Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888

The Roman Emporer Heliogabalus (aka Elagabalus) reigned from AD218-22 but managed to stir up much controversy in a few short years. To start, he was Syrian and a priest of the foreign god Elagabalus, who he installed as Rome’s god before Jupiter. He had five wives, one of which was a Vestal Virgin. These women were priestesses of the earth goddess Vesta and it was illegal for them to engage in sexual intercourse, the punishment being live burial. Heliogabalus said they would produce ‘godlike children.’

Heliogabalus was probably bisexual (one of his wives was a male athlete and he called his chariot driver slave his ‘husband’) and sought out doctors for gender reassignment surgery. He is reported to have dressed as a woman and prostituted himself in bars, taverns, and at the palace. He held lavish parties, one of which was probably fiction but tells of flower petals being dropped from a false ceiling. The petals were so numerous that they smothered some party-goers to death. In the painting we see Heliogabalus lounging in the gold robe while watching the petals fall on banqueters.

Needless to say, Heliogabalus’ behavior (there are numerous other stories) was seen as egregious to his contemporary Romans and the Senate. He was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard at age 18.

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