this in a conversation with The Telegraph, saying, “The Romans didn’t have our idea of ‘trans’ as a category.”

According to him, accusing a man of behaving “as a woman” was seen as a severe insult against a man in that era.

Wallace-Hadrill also suggested that racism might have played a role in the way Elagabalus’s identity was perceived, as they were of Syrian origin, not Roman.