Horror and crime fiction have come up with some extraordinarily imaginative means of killing people but perhaps more have been as fragrant as being killed by rose petals. More accurately, millions of rose petals.
One of my favourite
paintings, even though it looks very “chocolate box” in appearance, actually
depicts the deaths of a group of unsuspecting guests at a party in which the
host looks on.
The painting, shown below,
is called “The Roses of Heliogabalus” and was painted by Sir Laurence
Alma-Tadema in 1888. Heliogabalus, also called Elagabalus, was the teenaged
Emperor of Rome who was the hereditary high priest who worshipped a meteorite.
The party depicted in the
painting may not even have occurred. It could easily be a story made up to add
extra atrocities to the list which Elagabalus is said to have perpetrated.
Alma-Tadema based his painting on one specific reference in “Historiae
Augustae”, a pseudo-history of Roman emperors probably written in the 4th
century some 200 years after Elagabalus’s assassination. Most of “Historiae
Augustae” is full of fanciful elaboration, but it was perfect material for
Let’s have a closer look
at the painting and the story it depicts.
The setting is the
banqueting hall of the imperial palace. The teenage Emperor Elagabalus is
hosting a party. Dressed in a flowing gold robe he lounges at the banqueting
table with his companions, probably including the man he married (being a high
priest Elagabalus could perform marriages with anyone he wished), his former
chariot driver Hierocles. Undoubtedly present also was the emperor’s mother and
grandmother, the powers behind the throne.
To symbolise the
debauchery of the banquet Alma-Tadema paints a statue of the god Dionysus
standing high in the background. Dionysus stands with his arm on the shoulder
of his young boy-lover Ampelos, the personification of the grape vine (as
featured in my “Star-Gayzing” article on the constellation Virgo).
As Elagabalus watches his
guests below he signals for the false ceiling in the banquet hall to be opened,
releasing millions of fragrant rose petals. As the petals flutter down the
drunken guests gasp in wonder and pleasure. But these gasps turn to gasps for
breath as the petals keep pouring and pouring down upon them.
The painting shows the
early stages of the petal shower as the guests seen oblivious to their fate.
Perhaps too drunk to move some guests find they cannot move under the growing
weight of the petals until, eventually, they succumb to this shower of death.
account in the “Historiae Augustae” refers to “violets and other flowers”
rather than rose petals. Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema chose roses which had a strong
romantic symbolism which masks the hidden danger. He had thousands of roses
shipped in from the continent especially for the purposes of preparing for this
In many ways this painting
illustrates both Elagabalus and Victorian England. They both are pleasant to
look at but look closer and you find some very dark elements lurking behind the