Crimes of Heliogabalus

I read a lot of history books for my research: I have on the kitchen table right now a volume of the history of the Supreme Court, about 1500 pages, not light reading. So, when I go upstairs in the evening, and read for pleasure, I often read historical fiction.

Most often I read about the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, novels such as the Hornblower novels of Forester or the WWII novels of Alan Furst. But occasionally I venture farther afield, as in The Medicus Codex by Cy Stein, set in Rome in the third century AD.

The main character in this interesting new novel is a Jewish doctor, who arrives in Rome and is promptly robbed, and then gradually finds his way. Surrounding the doctor are a host of other interesting characters: an Ethiopian, a Celt, a local prostitute, a retired Roman legionary. The book moves along rapidly, following the rise and fall and rise and fall of the doctor. The dialogue is crisp.

In addition to the fictional characters, there are perhaps a dozen historical characters, most notably Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, who was emperor from 218 to 222 AD.

The only thing I knew about Elagabalus before reading this book was that he had committed crimes, for in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera the major general claims to be able to recite all “the crimes of Heliogabalus.” I could not have told you what those crimes were, for that is not part of Gilbert and Sullivan. And I suspect that 99% of readers, even very educated readers, know little more about Elagabalus, for he is just not part of our “history” in the way of say Julius Caesar.

Dr. Stein fills in the story considerably, describing how Elagabalus preferred men to women, and rather than hide this, as many Romans did, he flaunted it. Elagabalus managed, however, to anger people with his women as well as his men; for his second wife he took a vestal virgin out the temple, violating one of the few remaining rigid Roman rules. His main crime, however, seems to have been to worship a single god, a black rock, rather than the usual pantheon of Roman gods, and to insist that all Romans join him in his new creed. As Dr. Stein notes in his afterward “the Romans tended to resent foreign cults, and Elagabalus’ historical attempt to replace Jupiter with il-lah hag gabal, the black stone god from Syria, did not sit well with anyone.”

But I should not leave readers with the impression that this is one of those not-very-good historical novels, in which the research overwhelms the characters. No: the balance between story (the fiction) and history (the factual framework) is about right here. A book worth reading.