One big happy family.
[Tondo showing Julia Domna and family, 2nd century CE, Antikensammlung, Berlin, Image Source]
Empress Julia Domna (c.170-217 CE), like any Roman Empressthough perhaps more than some, is a figure obscured by propaganda. Wife of one Roman Emperor, SeptemiusSeverus, and mother of two more, Caracalla and Geta, she certainly held great
power. and the general trajectory of her life is clear, but accounts of
specific events tell us more about the aims of their writers than about the
Julia was the first Roman Empress to come from somewhere
other than Rome and was probably of Arab descent. She was born in Syria to the priest Bassanius. Little is known of her early life, but
later events show that she was probably quite well educated in her childhood. Septemius Severus married her in 187 or
so, supposedly because she was destined to marry a king. Whether or not the story is true, which
it may have been, it did a fantastic job of legitimating Severan rule.
With the assassination of Commodus* began the Year of the
Five Emperors (193), with Sevrus as one of the contenders. Unlike many of women of her time,
though very like some of her predecessors, Julia accompanied her husband on
campaign even after he had definitively won power. Like Faustina the Younger she earned the title of Mother of
the Camp. Her elder son,
Caracalla, was born in Gaul, the younger, Geta, back in Rome.
She must have had very thick hair for a hairstyle like that.
[Aureus depicting Julia Domana Augusta, Image Source]
Throughout her time as Empress, Julia devoted herself to
learning. She gathered around
herself a circle of mathematicians and philosophers; it was through her
influence that the study of philosophy flourished.** It was to this that she turned during the tumultuous events
of her sons’ rule as co-Emperors, her attempts to mediate between the two of
them and Caracalla’s sole rule after he killed his brother.
Julia died of starvation in 217 sometime after hearing of
Caracalla’s assassination. Whether
this was suicide or a complication of breast cancer is unknown. It is remarkable that she, a nobody
daughter of a Syrian priest, rose to become the Empress, the events of her life
an important part both of the Severan campaign to legitimize a new imperial
dynasty and of others’ later attempts to tear them down.
*Son of Faustina the Younger.
**She especially supported the Pythagoreans.
Cassius Dio, Roman History books 75-79 – Lacus Curtius
“Septemius Severus,” Historia Augusta – Lacus Curtius
Langford, Julie. Maternal Megalomania: Julia Domna and the Imperial Politics of Motherhood. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Benario, Herbert W. “Severan Julias” – De Imperatoribus Romanis
Julia Domna – Women Philosophers