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Julia Domna, Syrian Empress

Julia Domna was from Emesa, a city in southern Syria and was probably born in the 160s CE. She first met Septimus Severus when he was stationed in Syria from 180 to 182 CE. Her father, Julius Bassianus, was the high priest of the god Elagabal, whose cult was centered at Emesa. It appears that Septimus became quite well acquainted with Bassianus, an important man whose goodwill any Roman commander would have sought. Julia Domna and her sister, Julia Maesa (Domna and Maesa were both Semitic names) were also devotees of Elagabal, literally the 'god of the mountain'. In the eastern part of the Roman world, he had come to be identified with the Sun God - 'the ancestral Sun God Elagabal' - and was worshipped at Emesa in the form of a conical black stone.

Septimus was already married at the time he first met Julia Domna. We know that he grew to know Bassianus and his daughters well enough to learn that Domna's horoscope foretold that she would one day marry a king. Such a story is not unlikely since any astrologer would realize that the daughter of the high priest of Elagabal at Emesa would most assuredly marry well, possibly even a king; and Bassianus may have 'obtained' the horoscope for his daughter as a convenient way of attracting the best possible suitors.

However the horoscope came about, Julia's horoscope was not lost on Septimus who was an extremely ambitious and superstitious man. He believed, though dreams and other signs, that he was destined to become emperor of Rome. Julia and her horoscope made such an impression on him that when his wife died a few years later while he was governing Gaul, Septimus dispatched a letter to Syria almost immediately with a proposal of marriage. Julia accepted and traveled to Gaul, where she and Septimus were married at Lugdunum (modern day Lyons) in the summer of 187 CE. With Julia's horoscope now linked to his, Septimus' dreams of one day being emperor increased. In reality, he had less than six years to wait.

Soon after her marriage, Julia became pregnant. A son, Bassianus (who would later become better known by his nickname, Caracalla, because of the Gallic cloak he liked to wear) was born the following year. Septimus' first marriage had left him childless. Julia delivered a second son, Geta, in 189 CE not long after Septimus returned to Rome with his new family. She had little time to recover since she and her two infant sons would leave within a few months for Sicily where Septimus was to be proconsul for the year.

While in Sicily, the mounting problems with Commodus in Rome and an uncertain future must have taken their toll on Julia. Her faith in astrology was a solace to her but she must have realized that all the positive astrological predictions in the world could not stop an emperor's wrath. Septimus is said to have gotten into some minor trouble while in Sicily consulting astrologers about the imperial position. An acquaintenance from Emesa had already been eliminated for what appears to be a frivolous reason.

Severus and Julia weathered the beginning of the storm and the new father even held the consulship for a month in 190 CE, but then the appointments ended. For an ambitious middle aged man with a prominent younger wife and infant children whose sole holdings outside Africa were a house in Rome and a farm in rural Italy, it is very doubtful that his inactivity was voluntary. It happened to turn out to be a very good time for him to keep a low profile. We do know that Severus had no official duties for about a year when his fortunes revived dramatically upon the elevation of his fellow African, Aemilius Laetus became Commodus' Praetorian prefect.

In 191 CE, Laetus arranged Severus' appointment to the governorship of Upper Pannonia which contained the largest Roman army near Italy. There does not appear to be any satisfactory administrative explanation for the appointment since Septimus lacked both the governmental and military experience for such a command. It does appear that he and trusted others, mostly Africans (including his brother also known as Geta) were being placed in positions of power by Laetus as a prelude to the overthrow of Commodus. He was to be replace by Severus' former boss in Syria, Pertinax. While not a major player at this time, he certainly was aligned with the right political clique. His future and that of Julia's, depended on whether or not his benefactors could successfully eliminate Commodus.

Upon receiving and verifying news of Commodus' death, Septimus sacrificed and administered to his troops an oath of allegiance to the new emperor. Certainly his own future couldn't have looked any brighter. The fact that Julia's brother in law (who would later server Septimus) held a key position in securing the safe arrival of Rome's grain supply at Ostia under Pertinax is another indication of the African Syrian connection at work in the political events of the time. Septimus was left in command of the Danube legions and it would be from this position that he would make his own successful bid for the throne.

According to the historian Herodian, Severus had a convenient dream right after he proclaimed Pertinax emperor to his troops that he would replace him. Apparently Septimus realized the potential for problems and was prepared to step in and take over becuase six months later, Septimus was emperor. Even his own astrologers must have been surprised at his rapid rise to the purple.

Immediately after Pertinax's murder, another senator, Didius Julianus, disgraced his long and otherwise noteworthy public career by actually purchasing the Empire. Public indignation over over Julianus' elevation and how he got there, was immediate and his downfall was insured by the army whose leaders were now quarrelling over the throne. Septimus was closest to Rome and after guaranteeing the safety of Julia and his children, the 'avenger of Pertinax' as he now called himself, allowed his troops to hail him as emperor at Carnuntum on April 9, 193 CE and began the almost 700 Roman mile march to the capital. Julia Domna, daughter of the high priest of Elagabal at Emesa, was about to become the empress of Rome.

 

 

Difficult Beginnings

The stars had indeed been kind to Julia Domna. Marrying a minor king would have been the most someone of her status might expect. Instead, she married a man who became an emperor. She had little time to reflect on her good fortune. No less than three previous emperors had been murdered in less than a year and Septimus was less experienced than any of them. If there was ever a need for new and encouraging horoscopes, it was now.

Certainly, with their faith in astrology, the royal couple had surrounded themselves with practitioners who gave them daily advice. They must have, like Tiberius before them, become expert themselves. Of course, Pertinax and Didius Julianus had probably been able to point to positive horoscopes about their own futures and they had both been killed with their horoscopes forgotten.

The new emperor differed from his predecessors in that he commanded a significant part of the Roman army. Neither Pertinax or Julianus had the military support to survive. They also could not control the Praetorian Guard. Septimus proceeded to Rome as if he was moving through enemy lines and abolished the old Guard upon his arrival. In doing so, he not only ended their ability but also removed the former membership from the city. The reconstituted Guard, excluding the Italians, was dependent on and loyal to him.

Julia as Empress

Julia's influence and personality pervaded the whole empire. Certainly no other empress survives on so many inscriptions and on so many coins. In 196 CE, after Septimus' defeat of the Adiabeni, she became the 'Mother of the Army' as the younger Faustina had been. She had accompanied her husband on his campaign and it appears that Septimus wanted the army and Rome to view her as an active participant in all that he did.. But she was ultimately to become 'mother' of so much more than that. In the dedication of the arch of the money changers in the forum Boarium at Rome, set up in 204 CE, she was the 'Mother of the Augusti: - Caracella and Geta - 'and of the Army'. After Geta's death, the inscription was revised to read, 'Mother of the Augustus and of the Army and of the Senate and of the Country.'

Early in 202 CE, the royal family returned to Rome to celebrate Septimus' decennalia on April 9th, the beginning of his tenth year of rule. It was also a thanksgiving for the safe return of Septimius, Julia and their sons after a five year absence. In addition, it was only two days before the emperor's fifty seventh birthday and five days after the royal couple's eldest son, Caracalla, turned fourteen.

To add to the festivities, Caracalla was married to the daughter of Septimius' Praetorian prefect, Plautianus, a native of Leptis Magna and reportedly the kinsman of the emperor's mother. Plautianus had become so powerful that his influence extended into every aspect of the imperial administration. Plautianus was a curious man who insisted that his wife live in a purdah. In 201 CE, he took a great risk and succeeded. He either launched or allowed it to be believed that he was on the point of launching, a prosecution against the Empress for adultery, which in view of her rank, by Augustus' definition, was the same as high treason. No other empress, with the exception of Nero's wife, the poor Octavia, had been so insulted. If the case actually did reach the courts, Julia must have been acquitted and this was probably as Plautianus expected and even intended. But his ultimate prize was obtained, he had broken the power she had over her husband, at least for the time being. It was most likely small consolation for Julia that Caracalla's hatred for Plautilla as a wife as was great as Julia's hatred for her as a daughter in law.

Her political eclipse may have lasted as long as three years. We do know that by the celebration of the Secular Games in 204, she took part as no Empress had taken before her and in the following year a check was called to the ascending power of Plautianus who was by now no lower than that of the Emperor's sons. Information against him was laid by the Emperor's brother, P. Septimius Geta, on his death bed. Plautianus was implicated in a plot to assassinate both Septimius and Caracalla. Caracalla followed up on the accusation and, charged with treason, Plautianus was murdered in the Palace on January 22nd.

Dio describes what happened next:

And somebody plucked out a few hairs from [Plautianus'] beard, carried them toJulia and Plautilla, who were together, before they had heard of the affair, and exclaimed, "Behold your Plautianus!" thus causing grief to the one and joy to the other. Thus this man, who had possessed the greatest power of all the men of my time, so that everyone regarded him with greater fear and trembling than the very emperors, and who had been led on to still greater hopes, was slain by his son-in-law and his body thrown down from the plaace into a street; for it was only afterwards that, at the command of Severus, he was taken up and buried.

(Roman history, 76.4.4-5)

Plautilla would soon be banished and was later executed when Caracalla became sole emperor. The Senate was summoned and Septimius gave the official version of what happened. A number of Plautianus' closest associates were executed immediately.

Julia and Caracalla

Despite a strong emphasis placed in the Roman coinage on hope for continuance of the reigning family, nothing could conceal the hatred which Caracalla and Geta felt for each other and this no doubt caused Julia acute alarm. When the whole family left for Britain in 208, there was still hope that the two brothers might be reconciled. Their father, on his deathbed in 211, consigned the Empire to the both of them and urged them to patch up their troubles but it appeared that neither was moved by any sentiment. They carried his ashes back to Rome and according to Herodian, people speculated on the possibility of dividing the empire into two separate parts. In 212, Caracalla suggested he meet his brother in the presence of his mother so the two could settle the quarrel. Geta came and so did Caracalla's centurions. They stabbed him to death in the arms of his mother and managed to wound her too.

Dio tells us that Julia was "compelled to rejoice and laugh as though at some great fortune; so closely was all her words, gestures, and change of color observed. Thus she alone, the Augusta, wife of the emperor and mother of the emperors, was not permitted to shed tears even in private over so great a sorrow." (Roman History 77.2.2-6)

Caracalla would survive to be emperor for six years and his most memorable act as emperor was to make all free inhabitants of the Roman world Roman citizens. In April of 217, on his way from Edessa to Carrhae, Caracalla was murdered. Julia received the news in Antioch and we are told she contemplated suicide but when the new emperor treated her with respect, her spirits revived and she began to talk abusively of her son's successor.

Because of her intrigues, Macrinus ordered her out of Antioch. She soon died from starvation and complications caused by cancer of the breast. She was probably in her fifties at the time of her death.

 

Roman Women, Their History and Habits, J.P.V.D. Balsdon, Barnes and Nobles, Inc. 1998

Roman People, Second Edition, Robert B. Kebric, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1997

The Syrian Princesses, The Women Who Ruled Rome AD 193-235, G. Turton, London; Cassell, 1974

The Caesars Wives, S. Perowne, Hodder & Stoughton, 1974