Elagabalus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus)
A museum in the United Kingdom has identified the Roman emperor Elagabalus to be a transgender woman.
The North Hertfordshire Museum in Hitchin, a town north of London, said that the decision was prompted by classical texts that allege the emperor once said, “call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” The words were written by Cassisus Dio, a well-known Roman historian and administrator.
The museum has decided that it will now refer to Elagabalus, who ruled from 218 to 222 AD, with the pronouns she/her.
“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,” said Keith Hoskins, executive member for Enterprise and Arts at North Herts Council, which helps run the museum, according to the Telegraph. “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.”
But experts are mixed on the museum’s decision. “This is as tricky [an] area in the ancient world as it is now. What is said by Romans about Elagabalus powerfully reminds us that debates about the boundaries between male and female go back thousands of years (we are not the first generation to have those debates),” Mary Beard, author of Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World, wrote to TIME.
More From TIME
The museum has a coin of Elagabalus in its LGBTQ+ collection. Here’s what to know about their decision.
The controversy behind the decision
Elagabalus was an interesting figure in Roman history. While it is known that the emperor married men, and women on separate occasions, there is no consensus on the emperor’s pronouns.
The museum points to statements made by Dio, who wrote a book on the history of Rome and was alive during Elagabalus’s reign, as evidence of the emperor’s transgenderism. They also reference texts that allege Elagabalus asked whether a “surgical procedure could make him female,” according to a blogpost by the North Hertfordshire Museum.
Some experts note that those texts were written when the emperor was an early teenager, and that Dio might have been referring to Elagabalus with female characteristics, or alleging that the emperor was “termed wife, mistress and queen” as a way to criticize the emperor’s rule. “References to Elagabalus wearing makeup, wigs and removing body hair may have been written in order to undermine the unpopular emperor,” Shushma Malik, a Cambridge university classics professor, told the BBC.
Beard notes that there were other emperors who were referred to as women by Dio, such as Nero. “Dio puts in the mouth of the British rebel Boudicca that Nero is a woman,” she writes.
Others, like Hoskins, say that the museum is right to recognize that Elagabalus preferred the pronoun she/her because the text explicitly notes the emperor’s preferred pronoun use.
Either way, Beard reminds TIME that “there were ancient debates about the boundaries between male and female, but we can’t apply our own modern categories to the ancient world.”
The North Hertfordshire Museum did not immediately respond to requests for comment.News Related