The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. 1888. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
M. Aurelius Antoninus, known to history as Elagabalus or Heliogabalus, reigned as Roman emperor from 218 to 222 A.D. after the death of the emperor Caracalla, his mother’s cousin. He held the hereditary priesthood of the sun god Elagabalus at Emesa in Syria and stirred resentment when he tried to make the deity the supreme god of the Roman Empire. The emperor also married (and divorced and then took back) the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa before being murdered and replaced by his cousin Severus Alexander.
This famous painting by the Dutch-born British artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema is based on the story that Elagabalus killed his courtiers at a banquet by covering them in petals, as told in the Historia Augusta:
“In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”