Sex Scenes: The Queer Roman Orgy Where Everyone Was Suffocated by Rose Petals
The exploits of Heliogabalus, the trans woman who became the Emperor of Rome when she was just 14 years old, were a favorite subject of the 19th-century Decadent Movement.
The Roses of Heliogabalus, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888.
The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888, an English Victorian painting by Dutch artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, shows the famously decadent Roman emperor at one of her grandiose parties. Here, Heliogabalus is seated at the banquet while an orgy unfolds at the painting’s center, its participants covered in rose petals that are so plentiful they hide the nudity and sex. It’s a typical Victorian trick of rendering a seedy image so that it would seem innocent to a naïve viewer.
Those familiar with Heliogabalus would know to look closer. As the story goes, the emperor threw a lavish affair, filling the room with millions of rose petals; as the guests became more drunk—clothing falling, bodies twisting themselves in pleasure—the petals kept pouring. There were so many roses and violets that they suffocated the guests. An orgy crushed with petals, buried alive.
Heliogabalus was the real-life teenage trans queen of Rome. Even if many historians continue to use “he,” I refer to Heliogabalus as “she,” as this was her preferred pronoun: according to Cassius Dio, a Roman historian, when the athlete Zoticus addressed the emperor as “My Lord,” Heliogabalus corrected, “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” (Zoticus was not invited back: though he was beautiful, he was unable to perform sexually, and to be a member of this emperor’s scene, both were necessary.)
Heliogabalus, an icon of the ages, was especially loved by the Decadent Movement of the late 19th century, when this painting debuted. This was mainly a literary movement—most notably associated with Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleur du Mal, and, of course, Oscar Wilde—and it became synonymous with aestheticism and queerness: aestheticism as the appreciation of the object independent of its function or goodness, and queerness as the appreciation of sex outside procreative ends. Heliogabalus made a natural Decadent queen, for her existence was a celebration of her own uniqueness. She was unshackled from cultural constraints and made her life an art form, reconstructing everything around her in her own image.
When Heliogabalus first took power over the Roman Empire, in 218 AD, at the young age of 14, her first idea to strengthen the government’s meritocracy was to fire everyone and find only those with the biggest and most beautiful penises to serve. (It is also said she erected a large phallus statue, which she made everyone worship.)
She wasn’t subtle. She would leave the house wearing flowing silk gowns, jewels, and a full face of makeup, tossing loaves of bread to those that cheered for her. She also wasn’t discreet. At night, the emperor would wade into taverns and brothels to solicit the male public, always on the hunt for the most beautiful men. One of her favorite games was to play brothel at home. She would linger in the doorway of her staff’s rooms, scantily dressed and posing as a “lowly prostitute,” encouraging the men to barter, while murmuring to them in low, velvety tones.
It was also said that the teenage emperor’s cruelty was extravagant. Sometimes after guests had gorged themselves on food and wine, she would release hungry tigers to feast upon her dinner companions. According to another account, she served food made of glass and forced her guests to eat it.
But in these passed-down narratives of Heliogabalus, it’s hard to decipher what of her was real and what was rumor. After all, can one actually die from being covered in rose petals? The sources of these stories are not exactly trustworthy, coming either from the Roman elite as they were slowly being stripped of power by the emperor, or writers hoping to make money from their salacious tales.
These stories reflect accusations that elders have always pointed at the young: that they have no moral fiber and no work ethic; that their ways are going to let the world go to hell. It’s a projection of fears the dominant class always has: What if young people don’t make the right choices? What if they don’t support our system of power? What would happen if the youth pursued what made them happy instead of profit? In the story of Heliogabalus, we see the conservatives’ imagined horror: their children chasing not an appropriate match to marry, but who they love—maybe, even worse, someone of their own sex.
What the proponents of scarcity models don’t know is that what they see as economically irresponsible behaviors are in fact how one expresses love, how one creates a community of human beings who care for each other.
Nothing in the painting of the Roses of Heliogabalus would alert us that the orgiasts are on the verge of dying from flower petal suffocation. The faces of the guests are surprised, bored, entertained, but not worried. The vibe is pleasant. We who know the story know they are about to die, but we also know that it’s untrue: that it’s more likely the orgy would have soaked up the petals, become pit of flowers and sweat. The petals would have been ground up by bodies, the bodies made more fragrant by the roses. What if the consequence of excess and decadence is not disaster?
Writer Antonin Artaud called Heliogabalus the “crowned anarchist.” What’s clear is that authority functions on a perception of scarcity even where there is abundance; for example, today in the United States there are six empty houses for every homeless person. A model of scarcity is what’s required for someone to decide who gets what, and imposed scarcity is what keeps you in line with fear of destitution. What the proponents of scarcity models don’t know, or have forgotten, and that Heliogabalus knew, is that what they see as economically irresponsible behaviors (the parties, the orgies, the gorging on shared food and drink) are in fact how one expresses love, how one creates a community of human beings who care for each other. Happiness and beauty, to those who see everything in terms of money and power, are nothing but a waste—a lavish, gorgeous, fabulous waste.