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A UK museum has reclassified a Roman emperor as a trans woman

The decision highlights a museum’s responsibility to constantly question expected truths. 

The North Hertfordshire Museum isn’t necessarily a well-known institution. Located in a quaint town hall in the south of England, the galleries fade in the shadow of major British cultural spaces.

But this small historical museum has put itself firmly on the map after reclassifying a 3rd-century Roman Emperor as a trans woman.

Roman Emperor Elagabalus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) ruled in Rome between 203-222. Now, the museum will refer to her with she/her pronouns, in keeping with company policy that pronouns used in its displays will be those ‘the individual in question might have used themselves’. (For the purposes of this article, I will be doing the same).

Of course, there’s no definitive way of knowing how Elagabalus would have referred to herself on a day-to-day basis.  But the Hertfordshire Museum were encouraged in their decision by the texts of Cassius Dio, who chronicled the history of Rome.

Dio wrote that Elagabalus was termed ‘wife, mistress, and queen’ and told one lover ‘Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady’. There are even suggestions that Elagabalus had female genitalia fashioned for her.

While the emperor’s new pronouns may come as a shock to many, this isn’t the first time Elagabalus has been a figurehead of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Hertfordshire Museum has a coin of the Roman leader which is often displayed amongst other LGBTQ+ items in its collection. The museum also works closely with Stonewall to ensure these displays are as up to date as possible.

The debate over Elagabalus’ gender identity has been long-standing in the academic world, and continues to split expert opinion.

‘There are many examples in Roman literature of times where effeminate language or words were used as a way of criticising or weakening a political figure’ said Dr Shushma Malik, a Cambridge university professor of Classics.

And Elagabalus was no stranger to criticism during her reign. The emperor gained a reputation as a promiscuous and sexually deviant leader during her time in power, which made her a wildly controversial figure across the empire.

However, councillor Keith Hoskins has said texts like Dio’s provide evidence 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’.

Unsurprisingly, the news of Elagabalus’ trans identity has drawn a mixed response online, where many are questioning the validity of the museum’s decision.

‘Is there evidence of this?’ said one user, while another echoed Dr Malik’s argument that the term ‘lady’ was unlikely to have been used literally at the time of Elagabalus’ reign.

Others were simply humoured by the decision and felt it unnecessary.

However, the decision highlights a key truth about museums; that they are vital to our understanding of history, and thus our perception of our own identity.

Museums often serve as repositories of collective memory, influencing our perception of self and community.

In the UK, where cultural artefacts from across the globe are stored and displayed, we often feel betrayed or confused when the idea of the past we’re presented with is suddenly changed.

But it is also the responsibility of museums to constantly question accepted historical truths. This way, we are always given the most accurate information possible.

Because history is written by the winners, the facts we are presented with almost always originate from a white, cis-gendered male. It’s crucial that institutions unpick these stories so that voices of all kinds can be heard and understood.

As Western society grapples with questions of identity and representation, museums become battlegrounds where the narratives of the past are contested. The reclassification of Elagabalus forces us to reconsider the ways in which historical figures have been traditionally pigeonholed, inviting a more inclusive and nuanced approach to understanding their lives.

The North Hertfordshire Museum’s decision to reclassify Roman Emperor Elagabalus as a trans woman sparks important conversations about the role of museums in shaping historical narratives.

As society evolves, so must our understanding of the past. The controversy surrounding this bold move emphasises the challenges museums face in balancing historical accuracy with contemporary perspectives. Because as society evolves, so must our understanding of the past.