The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalus and The Decadence of Rome

Bijan Omrani at Literary Review:

These tales of flower petal asphyxiation and macrophallocracy are entertaining, but are they true? The source material is famously unreliable. One of the most raucous accounts, the late fourth-century Augustan History, is for the greater part a work of creative fiction. In recent years the academic fashion has been to treat all of the written sources on Heliogabalus with extreme scepticism, and to doubt whether very much at all can be known about him. The author of this new biography, Harry Sidebottom, who is both a historical novelist and an Oxford classics don, pushes against this trend. His account, which combines down-to-earth scholarly rigour with highly entertaining storytelling, critiques a number of received academic ideas. For example, he denies the notion that successive Roman emperors created an ‘official narrative’ hostile to Heliogabalus that was then parroted by contemporary historical writers. He also argues that just because the reports of the emperor’s actions echo those relating to a predecessor and thus appear to be topoi, or literary commonplaces, does not necessarily mean that they are untrue.

more here.