By Laurence Totelin as part of the perfume series
The painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) had a knack for depicting the — sometimes imaginary — luxurious excesses of the Romans. In The Roses of Heliogabalus, he represented a banquet hosted by the emperor Elagabalus (218-222 CE). Vast amounts of delicate rose petals are drifting onto the banqueters, some of whom appear to be asleep, perhaps after drinking too much. Look more carefully, however, and you will note that some are inert but have their eyes wide open — they are dead, suffocated under the oppressive roses.
Alma-Tadema’s inspiration for his painting was a story preserved in a collection of emperors’ biographies called the Historia Augusta (21.5). There, the emperor is said to have smothered his guests with violets and other flowers — no roses then — released from a reversible ceiling. The guests were unable to crawl from under the roses and died; it is unclear whether the emperor had intended for this to happen. If the story is true, Elagabalus might have emulated another infamous Roman emperor, Nero (54-68 CE), who also had a reversible ceiling in his palace, which opened up to scatter flowers and spray perfume (Suetonius, Nero 31).
It would be impossible to count the flowers on Alma-Tadema’s canvas, but one would guess that they are in their thousands. Imagine a heap of a thousand fresh roses. Imagine their scent.
One thousand roses is the exact number we find mentionned in a second-century letter from Roman Egypt preserved on papyrus. Apollonios and Serapias write to Dionysia to apologise for having sent only a thousand roses for the wedding ceremony of Dionysia’s son, Serapion:
There are not yet many roses here — rather a shortage — and from all the farms and all the garland makers we had difficulty in putting together the thousand which we sent you via Sarapas, even by picking the ones which should have been picked tomorrow. We had as many narcissi as you wanted so we sent you four thousand instead of the two thousand you ordered (P. Oxy. 3313; translation John Muir)*
One thousand roses is also the number we find in the first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides’ recipe for rose perfume (Materia Medica 1.43). The recipe is long and complex and involves several stages. What is clear, however, is that the petals of ‘1000 unmoistened roses’ are left to steep overnight in 20 litrai 5 oungiai of olive oil (approximately 6.7 kg — equivalence between ancient and modern weights and measures is difficult to establish). The petals are then squeezed out, and the same amount of fresh petals can be added to the oil. Dioscorides notes that “the oil accepts the addition of rose petals up to the seventh insertion and no more.”
Imagine then that oil into which the petals of no less than 7000 fresh roses have been inserted. The head spins. Imagine too the feeling of that perfume on your skin. The thick oiliness of it. Let me tell you a secret: I feel queasy at the very thought of it. I can’t quite fathom the work involved in picking this extraordinary amount of thorny flowers, in detaching the petals without bruising them too much, in squeezing them out by hand. Yet that work was carried out, and in antiquity, it was probably carried out by enslaved people. Roses can be oppressive in more senses than one!
Muir, John. 2009. Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World, London and New York: Routledge.