Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s 1888 oil on canvas work The Roses Of Heliogabalus is one of his most famous works and is currently part of a private collection. The Alma-Tadema oil painting, like so many others, is inspired by a story from Ancient Roman history. The tale concerns the Roman Emperor Elgabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, who lived from 203 until 222, reigning for just four years from 218 until his assassination at the age of 18 by his own guards.

His 18 years were pretty action packed though, and whether he was offending the gods, marrying and divorcing one of his five wives, or disguising himself as a woman and working as a prostitute in Roman taverns, you can be sure that playwrights and artists were rubbing their hands with excitement at his latest exploits. So which of his eccentricities drew the esteemed Alma-Tadema to choose him as a subject for one of his canvases? Well, it was story, of dubitable veracity, concerning an attempt by the young Heliogabalus to kill a room full of guests (it’s what people in the ancient world did to each other).

The story (along with many of his other reportedly bizarre behavioural traits) is thought to have been part of a propaganda campaign that was waged against him by Julia Avita Mamaea following his death in 222. According to historians, “He [Elagabalus] loaded his parasites with violets and other flowers in a banqueting room with a reversible ceiling, in such a way that some of them expired when they could not crawl out to the surface.”

The tale may have appealed to Alma-Tadema’s fondness for the dramatic and, as was his wont, he has taken artistic license with an already ridiculous story. The Roses Of Heliogabalus is filled with historical references and the only element that seems to be historically inaccurate are the roses themselves. Unsatisfied with the “violets and other flowers” that historical texts quote, he opted for roses instead, even going to the length of having them shipped in from the French Riviera to England that winter so that he could capture their detail accurately. For the Victorians, roses often were symbolic of sensual beauty, corruption, and even death, so it’s possible that the business orientated Sir Lawrence may have customised his painting to better suit his client base.

Alma-Tadema shows Heliogabalus decked out in a golden silk robe and golden tiara, seated on a dais with his mother and a male paramour, apparently enjoying the spectacle of watching his guests dying as roses cascade on top of them. According to historical accounts, Nero also had one of these false ceilings to ‘surprise’ his guests with. The woman playing the double pipes, known as the ‘tibia’, and the statue in the background of the work are both references to Dionysus, the god of wine – a further nod to perceived excesses and immorality of the young Emperor.

The expert treatment of marble, the brilliant illumination and the attention to historical details are all hallmarks of Alma-Tadema’s historical scenes. The painting was originally sold for £4,000 which would have been a colossal sum in the 1880s, but given recent sales of Sir Lawrence’s work, it’s probably worth a colossal sum today as well.