In a thought-provoking twist of history, the North Hertfordshire Museum in England has ignited a spirited debate by asserting that the famous third-century Roman emperor, Elagabalus, known also as Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, may have been transgender. This daring declaration, made by the museum in an act of inclusivity, has sent ripples through the historical community and beyond.

Elagabalus, a name synonymous with the decadence and eccentricity of ancient Rome, is now at the center of an intriguing discussion about gender identity. The museum has chosen to use “she/her” pronouns when referring to the emperor, a decision that has stirred controversy and divided opinions.

The North Hertfordshire Museum’s decision is exemplified by a display featuring a coin from Emperor Elagabalus’ era, where the leader is referred to as “she.” This coin will also be a part of other exhibits related to the LGBT+ community. However, critics argue that the council’s decision is founded on shaky historical sources.

The primary source behind this claim is an account by Roman senator and historian Cassius Dio, who alleged that the emperor once told a lover to “call me not lord, for I am a lady.” Additional accounts from Dio suggest that Elagabalus was referred to as “wife, mistress, and queen” and even requested the creation of fake female genitalia. Nevertheless, the reliability of Dio’s accounts has been hotly debated, with some speculating that he had a motive to tarnish Elagabalus’s reputation in favor of his successor, Severus Alexander.

Cambridge Classics Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill highlights the challenges in applying modern concepts of gender to ancient Rome, stating, “The Romans didn’t have our idea of ‘trans’ as a category, but they used accusations of sexual behavior ‘as a woman’ as one of the worst insults against men.” Historian Tom Holland echoes this sentiment, emphasizing the uncertainty surrounding the historical accounts related to Elagabalus.

However, Liberal Democrat councilor Keith Hoskins, an executive member for arts on the council, remains resolute in supporting the museum’s decision. He boldly asserts that Elagabalus would have preferred to be addressed with female pronouns. Hoskins states, “Elagabalus most definitely preferred the she pronoun, and as such, this is something we reflect when discussing her in contemporary times.” Despite criticism from prominent historians, Hoskins emphasizes the importance of respecting historical figures’ chosen pronouns.

The controversy surrounding this decision reflects a broader trend in modern society, where there is an increasing effort to reevaluate and redefine historical figures within the context of modern understanding. Some conservatives have criticized these attempts as anachronistic, arguing that imposing contemporary labels on historical figures may distort their true essence.

In a world where historical accuracy and modern sensibilities often collide, the North Hertfordshire Museum’s bold stance on Elagabalus’s gender identity has ignited a compelling debate that will undoubtedly continue to captivate the public’s imagination. As we navigate this complex intersection of history, identity, and interpretation, the legacy of Emperor Elagabalus remains a fascinating and enigmatic chapter in the annals of ancient Rome.