The Women of Ancient Rome
The Historical Context
Heroines of Rome
Republican Women
Imperial Women
Women of Influence
The Forgotten Woman
The World Within
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Julia Domna, 170- 217 AD

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. "

  Cassius 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, and Cassius 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 Livius.org

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 to Rome:



" 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.

Suzanne Cross 2001-2006. All Rights Reserved.
No material may be used without the author's permission.