Issue 8 Pharmacopia Fall 2002
Ingestion / The Life of Elagabalus
“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.
The fatal decadence of Imperial Rome has often been dramatized through accounts of its rulers’ lavish dining practices, but for sheer giddy vulgarity, few can match the exploits of the 3rd-century teenage emperor known as Elagabalus (203–222 AD). Born Varius Avitus Bassianus (his more familiar name, often rendered as Heliogabalus, is borrowed from the local sun deity in his childhood home of Emesa in Syria), Elagabalus was raised in a politically powerful family and ascended to the Imperial throne at the age of 14. His four-year reign was marked by levels of such surpassing adolescent excess that they were said to have shocked even the famously liberal-minded Roman elite. The full reliability of the account, an abridged version of which follows, is the subject of disagreement among historians. It originates with a Latin text, usually credited to one Aelius Lampridius (here in an early 20th-century translation by David Magie), that was itself part of a set of multi-author Imperial biographies that scholars believe were probably written in the late 4th century. Specific historical value notwithstanding, its lasting appeal comes as no surprise. Overflowing with fantastical details, it sets an unrivaled scene of completely off-the-hook licentiousness and gluttony, of debauched desire expressed and fulfilled—precisely the stuff of which gastronomical legends are made.
The fatal decadence of Imperial Rome has often been dramatized through accounts of its rulers’ lavish dining practices, but for sheer giddy vulgarity, few can match the exploits of the 3rd-century teenage emperor known as Elagabalus (203–222 AD). Born Varius Avitus Bassianus (his more familiar name, often rendered as Heliogabalus, is borrowed from the local sun deity in his childhood home of Emesa in Syria), Elagabalus was raised in a politically powerful family and ascended to the Imperial throne at the age of 14. His four-year reign was marked by levels of such surpassing adolescent excess that they were said to have shocked even the famously liberal-minded Roman elite.
The full reliability of the account, an abridged version of which follows, is the subject of disagreement among historians. It originates with a Latin text, usually credited to one Aelius Lampridius (here in an early 20th-century translation by David Magie), that was itself part of a set of multi-author Imperial biographies that scholars believe were probably written in the late 4th century. Specific historical value notwithstanding, its lasting appeal comes as no surprise. Overflowing with fantastical details, it sets an unrivaled scene of completely off-the-hook licentiousness and gluttony, of debauched desire expressed and fulfilled—precisely the stuff of which gastronomical legends are made.
Concerning his life many filthy anecdotes have been put in writing, but since they are not worthy of being recorded, I have thought I ought to relate only such deeds as illustrate his extravagance.
He gave summer banquets in various colors, one day a green banquet, another day an iridescent one, and next in order a blue one, varying them continually every day of the summer. Moreover, he was the first to use silver urns and casseroles, and vessels of chased silver, one hundred pounds in weight, some of them spoiled by the lewdest designs. He was also the first to concoct wine seasoned with mastich and with pennyroyal and all such mixtures, which our present luxury retains. And rose-wine, of which he had learned from others, he used to make more fragrant by adding pulverized pine-cone. In fact, all these kinds of cups are not met within books before the time of Elagabalus. Indeed, for him life was nothing except a search after pleasures. He was the first to make force-meat of fish, or of oysters of various kinds or similar shell-fish, or of lobsters, crayfish, and squills. He used to strew roses and all manner of flowers, such as lilies, violets, hyacinths, and narcissus, over his banqueting rooms, his couches and his porticoes, and then stroll about in them. He would refuse to swim in a pool that was not perfumed with saffron or some other well-known essence. And he could not rest easily on cushions that were not stuffed with rabbit-fur or feathers from under the wings of partridges, and he used, moreover, to change the pillows frequently.
He frequently ate camels-heels and also cocks-combs taken from the living birds, and the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, because he was told that one who ate them was immune from the plague. He served to the palace-attendants, moreover, huge platters heaped up with the viscera of mullets, and flamingo-brains, partridge-eggs, thrush-brains, and the heads of parrots, pheasants, and peacocks. And the beards of the mullets that he ordered to be served were so large that they were brought on, in place of cress or parsley or pickled beans or fenugreek, in well-filled bowls and disk-shaped platters—a particularly amazing performance.
Among his pets he had lions and leopards, which had been rendered harmless and trained by tamers, and these he would suddenly order after the dessert and the after-dessert to get up on the couches, thereby causing an amusing panic, for none knew that the beasts were harmless. He sent grapes from Apamea to his stables for his horses, and he fed parrots and pheasants to his lions and other wild animals. For ten successive days, moreover, he served wild sows’ udders with the matrices [wombs], at the rate of thirty a day, serving, besides, peas with gold-pieces, lentils with onyx, beans with amber, and rice with pearls; and he also sprinkled pearls on fish and truffles in lieu of pepper. In a banqueting room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites [hangers-on] with violets and other flowers so that some of them were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top. He flavored his swimming-pools and bath-tubs with essence of spices or of roses or wormwood.
At his banquets he would also distribute chances inscribed on spoons, the chance of one person reading “ten camels,” of another “ten flies,” of another “ten pounds of gold,” of another “ten pounds of lead,” of another “ten ostriches,” of another “ten hens-eggs,” so that they were chances indeed and men tried their luck. These he also gave at his games, distributing chances for ten bears or ten dormice, ten lettuces or ten pounds of gold. Indeed he was the first to introduce this practice of giving chances, which we still maintain.
When his friends became drunk he would often shut them up, and suddenly during the night let in his lions and leopards and bears—all of them harmless—so that his friends on awakening at dawn, or worse, during the night, would find lions and leopards and bears in the room with themselves; and some even died from this cause.
His parasites would often be served during dessert with food made of wax or wood or ivory, sometimes of earthenware, or at times even of marble or stone; so that all that he ate himself would be served to them too, but different in substance and only to be looked at, and all the while they would merely drink with each course and wash their hands, just as if they really had eaten.
So skillful were his confectioners and dairymen, that all the various kinds of food that were served by his cooks, either meat-cooks or fruit-cooks, they also would serve up, making them now out of confectionery or again out of milk-products. His parasites he would serve with dinners made of glass, and at times he would send to their table only embroidered napkins with pictures of the viands that were set before himself, as many in number as the courses which he was to have, so that they were served only with representations made by the needle or the loom. Sometimes, however, paintings too were displayed to them, so that they were served with the whole dinner, as it were, but were all the while tormented by hunger.
His chariots were made of jewels and gold, for he scorned those that were merely of silver or ivory or bronze. He would harness women of the greatest beauty to a wheel-barrow in fours, in twos, or in threes or even more, and would drive them about, usually naked himself, as were also the women who were pulling him. He had the custom, moreover, of asking to a dinner eight bald men, or else eight one-eyed men, or eight men who suffered from gout, or eight deaf men, or eight men of dark complexion, or eight tall men, or, again, eight fat men, his purpose being, in the case of these last, since they could not be accommodated on one couch, to call forth general laughter.
He was the first Roman emperor to serve at a public banquet fish-pickle [garum, a preparation made from the entrails of fish, particularly the mackerel, which were salted down and allowed to ferment] mixed with water, for previously this had been only a soldier’s dish—a usage which later was promptly restored by Alexander. He would propose to his guests, furthermore, by way of a feat, that they should invent new sauces for giving flavor to the food, and he would offer a very large prize for the man whose invention should please him, even presenting him with a silk garment—then regarded as a rarity and a mark of honor. On the other hand, if the sauce did not please him, the inventor was ordered to continue eating it until he invented a better one. Of course he always sat among flowers or perfumes of great value, and he loved to hear the prices of the food served at his table exaggerated, asserting it was an appetizer for the banquet.
At one dinner where there were many tables he brought in the heads of six hundred ostriches in order that the brains might be eaten. Occasionally he gave a banquet in which he would serve twenty-two courses of extraordinary viands, and between each course he and his guests would bathe and dally with women, all taking an oath that they were deriving enjoyment. And once he gave a banquet in which one course was served in the house of each guest, and although one lived on the Capitoline Hill, one on the Palatine, one beyond the Rampart, one on the Caelian Hill, and one across the Tiber, nevertheless each course was served in order in one of the houses, and they went about to the homes of all. It was difficult, therefore, to finish the banquet within a whole day, especially as between the courses they bathed and dallied with women.
He never put on the same shoes twice and never, it is said, wore the same ring a second time. He often tore up costly garments. Once he took a whale and weighed it and then sent his friends its weight in fish. He sank some heavily laden ships in the harbor and then said that this was a sign of greatness of soul. He used vessels of gold for relieving himself and his urinals were made of murra or onyx.
He was accustomed, furthermore, to have dinners served to him of the following kind: one day he would eat nothing at all but pheasant, serving only pheasant-meat at every course; another day he would serve only chicken, another some kind of fish and again a different kind, again pork, or ostrich, or greens, or fruit, or sweets, or dairy-products.
He invented certain new kinds of vice, even going beyond the perverts used by the debauchees of old, and he was well acquainted with all the arrangements of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero.
The prophecy had been made to him by some Syrian priests that he would die a violent death. And so he had prepared cords entwined with purple and scarlet silk, in order that, if need arose, he could put an end to his life by the noose. He had gold swords, too, in readiness, with which to stab himself, should any violence impend. He also had poisons ready, in ceraunites and sapphires and emeralds, with which to kill himself if destruction threatened. And he also built a very high tower from which to throw himself down, constructed of boards gilded and jeweled in his own presence, for even his death, he declared, should be costly and marked by luxury, in order that it might be said that no one had ever died in this fashion. But all these preparations availed him nothing, for, as we have said, he was slain by common soldiers, dragged through the streets, contemptuously thrust into sewers, and finally cast into the Tiber.
Little is known about the life of Aelius Lampridius, who is credited as the author of biographies of several Roman emperors, including Elagabalus.
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© 2002 Cabinet Magazine