Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Facts Among the Flowers

“Facts Amongst the Flowers” is the title of Mary Beard’s review of Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado’s The Emperor Elagabalus (TLS, 2/25/11). The illustration for the piece is Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting “Roses of Heliogabalus” from 1888. In it, Alma-Tadema depicts the perversity of the little-known emperor as he watches guests at a lavish banquet suffocate from the rose pedals he’s lavished on them. The reproduction is an uncharacteristically dramatic graphic element in the otherwise staid photo editing of the TLS. But it’s fitting for the review of a book about a creature of excess whose deeds, while not coming under the purview of First Century historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, still, according to Beard, give one pause for thought. “Did he really serve 600 ostrich brains all in one meal?” writes Beard, “Or raise a laugh by feeding his less distinguished guests with wooden models of the food that was being eaten at high table? (At least it would have been better than dying under the flower pedals.) Also implausible are many of his reported political and religious schemes, from his putative establishment of a senate for women to his mass campaign of child sacrifice. By comparison with all this, Nero’s murder of his mother and Caligula’s threats to make his favorite horse a consul hardly raise an eyebrow.” Beard points out that while Elagabalus makes a cameo appearance in The Pirates of Penzance, invoking the lyric, “I quote in elegiacs the crimes of Heliogabalus,” he’s otherwise featured in the Augustan History, one of the prime repositories for information on “The third century AD, with its baffling succession of short-lived emperors, repeated coups and mutinies….” Whether apocryphal or not, what’s most astonishing about Elagabalus’s crimes is that they were committed by the time he was 18, at which time he was purportedly “murdered in a palace coup, instigated by his grandmother and the Praetorian Guard….”

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