“Decline and Fall” by Ryan Napier

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In 218, Elagabalus became emperor of Rome. He was fourteen years old. Soon after his acclamation, the boy-emperor shocked Rome by announcing the death of the old gods. Jupiter, Apollo, Diana, and the rest were no more, and in their place, Elagabalus proclaimed a new religion—the worship of the sun.

He ordered the construction of an enormous temple on the Palatine Hill and served there as the high priest. Draped in heavy silk and jewels, painted head to toe in gold dust, Elagabalus presided over elaborate sacrifices to Sol Invictus, the undefeated sun. Day and night, wine and blood poured onto the marble altar.

Across the empire, the statues and images of the old gods were destroyed. Elagabalus commissioned tens of thousands of new statues depicting a beautiful youth with light streaming from his head—a portrait of himself as Sol Invictus. The largest of these was erected in front of the Circus Maximus in Rome, its head carved from white marble, its body made of gilded bronze.

Outside the temple, Elagabalus devoted himself to pleasure. Nothing was denied to him, and he soon grew bored and sought out the strange and the obscure. He ate only the rarest foods—peacock’s tongues, milk-fed snails, parrots cooked in the stomachs of swans. Though impotent from generations of inbreeding, he brought concubines of every age and sex from across the empire and directed them in massive orgies. On his seventeenth birthday, he ordered a hundred live tortoises to be encrusted in gems and watched as they suffocated under the weight of their shells.

Elagabalus quickly depleted the imperial treasury, enraging the military. On March 10, 222, he was assassinated by his own guards. His body was hacked into pieces and dragged through the streets of Rome. A mob set fire to the temple of the sun. The statue in front of the Circus Maximus was decapitated and the marble head thrown into the Tiber.

The head sank to the riverbed and settled into the mud. Over the centuries, reeds twisted their roots around it, and algae bloomed from the cracks in the marble.

In 1845, in an attempt to improve the river’s navigability, Pope Gregory XVI hired English engineer John Blount to dredge the Tiber. Two of Blount’s workers found the head of Elagabalus and brought it to him; Blount swore them to secrecy and smuggled the head back to England. There, he consulted with classical scholar Samuel Grenville, who identified the head as Elagabalus and restored it. Despite some water and root damage, the head was relatively well preserved. It was shown publically for the first time at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, where it was seen by millions. The Vatican protested that the head had been stolen and demanded its return.

Blount spent the second half of his career in India, working with the Royal Corps of Engineers to build canals in the Madras Presidency. During the Sepoy Rebellion, he participated in the second relief of Lucknow, and in 1859, he was knighted for his services to the empire. After his retirement, Sir John returned to England and dedicated himself to collecting, buying a house in Russell Square and filling it with antiquities. He accrued urns and busts and tiles and sarcophagi, but the prize of his collection was the head of Elagabalus. He placed it on the second floor of the house, in the yellow drawing room, across from a twelve-foot Louis Quinze mirror. Prince Edward visited the house in 1864 specifically to see the head.

Sir John suffered a massive stroke in 1869, leaving him paralyzed on his right side and increasingly confused. He began to speak to the head of Elagabalus for hours at a time in a slurred mixture of English and Tamil and public school Latin. In his final years, he required his servants to carry rifles at all times, believing that he was still in India at the time of the rebellion.

After Sir John’s death, the house and collection passed to his only son, Cyril. A student of Walter Pater, Cyril had been expelled from Oxford, and scandal followed him throughout his life. His parties at the house in Russell Square were notorious. “Elagabalus is the presiding genius of the place,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “As his marble head surveys the guests in the yellow drawing room, the lips of the beautiful boy almost seem to a smile.”

The parties came to an abrupt end in 1892, when a young man died under mysterious circumstances in the house. Hounded by newspapers and the police, Cyril fled England. The house was shut up and the head of Elagabalus covered with a dustsheet. Cyril spent the rest of his life in France and died childless in 1924.

To the disappointment of his many cousins, Cyril left his entire estate to the National Trust, with instructions for the house in Russell Square to become a museum dedicated to the family collection. The dustsheets were removed, and in 1927, the Blount Museum opened to the public. Travel books noted that though its collection was unremarkable, the house offered a well-preserved example of Victorian décor. The gift shop sold postcards of the head of Elagabalus.

Overshadowed by the nearby British Museum, the Blount Museum always struggled to attract guests. In the 1980s, its funding was slashed and its hours of operation significantly reduced. The final blow came in 2009, when the government’s austerity measures deemed it a “non-essential museum” and designated it for closure. The house on Russell Square was sold to a developer and the collection put up for auction at Christie’s. The two most expensive lots were the Louis Quinze mirror and the head of Elagabalus, both of which were bought by American billionaire Robert Sacher.

Sacher was the head of Knox Pharmaceuticals, the drug company founded by his father Phillip. Knox held patents for a number of opioids, including Laudia and Codenyl. Under Robert Sacher’s leadership, the company aggressively marketed its products to doctors and patients, and by the mid-2000s, its annual profits exceeded $30 billion. Sacher was also a noted art collector and member of the board of trustees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After displaying the head of Elagabalus for several years at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, Sacher lent it to the Met; the museum had chosen “Sol Invictus: Celebrating Bodies and Pleasures in Ancient Art of the Sun” as the theme for its 2020 gala. The head of Elagabalus was placed at the top of the grand staircase on a mirrored pedestal designed by Anish Kapoor. During the gala, Beyoncé and Jay-Z emerged from an enormous jeweled rose and performed “Apeshit” as they ascended the staircase. A picture of the couple posed in front of the head of Elagabalus, their arms folded across their chests, received 2.7 million likes on Instagram.

For decades, Knox Pharmaceuticals had been involved in lawsuits related to its culpability for the opioid crisis. Prosecutors alleged that Robert Sacher and other executives suppressed research showing the addictiveness of the company’s products and misled doctors and patients. In 2022, the company reached a settlement with the federal government. Sacher pled guilty to various criminal and civil charges and was required to pay $490 million in fines and perform 750 hours of community service.

As Knox’s stock plummeted, Sacher was forced to sell most of his art collection, including the head of Elagabalus. It was purchased at auction in 2023 by an undisclosed buyer for nearly three times what Sacher had paid: the head’s value had appreciated considerably due to its appearance with Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Met Gala. The media speculated on the buyer’s identity. Some said it was the crown prince of Saudi Arabia; others, Beyoncé herself. There were even rumors that the Vatican had bought back what it had long claimed was its rightful property.

Soon, the truth emerged: the buyer was Gary Gould, the chairman of Citigroup. The news was met with outrage, since Citigroup had been one of the driving forces behind the student-loan bubble that had recently plunged the global economy into a depression. Under Gould’s leadership, the bank had become severely overleveraged, and its collapse in 2022 had required a $55 billion bailout from the U.S. government. In testimony before Congress, Gould admitted that buying the head of Elagabalus during an economic crisis was “insensitive” but argued that his personal actions should not interfere with Citigroup receiving its next round of bailout funding.

Gould displayed the head of Elagabalus at his home in Palm Beach, Florida. It was seen there for the last time on September 6, 2027. The next day, Hurricane Julia hit south Florida, and the wind and the water obliterated Palm Beach. Exacerbated by the effects of climate change, the storm was the deadliest and most damaging in U.S. history, though both records were broken two years later.

Insurance adjustors searched the ruins of Gould’s house for the head of Elagabalus but found nothing. It had been taken by the rising sea.

 

 

Ryan Napier is the author of Four Stories about the Human Face (Bull City Press, 2018). He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier

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