Julia Domna (c. 170–217 CE)

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Julia Domna (c. 170–217 ce)

Empress of Rome. Name variations: Julia Domna Augusta. Born around 170 ce; died in 217 ce: daughter of Julius Bassianus (the high priest of Elagabalus at Emesa); sister of Julia Maesa (c. 170–224 ce); became second wife of Lucius Septimius Severus (who subsequent to their marriage became emperor of Rome), in 187; children: Septimius Bassianus (b. 188), later known as Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus or "Caracalla"; Publius Septimius Geta (b. 189).

Julia Domna was born in Emesa, a city of Arab foundation in the rich Orontes River valley of Roman Syria. Emesa was strategically situated near Rome's frontier with the Parthian Empire, Rome's single strongest foreign rival in the second century. Emesa's importance, however, pre-dated the strategic value it possessed in Domna's day, for it had long stood as a regional crossroads where different peoples (including especially Phoenicians and Greeks) interacted commercially with its Arabic founders. A cosmopolitan city, Emesa's population was too intermixed to determine Domna's ethnicity beyond a doubt: likely, she was of mixed ancestry, although Domna itself was of Semitic origin (meaning "black"). Nevertheless, her family's legal name was "Julius" (which Domna bore in the feminine form, "Julia"), and held Roman citizenship. Although a Roman citizen, Domna's father was also a priest of the god, Elagabalus, an important regional deity who by the time of Domna's birth encompassed two originally distinct gods: El of the mountain (worshiped in the form of a black conical stone), and Heliogabal (a Phoenician sun god also known as Sol Invictus, in which form he would later be associated with Mithras). When Emesa had been an independent city, the priesthood of Elagabalus had been in the possession of its ruling house, a right which probably was retained by its non-royal descendants under Roman rule. Thus, however mixed her ancestry might have been, it is likely that Domna could trace her line directly back to the olden kings of Emesa.

Septimius Severus undoubtedly met Julius Bassianus for the first time when he commanded the IV Scythian legion in Syria during the early 180s. Whether or not he also met Domna at this time is unknown, but he seems then to have learned that Domna's horoscope promised that she would one day marry a king—a fact which the very superstitious and astrologically addicted Septimius seems to have kept in the back of his mind. (Perhaps this prediction was validated by the name Domna itself, which, to a speaker of Latin, could have been mistaken for a contraction of Domina, meaning Sovereign Mistress.) As a result, when Paccia Marciana (Septimius' first wife) died in Gallia Lugdunensis several years after his Syrian command, Septimius married Domna. (It should be noted that Septimius and Paccia were from the African city of Lepcis Magna. Their ancestries were north-African and Phoenician. Throughout Septimius' entire life, wags made fun of his provincially accented Latin.) Septimius married Domna in 187, he being 41 and childless, while she was about 17 years old. Their union soon proved fruitful: Caracalla (as he is best known) was born April 4, 188, with Geta following on March 7, 189. The birth of two sons to Septimius after a barren marriage anchored Domna in his affections. Of course, Domna's beauty (her comely portraits yet exist) and manifest shrewdness in his interests undoubtedly helped to secure the undying affection of her husband.

Whether the stars played a role in their subsequent fates or not (both principals thought that they did), Septimius' career advanced rapidly after his marriage to Domna. After Gaul, Septimius served as proconsul in Sicily, where he was fortunate to have been acquitted of the charge of having taken the Emperor Commodus' horoscope, though he quite likely was guilty. If he had been convicted of this crime, Septimius would have been in serious trouble, for it was a capital offense to consult the emperor's horoscope, it being assumed that if one did so, one had treasonous intentions. Despite the suspicion Septimius generated in Sicily, the emperor Commodus named him as one of Rome's consuls for the year 190—a lofty honor, even though Septimius had a record 24 consular colleagues that year. Then Commodus again displayed his confidence in Septimius by giving him a very prestigious military command along the strategic Pannonian (Danubian) frontier. Septimius remained there from 191 to 193 and as such was removed from the political blood-letting which Rome knew during that period. Julia Domna and sons accompanied Septimius from Gaul, to Sicily, to Rome and to Pannonia, and it was during these years Domna established herself as Septimius' confidante, whose mind was more valuable to his career than were her physical charms.

Septimius' Pannonian command not only removed him from Rome through a rough period, it also placed him in a very auspicious position when the heirless Commodus was assassinated on the last day of 192. Although a successional crisis followed that act, Septimius initially remained out of the running for the imperial throne. In fact, he initially supported the imperial claims of one Pertinax, an old friend and benefactor. Pertinax was of humble birth but was popular among Rome's political elite and recognized as a man of talent. His established reputation, however, did him little good when a financial crisis forced him to impose austerity measures on Rome's Praetorian Guard, the only military corps stationed near Rome. As a result, elements of this less-than-pleased military unit mutinied and murdered Pertinax after a reign of only about two months.

After this treachery, the Praetorian Guard compounded its crime by literally putting the imperial office up for auction. For a princely sum, one Didius Julianus briefly possessed the throne, but when the armies on the frontier heard about the disgraceful behavior of the Guard, they reacted violently. Three armies hailed their respective commanders as emperors: the Pannonian legions supported Septimius; the British, Clodius Septimius Albinus; and the Syrian, Pescennius Niger. Septimius, however, was the closest of these three to Rome, giving him a leg up in the civil wars which followed. He quickly marched on Rome where Julianus' support evaporated in the face of Septimius' superior force and speed. Before Septimius even reached Rome, Julianus was murdered, in the hopes of mitigating the expected slaughter. Once in Rome, Septimius saw his elevation confirmed by the Senate and the People: henceforth he was an Augustus (senior emperor). Domna reigned at his side as an official Augusta (empress). The Praetorian Guard as it had existed was disbanded by Septimius and subsequently reformed.

Septimius' official recognition in Rome did not forestall civil war, for neither Albinus nor Niger yet recognized his imperial legitimacy. Septimius, however, acted nimbly so as to avoid fighting both of his rivals simultaneously. This was accomplished by the brokering of a deal whereby Septimius appointed Albinus as his Caesar (junior emperor and imperial heir) in return for Albinus' acknowledgment of his own status as Augustus. This agreement secured Septimius' northern flank, allowing him to focus his attention on Niger and the East. The conflict which followed was not overly protracted: in fact, Septimius' victory there was completed militarily in the spring of 194 at Issus (the site of one of Alexander the Great's battles, which both Septimius and Domna took as a very good omen).

At her husband's side throughout this campaign, Domna's connections helped Septimius secure the loyalty of Niger's Syrian base quickly and thoroughly. Domna's family ties, however, were not her only contributions to her husband's enterprise, for Septimius exploited both her propaganda value and her intellect in the process of securing his imperial position. As far as propaganda was concerned, in 193 coins were struck with Domna's portrait, hailing her as "Venus Victrix, Venus Genetrix"—titles which simultaneously portended victory and the foundation of a new order, and which also linked Septimius' house to that of the house of Julius Caesar (whose heirs established Rome's first imperial dynasty), because the great Caesar had claimed descent from Venus. Thus did Septimius begin to assert his imperial legitimacy.

Another link to the legitimate past was forged in April of 195 when Domna was honored with the title "Mater Castrorum" ("Mother of the Camp"), a title which had first been granted by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to his wife Faustina II , some 20 years before. Aurelius had been Rome's last universally popular emperor (although he did father Commodus), so that by the resurrection of this honorific, Septimius began the policy of defining himself as the legitimate heir to Aurelius' authority. This policy was soon taken a step further by Septimius' adoption of the long dead Aurelius as his father. In addition, "Mater Castrorum" did something more for Domna: it publicly recognized her role in devising the political and military strategy which culminated in Septimius' unrivaled mastery of the Roman Empire.

After Septimius' consolidation of the East, it was time for a showdown with Albinus. This was precipitated soon after the announcement of Domna's new title, when Septimius officially renamed Caracalla as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (the legal name of Septimius' new "father"), and then recognized this seven-year-old as his Caesar. Albinus knew the significance of these moves and rebelled, only to be finally defeated by Septimius in battle near Lyon (France) in February of 197. Thereafter, a vicious purge of all supporters of one-time competitors cemented Septimius' authority as Rome's unrivaled master.

After these events, Domna remained at Septimius' side when he invaded the Parthian Empire in 197–98 (where, with victory, he proclaimed Caracalla an Augustus and Geta a Caesar). She was also with him when he visited Syria in 198–99 and Egypt in 199–200; when he returned to Syria in 200–202; when he called on Rome in 202; when he revisited his hometown and points west in Africa in 203; when he sojourned in Italy from 203 to 208; and when he campaigned in Britain between 208 and 211. Domna's influence over her husband, however, was not without challenge. In particular, one Gaius Fulvius Plautianus for a time gained Septimius' trust, and having it, did his best to undermine Domna's influence over Septimius. Plautianus' reasons for so behaving seem to have been a combination of professional ambition and personal hatred, for the sources make it clear that he and Domna were bitter enemies. For some while, Septimius tolerated Plautianus' abuse of Domna, undoubtedly because Plautianus was a competent administrator. While this state of affairs was current, Domna took solace in the company of sophists and philosophers, and in the process got a reputation for promiscuity, probably as a result of Plautianus' slanders. Among those who frequented Domna's salon during this time was Philostratus, who wrote for her a biography of Apollonius of Tyana, and Cassius Dio, who was a historian as well as a politician. Even with an enemy at court, Domna continued to function as Septimius' Augusta, presiding over court ceremonies, religious rituals and sporting contests. Plautianus' ascendancy, however, collapsed in 205 amid suspicions that his competence was fueling disloyalty to Septimius. Thereafter, Septimius reinstated Domna as his intimate confidante.

In such favor Domna remained until Septimius died at York (Britain) in February of 211. Just prior to his death, Septimius made every attempt to insure that his sons would cooperate as imperial colleagues, and clearly he relied on Domna to oversee their continued collaboration. Caracalla, however, would accept no imperial peer, and for their parts, neither Geta nor the faction which supported him at court would even consider the surrender of the imperial status which Septimius had granted to his second son. Thus, the relationship of the brothers deteriorated, and both sought safety in bodyguards. After months of high tension, Domna's efforts at reconciliation finally seemed to bear fruit in December of 211: Caracalla asked her to arrange a meeting where only she, he and Geta would be present, so that they could arrange a peaceful solution to the existing rivalry. Domna did so, and for secrecy's sake planned an auspicious session to meet in her private apartments. Trusting in his mother's neutrality, Geta arrived without a guard. Arbitration, however, was not what Caracalla had in mind. Without Domna's knowledge he planned an ambush for his brother, so that when Geta came to greet his mother, he was simultaneously attacked by assassins. Geta died in his mother's blood-soaked arms. Other bloodshed quickly ensued, and Geta's faction was eradicated.

Whatever Domna might have thought about Caracalla's callous abuse of her trust, she demonstrated no intention of severing ties with him. As events unfolded, Caracalla needed Domna's talents and connections, and so bought her continued support with more honors and real power. Domna thus became the "Mother of the Senate" and the "Mother of the Fatherland." Even more significantly, Caracalla employed her as the manager of his copious official correspondence, in which capacity Domna determined which petitions should be brought to the emperor's attention and which should not. As a gatekeeper controlling access to Caracalla, Domna was in a position to influence imperial policy. As such, those who wished their business to come to the eyes of the new emperor did well to stay on Domna's good side.

Domna also advised her son about financial matters, and, in this capacity, often chastised him for squandering imperial revenues, and even more so about the unpopular measures which by necessity had to follow so that financial solvency could be maintained. The fact that Domna could do so and retain her place in the court of her thin-skinned and suspicious son is a testimony to how valuable she was to Caracalla's reign. Apparently her competence in her duties more than out-weighed whatever annoyance Caracalla had to endure to tap that competence. Thus did Domna serve Caracalla for several years, reigning as the most influential woman of the empire. (Caracalla was not then married. His first wife was the daughter of Domna's hated rival, Plautianus, forced upon him against his will. However, when Plautianus fell from grace, Caracalla rid himself of his unwanted spouse.)

A political force to be reckoned with at her son's court, during his reign Domna also maintained her interest in intellectual and cultural matters. Nevertheless, things began rapidly to change in 217, when Caracalla began his own Parthian war over the rejection of his proposal to marry a Parthian princess. Domna accompanied Caracalla to Antioch, where she established her chancery while he advanced to the frontier. In retrospect, Caracalla should have retained Domna at his side, for although he may (as is attested) have inherited her cleverness, he clearly inherited neither his father's military ability nor his good fortune. Caracalla's campaign bogged down, and without success the morale of the army flagged. As the army's mood soured, Caracalla sought scapegoats for his lack of success. A prime candidate for the role of victim was the Praetorian prefect, Macrinus, an equestrian, who, despite his middling status, had political ambitions. Whatever these might have been, however, he had little opportunity to exploit Caracalla's failures. When the time came to act decisively, Macrinus probably did so more out of self-preservation than out of ambition. In a court rife with suspicion and finger pointing, two letters about Macrinus' "disloyalty" to the emperor apparently surfaced. One went to Domna in Antioch, while the other was apparently intended for Caracalla himself. Here Domna's distance from her son mattered, for when her copy arrived, she forwarded information about a purported plot involving Macrinus as quickly as she could. This warning, however, failed to reach Caracalla in time, for a similar letter was misdirected through Macrinus' office where it became a self-fulling prophecy: preferring Caracalla's death and an uncertain future to his own extermination, Macrinus murdered Caracalla before the latter could himself strike.

Her husband and sons now all dead, Domna languished for a short while in Antioch, but she did not relish the prospect of surrendering the political influence she had so long wielded. Rather than retire, Domna began plotting Macrinus' overthrow and his replacement, obviously hoping to retain her political influence. (Although not in her direct line and very young, Domna had living male relatives—see Julia Maesa and Julia Mamaea .) When Macrinus learned of her political maneuvering, however, he ordered Domna out of Antioch and into exile. Her plans as yet underdeveloped and her health failing (she was then stricken with a cancer), Domna held on for a time, but when reports from Rome made it known that news of Caracalla's death there had been greeted with jubilation, she surrendered to despair. Suicide became her alternative of choice: her preferred method—self-imposed starvation (before the end of 217). Her remains were returned to Rome where they were temporarily deposited in the Tomb of Gaius and Lucius Caesar. Later, she was re-interred in the mausoleum of Hadrian, an Antonine, next to the remains of her husband. Septimius Severus' adoption of Marcus Aurelius as a father had won for himself and Domna an eternal association with the Antonine line of emperors.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Julia Domna (c. 170–217 CE)

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