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Rome's Most Decadent (and Unbelievable) Emperor

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 1, 2011 11:25 PM

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What do chocolate and Roman emperors have in common? That's right - decadence. And yet, as the classicist Mary Beard explains in the Times Literary Supplement, to call the teenage Roman Emperor Elagabalus "decadent" is an understatement. Elagabalus, who ruled between 218 and 222 A.D., is said to have murdered his dinner guests by suffocating them under a mountain of rose petals; to have fed his dogs only goose livers; and to have been married four times before the age of eighteen (to three women, one of whom was a Vestal Virgin, and to a boy charioteer named Hierocles). Elagabalus' problem, Beard writes, is that the stories about him are so over-the-top that, today, he is mostly ignored by historians.

Elagabalus was, strangely, in vogue during the Victorian era; a painting of his murderous rose-petal banquet by Lawrence Alma-Tadema was exhibited in 1888 and bought by an MP, who displayed it in his drawing room. Since then, though, according to Beard, "hard-headed modern historians" have grown increasingly skeptical. Their sheer implausibility notwithstanding, many of the best stories come from "a strange semi-fictional 'biography' of Elagabalus" in a series of emperor's lives, called the Augustan History, that classicists don't take very seriously. Other stories come from a not-very-trustworthy account of third-century Rome written by a senator, Cassius Dio, who didn't even live there; his writing survives mostly in medieval quotations. Beard reviews a new book about the emperor - The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction?, by Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado. Even this new book, it turns out, actually began as a novel. It ends with an appendix in which 840 propositions about Elagabalus are listed ("286. [Elagabalus] castrated himself to join the cult of Cybele”). Of these, Arrizabalaga y Prado concludes that 744 are "unverifiable."

To Beard, this kind of skepticism seems a little misguided, essentially because it's no fun: why write history if the goal is to reduce, rather than expand, the number of stories in circulation? "If I must choose between the different fantasies woven around Elagabalus," she writes, "I would prefer the ancient fantasies of Dio and the Augustan History." The lurid stories are more valuable than any historically accurate void could be. In the end, Elagabulus' legacy might just be a sense of the true distance between the present and the classical past - a distance that, like a game of telephone, can be measured out not only in terms of distortion and exaggeration, but also in terms of imagination.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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