The Painter That Captured The Fantasies Of The Most Depraved Roman Emperor

February 21, 2017

|Motserrat Velasquez

What would be of History without images? Or, what would be of imagination without History? Both are inexhaustible sources, but the big difference lies in that one of them is constructed based on reality and the other thrives from inspiration. In any case, this combination has generated amazing works and artistic motifs. During Victorian times, one English artist gave the world a masterpiece that embodies one of the most extraordinary moments in human history related to Ancient Rome.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema Heliogabalus roman emperor painting-w636-h600

The beauty found in such a decadent scene hides the depravity and hedonism of the revelers. At a first glance, it looks like a wonderful and sumptuous party. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema represented with the utmost detail every rose petal and every gesture of the partygoers. You can almost touch the cold surface of the marble columns, hear the rustling of the white linen, and smell the sweet perfume of the falling petals. The bacanal depicted in this painting is the story of the controversial emperor Heliogabalus (203-222 b.C.) who drowned his guests in rose petals. He lies above them, with an indifferent face, not showing any sign of empathy for those who lie dead beneath him.

Heliogabalus isn’t a well-known emperor, maybe because after his murder, he was condemned to damnatio memoriae, in other words, his name was erased from historical records, and it was forbidden to mention him. The emperor’s image went through this sentence due to the outrageous crimes he committed and also because of his scandalous behavior when he was in power. Just as emperors Nero and Caligula, Heliogabalus was an erratic and extravagant ruler, whose attitude bordered on insanity. Caligula, for example, named his horse Incitatus a senator and later on a consul, arguing that the animal would tell him what sentences to enact. On the other hand, some say Nero was playing his lyre while Rome was burning down to ashes.

As for Heliogabalus, his eccentricities included human sacrifices, recruiting a whole army of prostitutes, working as a gigolo, getting married many times, including two men, and even a vestal –a virgin priestess whose mission was to keep Vesta's sacred fire alive–, which was absolutely forbidden. He wanted to change his gender, and he used to wear female clothes and excessive makeup. He wasted huge amounts of Rome’s money and ignored their religious customs during his four-year reign, which ended with his murder, when he was only eighteen years old.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema Heliogabalus roman emperor artist-w636-h600

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, an artist born in Holland but nationalized as English. His work flourished during the times of the Industrial Revolution, a period where art was well received, supported, and acclaimed. Known for representing ancient history in his paintings, his work was coveted by art collectors and was awarded many important prizes. Alma-Tadema followed an academic tradition, so he was very attached to techniques and classic rules of painting.

The Roses of Heliogabalus, oil painting from 1888, is part of a collection that portrayed life in Ancient Rome. Alma-Tadema also focused on the lives of Ancient Greeks and Egyptians. The scene depicted in this painting is probably an invention. In Augustan History, a document that historians consider an unreliable source, it’s said that Nero did the same thing. Anyways, the painting is one of the few representations of the emperor. Now it belongs to the private collection of Perez Simón, a Spanish art collector living in Mexico, whose collection includes more than 3 thousand pieces. The painting was exhibited for the last time in Leighton House Museum.


The ancient world is fascinating from every perspective. If you’re interested, don’t miss Nefertiti, Ancient Egypt’s Most Beautiful Lie. 


Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards

Motserrat Velasquez

Motserrat Velasquez