The Roses of Heliogabalus

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The Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma-Tadema (1888), oil on canvas.

The Roses of Heliogabalus is a painting of 1888 by the Anglo-Dutch academician Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It is currently owned by the Spanish billionaire businessman and art collector Juan Antonio Pérez Simón.[1][2][3]


The painting is based on a probably invented episode in the life of the Roman emperor Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, (204–222), taken from the Augustan History. Although the Latin refers to "violets and other flowers", Alma-Tadema depicts Elagabalus smothering his unsuspecting guests with rose petals released from false ceiling panels. The original reference is this:

Oppressit in tricliniis versatilibus parasitos suos violis et floribus, sic ut animam aliqui efflaverint, cum erepere ad summum non possent.[4]
In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his parasites in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.[5]

In his notes to the Augustan History, Thayer notes that "Nero did this also (Suetonius, Nero, xxxi), and a similar ceiling in the house of Trimalchio is described in Petronius, Sat., lx." (Satyricon).[6]


The painting is part of a private collection but may be seen from 14 November 2014 to 29 March 2015 at the Leighton House Museum in London as part of the exhibition, A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection at Leighton House Museum, the first time since Alma-Tadema's memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1913 that it has been exhibited in London.[7]