Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Roses of Heliogabalus or, The Un-Valentine

Pretty isn't it? You can see the title above, it an 1888 canvas by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Why mention it? I think it's the influence for Act II (of three maybe?) for the Edward project I'm doing.

I've been reading (an abridged, but still 1,000+ page edition of) Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It's one of a handful of books that I've ever read that lives up to its reputationL it's immensely well-informed but still highly readable. It's almost an obligation for anyone seriously interested in history -- and especially for those interested in writing about history -- to read.

But old Edward is a bit of a prude. Any non-standard sexual activity by a man (and hoo boy, do those Romani get up to it) gets labeled "effeminacy" and glossed over. Which is disappointing since that's part of while people read about the fall of Rome. Never fear, Suetonius is always glad to help out with a dirty secret or two and there are plenty of other fine Roman historians to fill the gaps.

And Elagabalus (for some reason often erroneously called Heliogabalus) was one of the interesting ones. Even reading Gibbon's version was enough for me to start sniffing around history to find out more. He came from a royal family of Rome (no point in going into detail here since these things get fuzzy for the Romans), and was at an early age a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus. When he became emperor, he adopted the name as his title. And started the fun:

"When Hierocles, a charioteer in the arena, was thrown in front of the emperor's box, his blond hair spilling out from under his helmet, Elagabalus immediately had the youth escorted to the palace, where he was found to be even more captivating. Calling him "husband" and contriving to be caught in adulterous trysts, Elagabalus proudly displayed the black eyes he insisted on receiving. But there was to be a rival. Frequenting the wharves and public baths, agents sought out others who might please the emperor, especially those who were well-endowed. Another handsome athlete, Zoticus, was discovered who surpassed all others in the size of his membrum virile. Hastened to Rome, where he immediately was made court chamberlain, he greeted Elagabulus with the usual salutation "My Lord Emperor, Hail," only to be admonished, "Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady." That night, Elagabalus was to be disappointed, when Zoticus could not perform as expected. Hierocles, fearful that he would fall out of favor, had the cup bearers drug the wine and Zoticus, humiliated and deprived of his honors, was exiled from court."

This is from Cassio Dio, quoted on this excellent site.

The picture above is a rendering of this story from of his life:

"He [Elagabalus] loaded his parasites with violets and other flowers in a banqueting room with a reversable ceiling, in such a way that some of them expired when they could not crawl out to the surface."

Scriptores Historiae Augustae: Antoninus Heliogabalus (XXI.5)
Anyway, the link between the painting and Edward is this: the scene where the Edward-character and Gaveston-character first interact in a meaningful way after Gaveston's return from his (first) exile is in a scene set in a dance club, to the song "Michael". As the two dance* on the floor, everyone else's dances become equally sexy and roses, violets and other prettily-smelling flowers fall from the ceiling.While the other boys begin what is essentially an orgy (tho' their decorum be covered by petals), Edward and Gaveston leave to fuck alone.

Right now, I think the Gaveston-character will be called Michael -- for an obvious reason --and the Edward-character Daniel. I think that's enough for right now. Attentive readers can already see a few sticking points --"How old are these characters?" is one. The implied connection I've made between Elagabalus and one of the two characters (clearly Daniel as Edward) brings up the question of class -- which is a huge point in the original.

My next entry will detail the central metaphor I'm using for the work. I think once that has been laid out properly, I can return to the question I raised this time. I just wanted to start with this image, for its topicality, and because it's one of two relatively-thought scenes. (The other is Edward's death scene , with "40' " as the soundtrack.**

*Yes, all right, that's Shakespeare, not Marlowe.

**Do forgive the line spacing changes half way through the post. I meddled with Blogger for 20 minutes or so to fix it. Fortunately, it's somewhat masked since it only appears after the block quote: surely no accident, stupid cheap Blogger text editor!

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