And so this woman, sprung
from the people and raised to a high station, who had lived her
husband's reign in great unhappiness because of Plautianus, who
had beheld her younger son slain in her own bosom and had always
from first to last borne ill will toward her elder son while he
lived, and finally had received such tidings of his assassination,
fell from power during her lifetime and thereupon destroyed herself.
Dio, LXXIX, 24.
The Syrian-born wife of Emperor Septimus
Severus (reigned 193-211), Julia Domna was known for her love
of learning, her wit, and her survivor's political instincts. She
must also have endured, not atypical of Roman Empresses, the family
life from hell. From 193 to 217 AD, she helped the Emperor - and
later her son, Caracalla
- administer the vast domains of the Empire, often during the
Emperor's extended absences during war and rebellion. Julia Domna,
together with her remarkable sister, Julia Maesa, proved herself
capable of tiptoeing through the minefield of imperial politics,
the ambitious generals, the warring interests, with the steely ability
by then required to survive the imperial experience. She also survived
multiple personal disasters that would have broken a weaker woman.
The Syrian Empress
Born in 170 in the provincial city of Emesa
in Syria, Julia was the daughter of Iulius Bassianus, priest of
Elagabulus/Baal. She married Septimus Severus in AD 186 at age 16;
her sons M. Aurelius Antoninus (Caracalla) and P.
Septimius Geta were born in 188 and 189. The Augustan histories
suggest that Septimus Severus sought her in marriage after his first
wife's death because of an astrologer who predicted that Julia would
marry a king. After the brief civil war leading to Severus' accession
to the purple in 193, she was awarded the title "Augusta."
She was also forced to deal with the suspicion of native Romans
regarding the perceived corruption of both an Eastern provincial
and one associated with a hated foreign sect. The unreliable Augustan
histories paint rumors of her cruelty, manipulation, and alleged
infidelities which may have been current gossip at the time.
For much of his reign, Severus was deeply influenced
by the Praetorian Prefect C. Fulvius Plautianus, who assumed massive
powers under the emperor, playing Sejanus to Severus' Tiberius.
Plautianus, who married his daughter to Julia's son, Caracalla,
was apparently hostile to Julia's influence and worked against her
behind the scenes:
" So greatly did Plautianus
have the mastery in every way over the emperor, that
he often treated even Julia Augusta in an outrageous
manner; for he cordially detested her and was always
abusing her violently to Severus. He used to conduct
investigations into her conduct as well as gather
evidence against her by torturing women of the nobility.
For this reason she began to study philosophy and
passed her days in company with sophists. "
Dio, History of Rome, LXXVI.15.
Whether because of Plautianus' intrigues or not, during this period
Julia Domna acquired her reputation as an intelligent and discriminating
patron of the arts. By her support of philosophers, artists, and
writers of Empire-wide prominence (such as Philostratus, Galen,
Dio himself), she helped enhance imperial prestige in that brief
Severan hiatus between violent civil wars. It has been suggested
that her patronage had its political side; she may have commissioned
a biography of the Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana,
partly as anti-Christian propaganda at a time the Christians were
seen as subversive and her husband was promulgating edicts against
them. Significantly, she was a far more eastern than western ruler
and prefigured the powerful Byzantine empresses who come after her.
The Imperial Family. After Caracalla murdered
his brother, the younger child's image was
destroyed. Image courtesy of
Murder and Intrigue
To read about the events leading
up to Severus' accession, and his actions thereafter, is to realize
how brutalized the imperial power-seeking process had become by
the late second century. Both Cassius Dio and the Augustan histories
trot out a stunningly endless, yet banal series of violent murders,
proscriptions, intrigues, and aborted coups d'etat. Similarly,
to go from the family life of a Livia two centuries earlier to
that of Julia Domna is to realize absolutely how power tends to
corrupt. Severus ruled with firmness but also with cruelty. The
two sons, Geta and Caracalla, were apparently dissolute and at
each other's throats from an early age. Well before the family
trip to Britain at the end of Severus' reign, Dio suggests Caracalla
had more than once intrigued against and even offered physical
violence to his father; he had threatened to murder his brother
and numerous others from time to time. The coarse brutality of
Roman power politics appeared endemic, nowhere more than in the
life of this imperial family whose final member, Caracalla, became
a byword for ferocious brutality.
In 208, disruptions in northern Britain led
Severus to go there at the head of an army; he took both his sons
with him, allegedly to remove them from the corruption available
in Rome. Julia Domna came with them and was with him when he unexpectedly
died at York in 211. Showing his realpolitic view of priorities,
Severus' last advice to his sons was, as quoted by Dio: "Rule
together as brothers, enrich the soldiers, and forget about everybody
else." Caracalla arranged the murder of his brother, who
was theoretically co-ruler, a year later after the family had returned
" Antoninus [Caracalla]
had planned to murder his brother Geta at the Saturnalia,
but he was unable to, because his evil intentions
were so well known as to make concealment impossible.
From this point on there was constant conflict between
them, with each planning against them other, and many,
counterplots. Since many soldiers and athletes were
guarding Geta, both home and abroad, by day and by
night, Antoninus persuaded his mother to summon both
of them to her room, on the pretext that he wanted
a reconciliation. Since Geta trusted her, Antoninus
went in with him, and when they were inside, a group
of centurions who had been assembled by Antoninus,
rushed out and struck Geta, who had run to his mother
as soon as he saw them and put his arms round her
neck and held himself to her bosom, weeping and crying
out 'Mother, mother, who bore me, who bore me, help,
I am being murdered'. "
||Cassius Dio, History
of Rome War, 78.2.
Forbidden by the new Emperor to grieve publicly,
about whom an oracle had predicted a violent end ("Thy house
shall perish utterly in blood," Dio, 79), Julia Domna hid her
feelings and continued to assist her surviving son with the supervision
of the administration of the empire, including her name along with
his in correspondence to the Senate. Throughout his reign, especially
when he was abroad on campaigns, Julia Domna served, as Livia
had done, as the Emperor's factotum.
Julia Domna Coin, c. 195; the reverse
shows Venus holding the palm and apple.
When Caracalla was, in turn, murdered by his
eventual successor, Macrinus,
Cassius Dio states that Julia Domna, then living near Antioch, considered
a coup d'etat to become sole ruler of the Empire herself.
However, already ill (Dio says she was already suffering breast
cancer) and grieving for her dead sons, she apparently decided to
commit suicide rather than pursue her plan. He claims she starved
herself to death. Ironically her iron-willed sister, Julia Maesa
(died 223?-226) successfully organized a later coup which overthrew
Macrinus to place her grandson, the depraved Elagabulus,
on the throne. His later murder would help provoke a half-century
of political disaster. Julia's epitaph is spoken by Cassius Dio,
firsthand observer of these events:
"Hence no one could,
in the light of her career, regard as happy each and all who attain
great power, unless some genuine and unalloyed pleasure in life
and unmixed and lasting good fortune is theirs. This, then, was
the fate of Julia. Her body was brought to Rome and placed in the
tomb of Gaius and Lucius. Later, however, both her bones and those
of Geta were transferred by her sister Maesa to the precinct of
Antoninus." Dio, LXXIX, 24.
Image of Julia
Domna courtesy of B. McManus, VROMA.
All quotations courtesy of Bill Thayer's Lacus Curtius, the Cassius
Dio Translations. Julia Domna coin courtesy of Ancient
Greek and Roman Coins.