Review

Did a mad Roman emperor really kill his dinner-guests with rose petals?

4/5

Harry Sidebottom's new book The Mad Emperor busts the most famous myth about Heliogabalus – but the truth about his reign is even stranger

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

From the late second century, Rome entered its “decadence”, a period that conjures up images of a mob hungry for basic food and spectacular violence, and an elite whose more jaded appetites could only be stimulated by implausible ­banquets, transgressive sex and murderous intrigue. The “corrupt and opulent nobles,” as the historian Gibbon put it, “gratified every vice that could be collected from the mighty conflux of nations and manners,” while the emperor above them, “viewing every rank of his subjects with the same contempt­uous indifference, asserted without control his sovereign privilege of lust and luxury.” An empire carved out by rulers imbued with the republican virtues of courage and manly asceticism declined into a playground for overgrown infants.

We are used to being told that the historical truth is less exciting than the myth. But, as Harry Sidebottom’s The Mad Emperor demonstrates, this is one of those rare cases when the history does not fall short. While working hard to ­correct the preconceptions of both scholars and general readers, Sidebottom presents a picture of third-century imperial Rome that is, if anything, wilder than the popular imagination. At its centre is the ­titular emperor, Heliogabalus, the teenage ruler whose reign (AD 218-AD 222) went down in infamy almost the moment it began, and whose story is for Sidebottom both fascinating in itself and “an ideal prism” through which to view Rome at its most inglorious.

Sidebottom’s subject is remembered now, if at all, as the subject of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s 1888 ­masterpiece The Roses of Helio­gabalus. The canvas is as perfect an image of decadence as anyone could desire: the emperor unleashing an avalanche of petals on his banqueting guests, curiously unmoved, doomed to suffocate beneath the perfumed mass. Behind them, marble columns frame pale mountains, a prospect of the vast empire whose riches fund such exquisite death. It is, Side­bottom notes, “a complete fiction”, but useful nevertheless as a way into his story. It condenses in a s­ingle image both the infamy that attached to Heliogabalus and the role subsequent generations played in packaging that infamy for public consumption, in 19th-century ­London and the ancient world alike.

In outline, Heliogabalus’s story is simple enough. Born to a “client” dynasty of the Roman empire – a dependent, neighbouring power in what is now Syria – in AD 203-4, he acceded to the imperial throne through a revolt against the emperor Macrinus, masterminded by his grandmother and mother, who suggested the boy was the ­natural son of the previous emperor Caracalla. His reign was marked by religious controversy (the emperor worshipped his local sun god Elagabal above Jupiter), political missteps (he promoted friends, favourites and lovers from outside the elite to key roles), and sexual outrage (cross-dressing, multiple marriages including one to a Vestal virgin and perhaps two to men, rumours that he visited brothels as a prostitute, not a client). Heliogabalus managed to cross just about every line relaxed Roman morality cared to draw, and suffered the consequences. Assassinated in a plot arranged by his grandmother, he was dragged through the streets and dumped in the Tiber before being excised from public memory.

The fictionalising began before the corpse had sunk. Even the name is an invention: born Sextus Various Avitus Bassianus, he ruled as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus; only two centuries later did he become Heliogabalus/Elagabalus, a deliberately barbaric coinage from the name of his favourite god. A plethora of insulting nicknames preceded it – “more than for any other emperor” – marking out the disdain he was held in. The three records of his reign are accusatory, salacious and, in different fashions, unreliable: his contemporary Cassius Dio was close to power but keen to dissociate himself from a regime in which he’d been involved; Herodian, also contemporary, was further from power; and in the fifth-century Augustan History, “luxuriant fiction” carries the day. The task of finding the truth is far from simple.

Sidebottom – who lectures at Oxford on ancient history and writes best-selling historical novels – does so while balancing entertainment and scholarship. His method, which he calls “history with the top off”, allows the reader into the process, illuminating Roman attitudes to sex, race, religion and the role of the emperor, as well as the myriad lacunae that make historical reconstruction such a challenge. The Heliogabalus that emerges is no less decadent than Alma-Tadema’s, but far more complex, and his world much wider than a pale view of mountains between pillars.


The Mad Emperor is published by Oneworld at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books