This event probably never happened—but it’s such a cool visual that it has already been immortalized in art. A symbol of the thoughtlessness, the cruelty, and the profligacy of the Romans, this singular execution method was attributed to two different emperors.
Romans loved smelling good. They spent a lot of their wealth on perfumes, sometimes to the point of wastefulness. When they couldn’t distill the essence of flowers, they simply used flower petals. During banquets, Romans would have their servants toss out flower petals, to perfume their halls and delight their guests.
Not everyone was delighted. Some people saw the excess as disgusting, and those people probably started rumors about the emperor Elagabalus. He came to power in 218, after two regime changes in two years. Only 14 years old, and disliked from the get-go, he acquired a reputation for sexual scandals. It was said that he wedded both a male acquaintance and a vestal virgin, and that he sometimes went out undercover and worked as a prostitute. He drew more ire when he made the people worship Elegabal, the god of whom he was a high priest, instead of Jupiter.
For fun, Elagabalus tortured politicians. One account of his life has him tying politicians to a water wheel and dunking them over and over again, or sending them jars full of scorpions. He was especially well-known for his unpleasant dinner parties. Sometimes he’d invite guests over and provide food for himself, but only pictures of food for his guests. Sometimes he’d serve them models of food made of glass, or display the food in front of them and throw it out the window.
But it was with rose-petals that he, reportedly, outdid himself. During one dinner, he set up a false ceiling made of canvas. After serving his guests real food, he stood on a dais and called for rose petals. Servants whipped away the false ceiling, and rose petals came down—tons and tons of them. Some guests managed to crawl up through the mountain of petals, but others were smothered to death.
This was such a success as a legend, it got recycled and was used in later re-tellings of the excesses and cruelties of Nero. The incident made it into a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and into any book that talks about the ancient Romans and their love of flowers, but I don’t believe it has made it onto the screen. This is a shame, considering the fact that, between Penny Dreadful, Hannibal, and Game of Thrones, we’re in the golden age of beautiful, stylized onscreen violence. Who doesn’t want to see death by flower petal?