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The Mad Emperor

Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome

Published by Oneworld Publications
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

What happens when you put the Roman Empire in the hands of a teenage boy? The life and times of the worst Roman emperor of all.

'Buy the book; it's very entertaining.' David Aaronovitch, The Times

A Financial Times, BBC History and Spectator Book of the Year

On 8 June 218 AD, a fourteen-year-old Syrian boy, egged on by his grandmother, led an army to battle in a Roman civil war. Against all expectations, he was victorious.

Varius Avitus Bassianus, known to the modern world as Heliogabalus, was proclaimed emperor. The next four years were to be the strangest in the history of the empire.

Heliogabalus humiliated the prestigious Senators and threw extravagant dinner parties for lower-class friends. He ousted Jupiter from his summit among the gods and replaced him with Elagabal. He married a Vestal Virgin – twice. Rumours abounded that he was a prostitute. In the first biography of Heliogabalus in over half a century, Harry Sidebottom unveils the high drama of sex, religion, power and culture in Ancient Rome as we’ve never seen it before.

About The Author

Dr Harry Sidebottom teaches Ancient History at Lincoln College, Oxford. Since publication of Fire in the East in 2008, he has written and published a novel each year, all of which have been Sunday Times top 5 bestsellers. His Warrior of Rome series has been published in 14 countries. Harry is also the editor of the Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Ancient Battles.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Oneworld Publications (November 8, 2022)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780861542536

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Raves and Reviews

'Sidebottom is an agile guide and draws the reader’s attention to the remarkably inclusive nature of the empire, from its acceptance of different cultures into citizenship (the exact and polar opposite of, say, Qatar), its routine freeing of slaves and its acceptance of new gods into its pagan pantheon… Buy the book, it’s very entertaining.'

– David Aaronovitch, The Times

'The decadence, debauchery and sexual promiscuity that marked the adolescent’s time on the imperial throne make for a rollicking read.'

– Daily Mail

‘Ancient history was never less dry than in Harry Sidebottom’s superbly entertaining and always scholarly account of the reign of Heliogabalus... There is something for every reader: sex, politics, scandals and a compelling portrait of imperial society and culture.’

– Tony Barber, Financial Times, Book of the Year

'We are used to being told that the historical truth is less exciting than the myth. But, as Harry Sidebottom’s The Mad Emperor demonstrates, this is one of those rare cases when the history does not fall short. While working hard to correct the preconceptions of both scholars and general readers, Sidebottom presents a picture of third-century imperial Rome that is, if anything, wilder than the popular imagination.'

– Telegraph

‘Harry Sidebottom certainly makes the most of this potential. In thirteen chapters he takes us on an enjoyable romp through the few highs and many lows of Heliogabalus’s fleeting four years as emperor, between 218CE and 222… Throughout Sidebottom showcases the historian in action, assessing his sources, trawling through prosopography and carefully identifying marble portrait busts. He offers a scholarly but readable biography of an emperor who has been rather short of such attentions.’


The Mad Emperor recreates the Ancient World with the eye of a poet and the sure hand of a scholar.’

– Barry Strauss, author of Ten Caesars

'Harry Sidebottom skilfully juggles what to believe and what not to believe… The racy story is told with the vivid phrasing and descriptive powers of an accomplished novelist… supported by a rich back story and a fascinating discussion of his legacy… a well-illustrated and absorbing read.'

– Guy de la Bédoyère, BBC History Magazine

'Sidebottom brings [Heliogabalus] vividly back to life. His prose feels vibrant and effortless but also rewards close reading.'

– Daisy Dunn, author of Not Far from Brideshead: Oxford Between the Wars

‘A scholarly but highly readable account of the teenager who became classical Rome’s most reviled emperor, but who may be viewed with a touch more sympathy now.’

– Matthew Kneale, author of Rome: A History in Seven Sackings

‘A riveting and rollicking account of a much maligned but truly thrilling era in Roman history.’

– Emma Southon, author of A Fatal Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum

'Combining the pace of a novelist, the training of a scholar and the instincts of a true historian, this is a wonderful exploration of the Roman world under its strangest emperor.'

– Adrian Goldsworthy, author of Pax Romana

'An absolute belter'

– Paul Ross, TalkSPORT, Book of the Week

‘[An] energetic and vivid history’

– Strong Words

‘Such material certainly lends itself to Sidebottom’s boisterous, novelistic prose style… Sidebottom’s deep knowledge of the Eastern Empire and its structures is undeniable.’

– ASH Smyth, Perspective Magazine

‘A vibrant and decadent account.’

– Indulge Magazine

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