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Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was only fourteen years old when he became emperor of Rome in AD 218. Better known as Elagabalus or Heliogabalus after the Syrian sun god that he tried to introduce as the supreme deity, his outrageous behavior and disdain for convention led to his death only four years later.
Elagabalus' transsexual proclivity is recounted in an anecdote by Cassius Dio. When Hierocles, a charioteer in the arena, was thrown in front of the emperor's box, his blond hair spilling out from under his helmet, Elagabalus immediately had the youth escorted to the palace, where he was found to be even more captivating. Calling him "husband" and contriving to be caught in adulterous trysts, Elagabalus proudly displayed the black eyes he insisted on receiving. Indeed, agents frequented the wharves and public baths, seeking others who might please the emperor, especially those who were well-endowed. Another handsome athlete, Zoticus, was discovered who surpassed all others in the size of his membrum virile. Hastened to Rome, where he immediately was made court chamberlain, he greeted Elagabalus with the usual salutation "My Lord Emperor, Hail," only to be admonished by the emperor, who bending his neck and looking up with a melting gaze, replied "Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady." That night, however, Elagabalus was to be disappointed when Zoticus could not perform as expected. Hierocles, fearful that he would fall out of favor, had the cup bearers drug the wine of his rival and Zoticus, humiliated and deprived of his honors, was exiled from court (LXXIX.15-16.).
Such inverted behavior roused Gibbon (VI) to high dudgeon in his characterization of Elagabalus, who
"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. The inflammatory powers of art were summoned to his aid: the confused multitude of women, of wines, and of dishes, and the studied variety of attitude and sauces, served to revive his languid appetites. New terms and new inventions in these sciences, the only ones cultivated and patronized by the monarch, signalized his reign, and transmitted his infamy to succeeding times. A capricious prodigality supplied the want of taste and elegance; and whilst Elagabalus lavished away the treasures of his people in the wildest extravagance, his own voice and that of his flatterers applauded a spirit of magnificence unknown to the tameness of his predecessors. To confound the order of seasons and climates, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements. A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex, preferred the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonored the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperorís, or, as he more properly styled himself, of the empressís husband" (VI).
The Roses of Heliogabalus
"He [Elagabalus] loaded his parasites with violets and other flowers in a banqueting room with a reversible ceiling, in such a way that some of them expired when they could not crawl out to the surface."
Augustan History: Antoninus Heliogabalus (XXI.5)
The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema conveys the boy's effete decadence. What seemingly is no more than a sumptuous shower of petals cascading down upon revelers at a banquet actually depicts their death, as many would be smothered beneath the flowers for the amusement of the emperor and his companions. (It is the same ironic discrepancy between appearance and reality that the artist later conveys in Spring.) Accompanied by his mother and a male paramour, Elagabalus wears the golden silk robe and tiara mentioned by Herodian (History of the Roman Empire, V.3.6). In the background, a young woman plays the double pipes and is draped in the dappled skin of a leopard, the traditional appearance of a maenad, one of the frenzied worshippers of Dionysus, the god of wine. His statue can be seen in the background, a leopard at his feet, embracing his lover Ampelus, who later was metamorphosed into the grapevine (Nonnus, Dionysiaca, X-XII).
It is roses that smother the languid guests, not the "violets and other flowers" mentioned in the Augustan History. Alma-Tadema had them shipped from the French Riviera that winter so each petal could be meticulously painted. For the Victorians, roses often were symbolic of sensual beauty, corruption, and even death. Certainly, such an association can be seen in Dolores (1866) by Algernon Swinburne, the decadent poet whom Alma-Tadema later quotes in Spring.
Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice (lines 65-68)
A whimsical note comes from the Pirates of Penzance (1880), where Major-General Stanley boasts "I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus, / In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous," which is to say that, in wrestling with the geometric properties of a cone cut by an imaginary plane, he can defeat problems in parabolics.
Herodian (V.3.3ff) and Dio (Roman History, LXXIX.1ff) are the primary sources for the life of Elagabalus. All the more salacious details, many of them fanciful, are to be found in the Augustan History. Roses also shower down on Cybele (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, II.627-628) and the nuptial chamber (Claudian, Epithalamium of Palladius and Celerina, XXV.116ff). The bust of Elagabalus is in the Palazzo Nuovo (Capitoline Museums, Rome). The Roses of Heliogabalus itself is in a private collection.
References: Lives of the Later Caesars (1976) translated by Anthony Birley (Penguin Classics); Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1995) edited by David Womersley (Penguin Classics); Dio Cassius: Roman History (1914-) translated by Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster (Loeb Classical Library); Scriptores Historiae Augustae (1921-) translated by David Magie (Loeb Classical Library); Alma-Tadema: The Painter of the Victorian Vision of the Ancient World (1977) by Vern G. Swanson.
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