Growing up in the city of Emesa, in Syria, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus served in the priesthood of the sun deity known as Elagablus. After defeating Emperor Macrinus, Antoninus set off to Rome, taking with him a conical black stone (perhaps a meteorite), a cult symbol of the sun god that is depicted on various coins of the period. The historian Herodian wrote: “This stone is worshiped as though it were sent from heaven.” Envisioning himself as the incarnation of the god, Antoninus called himself Elagablus. The new emperor built a temple on the Palatine, where he made daily sacrifices of cattle and sheep to the god, whom (much to the consternation of the Roman people) he tried to establish “before Jupiter himself.” Antoninus/Elagablus went on to offend more Romans by marrying and deflowering one of the Vestal Virgins, Aquilia Severa. In 219 C.E., apparently after an unsuccessful attempt to marry the Roman statue of Pallas (Athena, which Aeneas was said to have carried to Rome from Troy), Elagablus officially married the moon goddess Urania (Carthaginian Tanit, more or less the equivalent of the Mesopotamian fertility goddess, Ishtar). The bride was probably represented in the form of an aniconic stone imported from Carthage.

In judging the character and actions of Elagablus, we need to remain aware of the prejudices of the ancient writers who criticized him (primarily Herodian, Dio Cassius and Aelius Lampridius). Indeed, they do not provide us with an evenhanded portrait either of the emperor or of Syrian religion. In any event, stories of the sun god may well have influenced Avercius, especially given the reference to a shepherd who (like the sun) sees everywhere.