L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A sweet-scented demise - The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888

This remarkable painting measures four and a third by seven feet (132.7 × 214.4 centimeters). It depicts the Roman emperor Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, at a lavish and deadly banquet. The Emperor reclines on a platform, crowned with laurels, cup in hand, surrounded by other favored guests. A bronze statue of Dionysus, based on the Ludovisi Dionysus, looms behind, while a young woman, wearing the leopard skin of a maenad, entertains the group by playing the double pipes. To the left of the Emperor looks to be a man dressed as a woman, perhaps meant to represent one of Elagabalus' male lovers, maybe even Hierocles, the former slave and charioteer he considered his husband. (Though it appears Elagabalus was the one more likely to dress as a woman; he's been characterized by some modern writers as transgender.)

The real drama, of course, is happening below, as the less favored guests are literally being smothered by deep drifts of pink rose petals falling from a false ceiling. The figures are shown in varying degrees of cognizance, from obliviousness to terror to resignation. The painting depicts a (most likely invented) episode taken from the Historia Augusta. Although the Latin refers to "violets and other flowers", Alma-Tadema depicts the Emperor's unsuspecting guests being suffocated by rose petals. The original reference is this:
Oppressit in tricliniis versatilibus parasitos suos violis et floribus, sic ut animam aliqui efflaverint, cum erepere ad summum non possent.
In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his guests in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.
Suetonius noted that another completely disreputable emperor, Nero, threw exactly the same sort of banquet, and Petronius described a similar ceiling in the house of Trimalchio in his Satyricon.

The painting was commissioned by Sir John Aird, 1st Baronet for £4,000 in 1888. As roses were out of season in Britain at the time, Alma-Tadema is reputed to have had rose petals sent from the south of France each week during the four months it took to complete the work. The finished work was exhibited at the Royal Academy that same year. Aird died in 1911, and the painting was inherited by his son Sir John Richard Aird, 2nd Baronet. Alma-Tadema died the following year and his reputation declined markedly in the decades after his death. Following the death of the 2nd Baronet in 1934, the painting was sold by his son, the 3rd Baronet, in 1935 for £483. It failed to sell at Christie's in 1960, though eventually it was acquired by Allen Funt, the producer of Candid Camera, and a collector of Alma-Tadema's at a time when the artist remained very unfashionable. In 1973, after Funt experienced financial difficulties, he sold the painting along with the rest of his collection at Sotheby's, achieving a price of £28,000. The painting was sold once again, in 1993, by American collector Frederick Koch at Christie's in London, where it fetched £1,500,000. It is currently owned by the Spanish-Mexican billionaire businessman and art collector Juan Antonio Pérez Simón.

The artist's portrayal of the Emperor seems hardly likely; the subject was only 18 at the time of his murder. Read more about the subject below.


Adapted from Wikipedia:
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, called Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus (circa 203-4 – March 11, 222), was Roman emperor from 218 to 222. A member of the Severan dynasty, he was Syrian, the second son of Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus. In his early youth he served as a priest of the god Elagabalus - the Syro-Roman sun god - in the hometown of his mother's family, Emesa. As a private citizen, he was probably named Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, but upon becoming emperor he took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. He was called Elagabalus only after his death.

In 217, the emperor Caracalla was assassinated and replaced by his Praetorian prefect, Marcus Opellius Macrinus. Caracalla's maternal aunt, Julia Maesa, successfully instigated a revolt among the Legio III Gallica to have her eldest grandson (and Caracalla's cousin), Elagabalus, declared emperor in his place. Macrinus was defeated at the Battle of Antioch the following year and Elagabalus, barely 14 years old, became emperor, initiating a reign remembered mainly for sex scandals and religious controversy. 
Historians record that Elagabalus showed a reckless disregard for Roman religious traditions and sexual taboos. He replaced the traditional head of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter, with the deity Elagabalus, of whom he had been high priest, and he forced leading members of Rome's government to participate in religious rites celebrating this deity, over which he personally presided. Elagabalus married and divorced five women. The Historia Augusta claims that he also married a man named Zoticus, an athlete from Smyrna, in a public ceremony at Rome. According to Cassius Dio, his most stable relationship seems to have been with his chariot driver, a blond former slave from Caria named Hierocles, whom he referred to as his husband. Elagabalus lavished favours on his male courtiers, most of whom were presumed to be his lovers. And Cassius Dio also reported that he would paint his eyes, epilate his body hair, and wear wigs before prostituting himself in taverns, brothels, and even in the imperial palace. His behavior estranged and enraged the Praetorian Guard, the Senate, and the common people alike. Amidst growing opposition, a plot was devised by his grandmother, Julia Maesa - who had previously engineered his rise to the throne - and carried out by disaffected members of the Praetorian Guard. Elagabalus, just 18 years old, was assassinated in 222, his head cut off, and his body thrown in the Tiber.
Elagabalus developed a reputation among his contemporaries for extreme eccentricity, decadence, and zealotry. This tradition has persisted, and with writers of the early modern age he suffers one of the worst reputations among Roman emperors. Gibbon, for example, wrote that Elagabalus "abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury". According to Niebuhr, "The name Elagabalus is branded in history above all others" because of his "unspeakably disgusting life". The sources for his personal and public history are far from reliable, and more recent historians have cast doubt on the more outrageous accusations made against the young emperor.


  1. Breathtaking! Oh my God that was visually amazing!

  2. Excellent. Gibbon was not impressed, writing "corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune, abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury, and soon found disgust and satiety in the midst of his enjoyments". No wonder Lawrence Alma-Tadema got onto this theme (The Roses of Heliogabalus). As an artist he was always over-the-top in both size and content.

  3. I know some critics find his work to be kitsch, but I find Alma-Tadema's work to be lovely and luscious.

  4. A tour de force, in terms of detail. Otherwise, perfectly hideous.
    Still--the background information was fascinating.

  5. Astounds me his work would ever fall out of favor. But even the original price astounded me! £4,000 in 1888 was a LOT of MONEY; approx $550,000 today! Roses sent from France.....just amazing. back before fedex!

  6. It's not fair that it's so hard to figure out how to thank you for this amazing and unique blog. I've spent hours here, looking up both people I know about and many I've never heard of, and I've yet to be disappointed. There are more beautiful images here and more things to think about/learn about than on any other site I know. Once in a while it can be frustrating -- I just discovered that a copy of Cecil Beaton's "Ashcombe" will set me back more than 200 bucks, and I was dead set on reading it. Well, some day. Thanks so much for all your work, your phenomenal eye, and your inspiring frame of reference. Deeply appreciated.

    1. Golly, what a lovely thing to read! You've put me near tears. Thank you, Timothy. This blog is the very definition of a "labor of love" for me; there are definitely other things I should be doing - like painting! - but this has all been such a wonderful outlet. I get to share whatever excites me, without worrying if anyone else will feel the same, whether anyone will care at all. But then, kind folks like you - do - enjoy it. And that's so very validating. I really appreciate it. Thank you again for your kind words. : )

  7. its hard for me to comprehend that a human being could create such a work of art.