Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - The Roses of Heliolagabus

by Sarah Baur


At the end of 1887, the artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema received the commission for The Roses of Heliogabalus from the building contractor Sir John Aird - who also supported Alma-Tadema's work in Egypt a few years later (see Lawrence Alma-Tadema - The Finding of Moses). In this work, the Anglo-Dutchman serves up to the viewer a treacherous spectacle from the scandalous life of the Roman emperor Heliogabalus . For what appears here in such delicate and light spring colors and looks like an entertaining drinking bout under the Mediterranean sun turns out to be a sadistic staging of cruelty.

On a somewhat elevated platform surrounded by columns, against a clear blue sky in the background of the picture, one sees a group of wealthy Romans typically dining while reclining. Interested and joyfully excited, they all look at the events in the foreground. The titular emperor can be seen at the left edge of the group. The young ruler is dressed in high-quality golden robes and his head is crowned with a matching tiara. Adding to the authentic antique effect - which Alma-Tadema took extremely seriously - is the statue of Dionysus in the background and the woman entertaining the guests by playing an antique double flute (auloi). The foreground of the picture is literally flooded by a wave of pink rose blossoms. In this sea of blossoms, other guests of the feast can be seen, some already almost completely submerged in the pink waves (left), some only lightly sprinkled (right). The faces look confused and questioning out between the blossoms. What is happening here? That's what the viewer will ask after taking a closer look at the ominous scene.


A cruel event indeed is depicted in this painting, for it illustrates a horrendous tale from the Historia Augusta (Imperial History) and demonstrates the questionable, devilish humor of the Emperor Heliolabalus. He began his reign from 218 to 222 at the young age of about fourteen. He did not make himself popular during this time and was more and more despised because of his brutal and decadent escapades. His dissolute lifestyle seemed to get so abnormally out of hand that Elagabalus was eventually murdered in a mutiny led by his own kin.


Alma-Tadema presents us in his painting one of the notorious tales of Heliolabalus. Heliolabalushad invited some guests to his house to have a merry drinking party. There was only one catch: when his guests began to feel lethargic from all the alcohol, the right time had come for Elagabalus' deadly party trick. He let the previously installed blanket of fabric fall down, releasing a torrent of petals that streamed down onto the guests. At first, perhaps a pretty effect that might have astonished the guests, but the torrent of blossoms seemed to have no end, causing the guests to fall victim to a tragic death by suffocation.


Alma-Tadema knew how to present this gruesome event in such a picturesque and colorful lightness that the viewer is first misled before he realizes what is going on here and is probably just as perplexed as Heliolabalus guests were. The artist knew it in Heliolabalus facial expressions in a subtle way to show his satisfaction and condescending nature, because he shows interest in what is happening, but does not seem to be really emotionally touched by his dying guests. At the left edge of the picture, a large cloth with a few loops can be seen, which has just been detached from the ceiling and from which the last flush of blossoms is still sliding down, so that it is explained to the viewer where the many blossoms came from all at once.


Contrary to the historical source, which speaks of violets, Alma-Tadema decided to use rose petals in his painting. Roses, depending on their color, were considered in popular Victorian floral language to symbolize greed and lust, and therefore possibly seemed more thematically appropriate to him than violets, which expressed modesty and decency. As already mentioned, Alma-Tadema was a master of detail and above all concerned with the authenticity of his paintings, not only when it came to credibly presenting antiquity or making his depiction of marble look deceptively real. The correct depiction of flowers was also close to his heart and he therefore did not shy away from having rose blossoms sent from the Riviera to wintry England for four months.


Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - The Roses of Heligabalus

Oil on canvas, 1888, 132.1 x 213.9 cm, Juan Antonio Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico