Julia Maesa (c. 170–224 CE)

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Julia Maesa (c. 170–224 ce)

Empress of Rome. Name variations: Julia Varia; Julia Maesa Augusta. Pronunciation: sound the "æ" dipthong as a long "i." Born around 170; died in 224 ce; daughter of Julius Bassianus, the high priest of Elagabalus at Emesa; sister of Julia Domna (c. 170–217 ce); married Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus also known as Julius Avitus (a Roman senator); children: Julia Soaemias Bassiana and Julia Avita Mamaea, whose respective sons, Elagabalus and Severus Alexander, both became Roman emperors.

Julia Maesa was the daughter of a priest of the god Elagabalus, whose cult flourished at Emesa in Roman Syria (see Julia Domna ). Her historical prominence, however, was due to the fact that her sister, Julia Domna, married Septimius Severus in 187, who thereafter reigned as Rome's emperor (193–211). Since Domna's connections promised greater things than Emesa could ever offer, Maesa followed her sister to the heart of the empire. With her came Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus, an Emesan of equestrian birth (and thus a member of the empire's lesser nobility) who either was, or was soon to become, Maesa's husband. We do not know who was older, Maesa or Domna, nor do we know when Maesa married.

Avitus' career began well, if conventionally, for one of his class: he held several military commands in the imperial auxilia (non-citizen military units) and the procuratorship which over-saw the arrival at Ostia of the city of Rome's grain supply. His prospects, however, improved dramatically after the imperial accession of his brother-in-law, beginning with Avitus' promotion to senatorial rank. Thereafter, Avitus commanded a legion in Raetia (the Alpine region of what is now southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria), governed the same province, served as a consul in Rome, and accompanied Septimius as a political and military advisor when the latter campaigned in Britain. Under Septimius' son and successor, Caracalla (r. 211–217), Avitus served as an imperial prefect of the alimenta (an allowance for the feeding of underprivileged children), was appointed imperial legate to Dalmatia, and governed as proconsul the province of Asia, a very prestigious post. Avitus died of natural causes (that is, of disease in old age) sometime before the death of Caracalla, having served two emperors loyally and competently.

Important as she was to her husband's career, Maesa's historical significance multiplied many-fold after his death. Not long after Avitus died, Caracalla was assassinated (217) at the instigation of his Praetorian prefect, Macrinus, in the context of a sputtering war Caracalla had commenced against Rome's eastern neighbor, the Parthian Empire. The motivation behind Macrinus' action may have included ambition, but self-preservation probably incited him more than a lust for power, for at the time of Caracalla's murder the emperor was seeking a scapegoat upon whom he could lay the blame for the military debacle he himself had launched. Regardless of his primary incentive, having brought about Caracalla's death Macrinus could do little else but declare himself emperor. His was a stormy regime from the start, however, largely because he was the first Roman of equestrian (that is, less-than-senatorial) status to claim imperial authority. Compounding his difficulties were his own lack of military success against the Parthians (he concluded an unpopular peace), and a lack of diplomatic tact which quickly alienated those under his command. Another obstacle confronting Macrinus was Julia Domna, who naturally hated the murderer of her son and worked for his deposition. Within a year of Caracalla's death, however, Domna fell prey to illness and despair, and starved herself to death.

Unlike Domna at the end of 217, Maesa relished neither death nor the loss of the imperial influence she had been able to exert at her sister's side for close to 30 years. Having no sons of her own, Maesa's hope to remain politically prominent rested initially in the person of her oldest grandchild, Varius Avitus Bassianus, the son of Maesa's daughter, Julia Soaemias Bassiana and one Sextus Varius Marcellus. This child was commonly referred to as Elagabalus because, although only about 14 years of age, he was already the priest of Elagabalus at Emesa, to whom he was fanatically devoted. Elagabalus physically resembled Caracalla, and the idea was floated by Eutychianus (or Gannys, the sources are not in agreement), a member of Maesa's household (which after Domna's death was temporarily reestablished in Emesa), suggesting that the young priest should pose as the dead emperor's illegitimate son, dressed in the clothes of his "father." Although (or perhaps because) Eutychianus had been both Elagabalus' tutor and the lover of her daughter Soaemias, Maesa embraced the idea.

Elagabalus was presented to one of the many disgruntled Roman legions near Emesa, which immediately, and not knowing anything about him other than whom he resembled, hailed him emperor and renamed him "Marcus Aurelius Antoninus," to link him more directly to Septimius Severus (who had once enhanced his own popularity by posthumously adopting Marcus Aurelius as his "father"). With Elagabalus emerging as an imperial candidate, a broader revolt against Macrinus erupted to restore the newly discovered "son" of Caracalla to his proper imperial status. After a campaign prominently influenced by Maesa and Soaemias, Macrinus was unseated, having reigned about 14 months. Thus, Elagabalus became Rome's emperor, while Maesa was appointed an "Augusta" in reward for her role in his accession. Unfortunately for Maesa, her desire to become the power behind the throne never quite panned out as she hoped, for she had considered neither the ambitions of her daughter nor the character of her grandson as she fought for his enthronement. Little did Rome know what it was in for.

By the fall of 219, Elagabalus was in Rome, with mother and grandmother in his entourage. Although Maesa attempted to guide and manipulate her imperial grandson, Elagabalus quickly came to relish the perquisites of imperial rule and was urged to do so to an outrageous degree by Soaemias. Soaemias abetted Elagabalus' irresponsible search for pleasure so as to undermine whatever influence either Maesa or Eutychianus had over Elagabalus. Clearly, Soaemias aspired to the public role which Maesa held, and was mostly successful in undermining her mother's temperate influence over Elagabalus. Eutychianus' efforts to abet Maesa's control of Elagabalus was even less successful: Elagabalus and some of his friends, tired of his old tutor's puritanical perorations, simply decided to murder him. Those with artistically "liberated" tastes had little tolerance for one advising respect for traditional Roman values or the necessity of public responsibility.

Elagabalus was perhaps Rome's most irresponsible emperor ever, itself a kind of achievement. Still a teenager and addicted to the fast life of chariot racing and exotic entertainment, he was a cross-dresser who relished playing the role of a woman (he requested of his doctors that they perform a sex-change operation) in the presence of his chosen "husband," a Carian freedman named Hierocles. Whatever his sexual orientation, Elagabalus seemed determined to outrage Roman popular opinion, for—by Roman standards, certainly—he was not only a sexual outlaw, but was also a religious fanatic who proselytized on behalf of his god to the exclusion of Rome's traditional deities. Even more outrageous to his contemporaries, he once mandated that one of Rome's serving Vestal Virgins legally consummate a marriage with him (one of three marriages to women officially contracted while he was in Rome), even though he clearly preferred men as sexual partners. The Vestals constituted one of Rome's oldest and most hallowed religious orders, with virginity being an absolute requirement imposed on all who so served throughout the entirety of their 30-year tenure in office.

In such ways, Elagabalus outraged Roman sensibilities. The problem for four years, however, was how to remove Elagabalus (who was without a heir) without thrusting Rome into another debilitating civil war. This problem was overcome when Elagabalus was convinced (probably with Maesa's connivance) to adopt as his heir, his cousin, Severus Alexander in 221. This son of Julia Mamaea (Maesa's second daughter) had been kept far away from Elagabalus before the adoption was finalized. The two cousins were very different, and Alexander had no intention of mixing with Elagabalus' crowd. This attitude quickly made him a very popular "anti-Elagabalus" throughout Rome, which naturally both angered and made Elagabalus jealous. As a result, less than a year after Alexander's adoption, Elagabalus began to plan his murder. However, when news of his intentions leaked to the Praetorian Guard (again, probably through Maesa's machinations), it ran amok and executed Elagabalus instead, in a latrine where he had taken refuge with his mother, who was also murdered. Elagabalus was only 18 years old at the time of his death; his body was deposited in the Tiber River.

Julia Soaemias (d. 222)

Empress of Rome. Name variations: Julia Soaemias Bassiana; Julia Soaemias Augusta; Julia Soemias; Julia Symiamira. Birth-date unknown; died in 222; daughter ofJulia Maesa (c. 170–224 ce) and Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus also known as Julius Avitus (a Roman senator); married Sextus Varius Marcellus; children: Elagabalus (Roman emperor, with whom she was assassinated).

Thus, Severus Alexander became emperor. Undoubtedly, Maesa expected at last to become the unfettered Augusta her sister had once been, and which she had expected to become when Elagabalus was originally put forward. For a short while, things went as planned, but fate cut short her impact. In 224, Maesa died, apparently of natural causes.

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

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Julia Maesa (c. 170–224 CE)

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