Julia Domna, Julia Maesa, Julia Soaemias, and Julia Mammaea were empresses of the so-called Severan Dynasty who guided Rome through its last good days before the plague, civil war, barbarian attacks, and famine of the third-century crisis. Julia Domna was the wife of ruler Serevus and was considered an intellect in her time. Her influence became more prominent after her husband's death, during her son's reign.
While Julia Domna spent much of her husband's reign in political eclipse, her influence was felt again during her son's regime. Her sister Julia Maesa revived the Severan dynasty by taking the ruthless actions necessary to place first one grandson and then another on the throne. Her actions staved off the type of civil war that would nearly destroy Rome a generation later, brought Roman jurisprudence to its height, and completed the integration of the eastern and western parts of the Mediterranean world, thereby contributing to the survival of Romanitas. Whereas Maesa's daughter Julia Soaemias lacked her mother's political acumen, her other daughter Julia Mammaea might well have proved a worthy successor as a power behind the throne, had not the army refused her leadership, killing her along with her son and thereby inaugurating the third-century Crisis.
Julia Domna and Julia Maesa were daughters of the high priest of Baal at Emesa. Since Emesa had originally been a kingdom ruled by its high priest, even 200 years after its incorporation into the Roman Empire, the high priest of Baal was wealthy and influential. His children would have expected to marry into the richest local families or to contract marriages with other eastern, princely lines. Septimius Severus, an ambitious young senator from Africa, might well have met both daughters at affairs for the local social elite when he commanded a legion in Syria in 179. Julia Domna was about ten at the time, Maesa about 15. Seven years later, when his first wife died, Severus sought Domna's hand. Maesa may have been less attractive to him, she may have already married, or perhaps the following story reported in the ancient sources was indeed true. Supposedly, Domna's horoscope had earlier been cast, predicting she would marry the ruler of the world. Perhaps an astrologer did flatter her with such a reading, and perhaps the superstitious Severus had heard the accompanying local gossip.
Marriage to the 42-year-old Severus meant that the teenage Domna had to leave her family in Emesa and join him on a series of provincial assignments that were necessary for a man hoping to rise in the imperial service. First, she was taken to Lugdunum in Gaul at the other end of the Roman world, where she bore her first son Caracalla. A year later in 189, her second son Geta was born in Sicily. It was probably a relief to the family when the emperor Commodus, who had become suspicious of Severus's ambition, was assassinated in 192. The proclamation of Severus's friend Pertinax as emperor was also surely welcome.
At their new post on the Danube, Domna and Severus received word that the Praetorian Guard back in Rome had killed the disciplinarian Pertinax and auctioned off the empire to the highest bidder—the fabulously wealthy Didius Julianus. Promptly expressing their horror, the Danubian legions declared Severus emperor. As they were not the only legions to so express their esteem for their commander, brutal civil war followed. Predictably, Parthian princelings took advantage of Roman disorder, causing trouble on the borders as well as in areas demanding Severus's attention. Domna accompanied him even into the barren gulleys of Mesopotamia, acquiring the first of many honorific titles: Mother of the Camp. Domna's travels presumably led her to meet many new people with different customs and beliefs, providing experiences that perhaps contributed to her later participation in an intellectual circle.
Unfortunately for the family, Plautianus, Severus's friend from boyhood and his commander of the Praetorian Guard, began undermining Domna's marriage. He may have envied her influence or, as Caracalla insisted, simply aspired to seizing power for himself. In any case, when the civil wars and their travels ended, Domna did not enjoy the fruits of victory in Rome because Plautianus's false accusations of adultery had destroyed Severus's trust in her. She continued to live in the palace with her husband and sons to avoid public scandal, and in 204 was accorded prominence unprecedented for an empress in the Secular Games. This was a rare event, held only once every 110 years. Domna presided as Augusta over a special ceremonial gathering of women—drawn primarily from the most powerful senatorial families—which included her sister Julia Maesa.
Largely excluded from political influence during her time in Rome, Domna encouraged various intellectuals of the day. While some later scholars have questioned the significance of her circle, the first emperor Augustus had set the precedent for exercising literary patronage to rally scholars and artists around a new dynasty, and no contemporary would have been surprised by her activities. Philostratus, author of the Life of Apollonius which would later prove so influential, was a good friend; Aelian collected stories of exotic (or even fantastic) animals like the manticore and made his contribution to later European folklore; Galen's medical books remained supreme until the later medieval period; even the multitalented Apuleius, best known for the novel The Golden Ass, might have been associated with the group. The vitally important historian and senator Dio Cassius was a close associate of the family, and presumably part of the circle—however critical he was of some of its members later, when it was safe.
Though Plautianus's self-serving plots were finally exposed and he was killed, Domna could not have enjoyed the last few years of her husband's reign without wondering what was to come. Her sons had never been friends, and the prospect of having an empire to quarrel over did nothing for their relationship. In an action that offered a solution to the problem of overambitious prefects of the Praetorian Guard while also attributing new importance to legal theory, Severus, for his part, appointed the great legal scholar Papinian—perhaps a member of Domna's circle—to head the guard. The classical Roman law which had such an overwhelming influence on later European, and even Latin American, history is the product of Papinian and Ulpian, about whom more will shortly be said.
Domna Refuses To Divide the Empire
Domna accompanied Severus on what would prove to be his final trip to Britain. When he died there in 211, his final words to their sons were: "Keep peace between yourselves." Their hostility, of course, intensified. According to Herodian, their mother brought them together at one conference with high-ranking senatorial advisors, but no one could see any solution short of cutting the Empire in two. Domna refused to countenance any such measure, responding: "Do you intend to divide your mother's body between you too?" The idea was dropped, rather ironically, considering that later ages would be driven to even finer subdivisions.
Had Domna foreseen the horrible outcome, she might well have agreed to the division. In 212, persuading her that he was ready for a reconciliation with his brother, Caracalla begged that they meet quietly and affectionately in the family chambers without the distractions of attendants. Though ancient sources differ as to whether Caracalla reserved the pleasure of stabbing his brother for himself or had planted assassins to do it, they all agree that Geta died in his mother's lap, drenching her with his blood. Nor was Domna even permitted to outwardly mourn her son's death. Dio, a trustworthy source in this instance, writes: "She was compelled to rejoice and laugh as though at some great fortune, so closely were all her words, gestures, and changes of color observed.
It is true that Domna was raised to even higher honors during Caracalla's sole reign and that she virtually served as regent in his absence, but that does not mean that she was insensitive or capable of being bribed with grants of power. Turton, who is often more imaginative than scholarly, put it well for once, commenting, "She was a woman of great strength of mind, who refused to let personal feeling impair her political judgment." Having refused to countenance the destruction of the Empire as a unit, she was dedicated to providing it with the best government her power could allow.
But in 217 she lost everything. Caracalla was assassinated, and she was sent back to Emesa to live in seclusion with her sister Julia Maesa. Then only in her mid-40s, she had lost both her children to violent deaths; had seen the destruction, she believed, of everything for which she and Severus had fought; and had only hostility, and perhaps even death, to look forward to at the hands of the new emperor, Macrinus. Some of the ancient sources claim that she missed the exercise of power and influence, and it probably is true that she did not mourn Caracalla as a beloved son. Nonetheless, Domna must have seen in his death the destruction of the hopes of many, including the hope for continued peace and stability. Undoubtedly victim to bitterness and depression described in the sources, she was also afflicted with breast cancer. Refusing food, she starved herself to death.
Her sister Julia Maesa was by then a wealthy widow. Her husband's career and fortune had prospered with his brother-in-law's elevation to rule, and her grandson, Bassianus, later called Elagabalus, had inherited his grand-father's position of high priest of Baal. As his grandmother, Maesa could therefore draw on the ages-old treasury of the great temple. Why should a nobody like Macrinus be allowed to usurp the imperial power? She knew that Caracalla had been popular with the troops in the region. Maesa began spreading rumors that her widowed daughter Julia Soaemias had had an affair with Caracalla, and that her son Elagabalus was also Caracalla's natural son. Helping the cause of such rumors, Macrinus proceeded to alienate senate, people, and army in a series of errors.
Maesa next enlisted Gannys, Elagabalus's tutor and Soaemias's long-time lover, in her scheme. Maesa, Gannys, Soaemias, Elagabalus, Maesa's other daughter Julia Mammaea, and her small son Alexianus all entered a camp of a friendly legion and were effusively welcomed. Though Mammaea's husband was caught on his way and killed by Macrinus's forces, the soldiers proved unwilling to enthusiastically fight other Romans in his name. The young Elagabalus did in fact resemble Caracalla and, having been togged out to strengthen the resemblance, his appearance won over many. In the final confrontation on the battlefield, a determined charge by the Praetorian Guard almost broke the ranks of Maesa's forces, but she and Soaemias jumped down from their chariot in the rear and ran forward to rally the men to stand their ground. When Macrinus's troops discovered that he had fled the scene, they promptly changed sides, and the war was won.
Maesa's Grandson Defies Her
Elagabalus, however, was not mature enough to be emperor, and his first impression on the Romans was disastrous. Maesa could stage rebellions, finance and stage-manage ceremonies to impress and win popular support, but she could not get her rebellious adolescent grandson to wear his toga. Having earlier lived with her sister in Rome, Maesa knew that Elagabalus's heavily made-up face and exotic priestly garb would strike the Romans as combining the worst of effeminacy and eccentricity. But she simply could not convince him that a Roman emperor should look Roman. Thumbing his nose at his grandmother, Elagabalus had a high-camp portrait done and sent it to Rome with instructions that it be hung in the senate. Finally, Gannys was stabbed to death by guards during an argument with Elagabalus. What should have been a triumphant entrance into Rome was significantly tarnished as a result of Elagabalus's outrageous conduct. The sources do not record that Soaemias shared her mother's disquiet nor that she joined Maesa in trying to get Elagabalus to behave with some propriety. Presumably she did not know Rome or Romans as well, or perhaps the ancient sources assessed her correctly as the most flighty member of the family.
Sill, Roman government continued essentially unaffected since it was Maesa who went into the senate, not Elagabalus, who took no interest in anything except Baal and debauchery. Nonetheless, he still threw money around, was generally offensive, and engaged in open corruption with the distribution of horrors and offices. Knowing perfectly well how many emperors had been assassinated in the previous half-century, and what had happened to their families, Maesa must have been quick to see the solution close at hand.
Mammaea's son Alexianus was a precocious little boy who honored his grandmother and mother. Like her aunt Julia Domna, Mammaea was more philosophically inclined and more interested in providing good government than her sister Julia Soaemias. Although some have believed that Maesa hoped Elagabalus could peacefully be persuaded to resign in favor of Alexianus, so that he could devote himself exclusively to his priesthood and sensuality, she almost certainly decided early that Elagabalus would have to be removed. Rumors were spread that Alexianus too was Caracalla's natural son.
Elagabalus, however, was not stupid and knew that once he adopted Alexianus as his grandmother wished, he was expendable. Maesa argued that his almost exclusive homosexuality made it vital for him to adopt an heir to provide for succession, but Elagabalus kept putting it off. Finally, liking and trusting Alexianus as much as everyone else, Elagabalus gave in and adopted him. Then, growing uneasy, he started trying to promote his mother politically, presumably as a counterweight to his grandmother. He sent Alexianus's tutor, the distinguished legal scholar Ulpian, into exile, an action which only cost him more credibility with the senate, as did an abortive assassination plot against Alexianus.
All too late, Soaemias began telling her son to appear for ceremonies appropriately garbed in a toga. She could not, however, make him act with dignity when he got there. The Praetorian Guard became convinced, perhaps correctly, that there was another attempt under way against Alexianus. Modern historians have taken positions ranging from the belief that Elagabalus's ensuing murder at the hands of the Praetorian Guard was a shock to Maesa, who had hoped to prevent it, to the assertion that she had planned all along to eliminate both mother and son. The truth is likely in between. Maesa might well have considered Elagabalus unsalvageable but hoped to get Soaemias out of the predicament. Dio, however, blamed her daughter Mammaea for the final riot in the Praetorian camp in 222, claiming that she had become openly hostile to her sister Soaemias. In any case, Soaemias did not run; on the contrary, she tried shielding her son with her body and died with him. Their corpses were stripped and dragged through the streets.
Mammaea's Son Named Emperor
Mammaea was certainly a different kind of woman than her sister had been. Whereas Soaemias had acquired a shady reputation—although it may well have been exaggerated—Mammaea was known as puritanical. She had always wanted to acquire the best tutors for Alexianus, now Alexander Severus, but after the adoption she had been openly grooming him to be a philosopher king, of the sort Plato wanted to produce. At 13 he had been taught to maintain a dignified public bearing in deliberate contrast with the appearance of his cousin. Though the senate confirmed him, it exacted its price from Maesa and Mammaea. Women could no longer enter the senate. They would have to consult a special advisory group of senators even when a full meeting of the senate was not possible or appropriate. Maesa and Mammaea showed no signs of resenting these measures; they may even have appreciated more genuine involvement in government by the senate. Ulpian was appointed Praetorian Prefect, with lasting consequences for the blossoming of the classical period of Roman law and for the legal traditions of Europe and its colonies.
Unfortunately, Maesa died, probably still in her 50s, just three years later. If she had lived, subsequent tragedies might have been avoided, and the course of European history might have been much different. Though undoubtedly well-meaning (perhaps the most well-meaning of all the women in the family), Mammaea never had the iron will and ruthlessness of her mother and her presence did not evoke the respect that Maesa's had. Ulpian's discipline was uncongenial to the Praetorian Guard, and, in a drunken riot, they pursued him into the royal chambers, where they killed him in the presence of Mammaea and her son Alexander Severus. Even Dio Cassius feared assassination. Mammaea shared Ulpian's devotion to fiscal responsibility, which did nothing for her popularity. Nonetheless, the reign of the popular boy with his comparatively reserved, honest mother seemed later like the last moments of sunshine before the storm.
Had the Romans been left to their own devices, a son of Alexander Severus might have inherited the throne. As it was, Severus's defeat of the Parthians had unleashed a resurgent Persian Empire to overrun the eastern borders. Alexander Severus was only 21 when he and his mother, who was just 40, had to go east to fight a major war. Alexander became sick, and the troops began to think him weak while resenting the suffering they endured in the desert for an expedition aborted through what they believed to be his lack of strength.
The same troops were brought to meet a new threat on the Rhine, the second major wave of Germans who would eventually overwhelm the imperial defenses on the north. A counteroffensive was largely successful but not followed up aggressively as the troops wanted. With his popularity among the troops eroded, and given his reputation for clinging to his mother's skirts, Alexander could not help but appear weak. Malcontents began gathering around a Thracian giant called Maximinus, and one day some of Alexander's troops proclaimed Maximinus emperor. A personal appeal to the assembled troops brought cries that he was a "money-grubbing milktoast." Running to his mother's tent, Alexander found comfort from Mammaea until the assassins came for them both.
In actuality, the Roman Empire had been governed by Syrian princesses of the priestly house of Baal from the time when Caracalla had begun losing interest in civil affairs in about 213 until the death of Alexander Severus in 234. In that way, these two decades were a strange interlude in Roman history; it would be untrue, however, to call it an unhappy one. The dynasty was not responsible for the revival of a brilliantly led Persian Empire, nor for the mass movement of peoples out of central Asia which was just starting to drive the German tribes into the Rhine and Danube frontiers. Subsequent centuries showed that men with military experience were often defeated by these intractable problems. The Julias left Rome's greatest legacy to Europe: classical Roman law of the golden age of Papinian and Ulpian.
Further Reading on The Julias of Rome
Balsdon, J. P. V. D. Roman Women. Barnes and Noble, 1962.
Birley, Anthony R. Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. Yale University Press, 1972.
Cleve, Robert L. "Some Male Relatives of the Severan Women," in Historia. Vol. 37, 1988.
Turton, Godfrey. The Syrian Princesses. Cassell, 1974.
Dio Cassius. Dio's Roman History. Vol. IX, Putnam, 1927.
Herodian. Vols. I-II. Harvard University Press, 1969.
The Scriptores Historiae Augustae. Vols. I-II. Harvard University Press, 1959.