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Rome’s most “depraved” emperor

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty

For those who enjoy tales of “depraved Roman emperors”, Heliogabalus “knocks the sandals off Caligula and Nero”, says Bijan Omrani in Literary Review. He was placed on the throne in 218AD, aged only 14, by puppeteering relations who thought he would be easy to control. They failed to reckon with his “remarkable capacity to upset every constituency of Roman opinion”. He purged the senatorial aristocracy from palace positions, then created a new household using “penis size as the most important criterion”. One Carian charioteer selected for this reason drugged the imperial chamberlain with an aphrodisiac so he could replace him as Heliogabalus’s closest confidant. He so pleased the emperor that the pair ended up entering a “form of same-sex marriage”.

Dinner invitations from Heliogabalus were “best avoided”. He’d serve guests wax copies or paintings of food, and dishes with inedible objects mixed in: lentils with onyx; beans with amber. He sometimes released secretly tamed beasts into the dining room to terrify his guests, and once served a 22-course dinner where attendees had to have sex between each course. One notorious episode saw the emperor release tons of flower petals from secret awnings, drowning his attendees – the possibly apocryphal story that inspired Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting The Roses of Heliogabalus.

The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome by Harry Sidebottom (Oneworld, £20)