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Object of Intrigue: The Roses of Heliogabalus

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The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (Image: Wikipedia/Public domain)

The Bachelor is back, which means the rose ceremony has returned. Every episode, an increasingly smaller group of increasingly similar-looking women shall be summoned before some self-important smooth guy, who will dole out one flower each to the most attention-getting among them.

It’ll be drawn-out. It’ll be awkward. It will be dramatic, and, inevitably, cruel. But this TV-friendly floral fussing is a big bouquet of nothing compared to the most messed-up rose ceremony ever documented: A lethal third-century Roman spectacle in which multiple women are said to have asphyxiated under a torrent of rose petals dumped on them by a tyrannical teenage emperor. 

The Roses of Heliogabalus, shown above, is an 1888 painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema that depicts the (probably fictional) proceedings. Alma-Tadema, painted it in London during the last few months of 1887, when it was too cold for roses to be blooming. In order to be able to paint the petals with the precision he demanded, he arranged for roses to be shipped from the French Riviera every week for as long as it took to complete the artwork. 

That’s sort of neat, but the much better story here belongs to the real third-century Roman emperor who orchestrated the purportedly lethal petal-dumping shown in the painting. Heliogabalus, also known as Elagabalus, was a man just juvenile and sadistic enough to dream up something so weird. In the painting, he’s the guy lying down in the golden robe and tiara, watching with indifference as his banquet guests suffocate in the sudden petal deluge.

Heliogabalus: emperor of Rome and insouciance. (Detail from image on Wikipedia/Public domain)

Tales from the hedonistic life of Heliogabalus, who ruled Rome from 218 until his death in 222 at the age of 19, are so salacious that it is difficult to determine which bits, if any, are true. The wildest stories about him come from the Augustan History, a collection of biographies of Roman emperors written by unknown authors and published sometime during the mid- to late days of the Roman Empire.

Though it does contain some factual information, the Augustan History is littered with outrageous claims and tabloid-esque language. Take, for example, the passages regarding Heliogabalus’ parentage. It is widely acknowledged that he was born in Syria in 203 CE to noblewoman Julia Soaemias and knight Sextus Varius Marcellus, and known during his youth as Varius Avitus Bassianus. But according to Augustan History, the identity of Heliogabalus’ father is somewhat ambiguous—it suggests that the name “Varius” was given to the boy because he “seemed to be sprung from the seed of ‘various’ men.” The History also described Varius’ mother as a woman who “lived like a harlot and practiced all manner of lewdness in the palace.” It’s more slut-shaming than Juan Pablo.

A bust of the young emperor at his most babely stage. (Photo: Carole Raddato/Flickr)

As Heliogabalus entered the full bloom of adolescence, a few notable things occurred. Number one: he got hot, as substantiated by Roman civil servant Herodian, who described the young man as “the handsomest lad of his time” and claimed his “youthful beauty attracted the eyes of all.” Number two: he embraced his role as a high priest at the temple of the Syrian sun god Baal, where, according to Herodian, he went “dancing about the altars in barbarian fashion to the music of flutes, pipes, and every kind of instrument.” Thirdly, and most importantly, he became the emperor of Rome at the age of 15 when the previous ruler, Macrinus, was overthrown and executed after just 14 months on the job.

This is where things really get interesting. As emperor, Heliogabalus went ultra hard in the hedonism stakes. Herodian wrote that the teenage emperor executed “many famous and wealthy men who were charged with ridiculing and censuring his way of life.” The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire mentions Heliogabalus engaging in scenes of “inexpressible infamy,” in which he “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury,” amid a “confused multitude of women, of wines, and of dishes.”  On Heliogabalus’ more productive mornings, Herodian said, he would ritually sacrifice hundreds of bulls, making sure to place jars of “the oldest and finest wines” in front of the sacrificial altars, “so that the streams of blood mingled with streams of wine.”

During these sacrifices, Herodian wrote, Heliogabalus would dance around with cymbal-wielding women as the entire Roman senate looked on. Chris Harrison, take note.

A bust of Heliogabalus at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. (Photo: Carole Raddato/Flickr)

Speaking of women: Heliogabalus managed to marry a reported five times within three years. His first marriage, to Julia Cornelia Paula, lasted from early 219 to late 220. After divorcing her, Heliogabalus immediately married his second wife, Julia Aquilia Severa. She was a Vestal virgin, meaning she had vowed to remain celibate for 30 years. The union was therefore especially scandalous—to limit the political fallout, Heliogabalus abandoned her within a year to marry Annia Aurelia Faustina, the widow of a man he had recently executed for treason. It gets more complicated—within a year of that marriage, Heliogabalus decided to divorce her and remarry Julia Aquilia Severa, (former) Vestal virgin. This time, the marriage lasted—until Heliogabalus was murdered by his own bodyguards a few months later.

A bust of Julia Cornelia Paula, Heliogabalus’ first wife. (Photo: Bachelot Pierre J-P/Wikipedia)

In addition to his multiple weddings to women, Heliogabalus had relationships with men, including his chariot driver Hierocles, with whom he is said to have entered into another marriage. Some modern analyses have also presented Heliogabalus as gender-fluid or possibly transgender, pointing toward his documented fondness for wearing makeup, his donning of women’s attire, and his desire to have female genitalia.

Given all that we know about Heliogabalus—who was clearly no shrinking violet—let us return to the scene of the purportedly lethal petal flood depicted in The Roses of Heliogabalus. Augustan History—which, as you’ll recall, was the National Inquirer of the Roman Empire—said that Heliogabalus “overwhelmed his parasites“—that is, his human dinner guests—with flowers that fell from behind the reversible ceiling of the banqueting room. Some of the guests were “smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.” 

What a way to go. (Photo: Pixabay)

If you consider this logically—thinking about the number of petals needed, their mass, shape, air resistance, and so forth—it seems highly implausible that anyone would actually die in a flower flood. But as an image of Roman decadence and a fanciful tribute to the odder pleasure-seeking penchants of Heliogabalus, The Roses of Heliogabalus endures and inspires. May The Bachelor hope to be remembered as long.