Julia Mamaea (c. 190–235)
Julia Mamaea (c. 190–235)
Empress of Rome. Name variations: Julia Avita Mamaea; Julia Mammaea; Julia Mamaea Augusta. Born around 190; died in 235; daughter of Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus and Julia Maesa (c. 170–224 ce); married twice, the first time to an unknown, the second time to Gessius Marcianus; children: Gessius Bassianus Alexiaus known later as Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander or Severus Alexander (a Roman emperor); daughter Theocleia.
Julia Mamaea's family rose to prominence with the marriage of her aunt Julia Domna to Septimius Severus, who subsequently reigned as Rome's emperor. Mamaea's mother, Julia Maesa , was the sister of Domna. Mamaea's father, Julius Avitus, knew a distinguished career under two emperors but owed most of his success to Maesa's imperial connection. However significant Maesa was to her husband's career, her own historical significance soared after his death because she was to be the reason that Caracalla's murderer, Macrinus, was over-thrown and replaced by her grandson, Elagabalus. In power, however, Elagabalus governed irresponsibly and decadently, squandering his initial popularity to the point where even Maesa came to hate him. As a result, Maesa joined forces with her second daughter, Mamaea, to work first for Elagabalus' adoption of his cousin, Mamaea's son Severus Alexander, and then for Elagabalus' deposition. Both of these goals had been accomplished by 222, bringing the 14-year-old Severus Alexander to the throne.
Alexander's father, Gessius Marcianus, from the Syrian town of Arca, was Mamaea's second husband, her first being an unknown of consular rank. Marcianus, too, came to hold high rank but influenced his son's reign almost not at all, for Maesa and Mamaea were to be the powers behind Alexander's throne. It was Mamaea who kept Alexander as far away from Elagabalus as she could before his adoption, permitting him to come to court only once it was clear that Maesa was plotting to replace her older grandson Elagabalus with her younger grandson Alexander. In Rome, Mamaea rigorously chaperoned Alexander to prevent him from falling under Elagabalus' influence. Alexander's distance from his cousin quickly made him popular with the already alienated majority, even as it angered Elagabalus himself. The latter's anger prompted him to conspire Alexander's murder, but when his plot was revealed to the Praetorian Guard (Maesa and Mamaea found it expedient to have
the Guard so informed), the 18-year-old Elagabalus became the Guard's victim, not Alexander.
Alexander thus became emperor in 222, officially as a bastard of Caracalla, a status also once claimed for Elagabalus. Soon after, Mamaea became an "Augusta," thus assuming the status already held by Maesa. For a little over a year, the two women collaborated and together ran the Roman Empire with Alexander as its figurehead, but with Maesa's death in 224, Mamaea began to run the show by herself. Not satisfied with the title of Augusta, Mamaea saw to it that her prominence was broadcast with the addition of such honorifics as: "Mother of the Camp," "Mother of the Senate," "Mother of the Fatherland," and "Mother of the Whole Human Race." Mamaea's hold over Alexander throughout his reign was almost complete, a fact which may have irked him once in a while, but which definitely upset the army and its commanders simply because she was a woman. As long as military affairs were not critical, however, Mamaea's regency was both efficient and enlightened. Certainly, for a time she won over large segments of the civil administration by extensively seeking counsel before pursuing any public policy, and by seeing to it that Rome's traditional gods (the neglect of which had cost Elagabalus dearly) were revered. She also initially won favor by appointing such respected figures as the famous jurist, Ulpian, to the post of Praetorian prefect, and the historian, Cassius Dio, to a variety of consular and proconsular commands. Unfortunately, these nominations eventually backfired, for when such officials tried to impose discipline upon the military units under their command, they ran into more than the usual resistance from the ranks mostly because they were known confidants of the empress (not the emperor), who was truly running the show. Ulpian would be assassinated by his own troops, probably in 224, while Dio would go into exile in 229 to avoid a similar fate.
Tension also developed within the civil administration as a result of Mamaea's ambition to dominate her son completely. For example, not long after she appropriately betrothed Alexander to the daughter of a Roman patrician, namely Gnaea Seia Herennia Sallustia Orba Barbia Orbiana, in 225, Mamaea became jealous of the joint elevations of her daughter-in-law to the status of Augusta and her daughter-in-law's father to the status of Caesar. As a result, Mamaea eventually had Alexander's wife expelled from court and his father-in-law executed (227), actions which both created a substantial civilian opposition to Mamaea's influence and publicized the "effeminacy" of Alexander, now 19 and still under the rule of his mother.
Events began to spin out of Mamaea's control when Ardashir, a Persian underling to the Parthian king Artabanus, overthrew his lord in 224. The Parthians had long been Rome's primary adversaries in the East, but had seen their authority eroded over time, not the least by the military campaigns of Septimius Severus. Thus the time was right for Ardashir to launch his coup, which, having been accomplished, was ratified by his assumption of royal authority in 226, as the king of a revived Persian Empire. The new (Sassanid) dynasty knew a dynamism long lacking in its Parthian predecessors, and as such, its threat to Rome was greater than had been experienced in some time. Once assured of his domestic following, Ardashir turned his attention to his west and in 230 overran the Roman province of Mesopotamia, which had been won by Septimius Severus. Alexander, accompanied by Mamaea, launched a counter-offensive in 231, augmenting the size of his eastern army by stripping his northern frontier of many of its troops. Alexander's military competency was under question, so that when he arrived in the East he first found grumbling and then open opposition to his rule. This initial unrest was stifled, but the mood of Alexander's campaign had been set. There was planned for 232 a three-prong assault upon the newly re-founded Persian Empire, with Alexander supposedly commanding the central force. Although the northern wing of the army saw some success, Alexander was reluctant to proceed into enemy territory and his hesitation cost his southern army large numbers of casualties. Both sides suffered significant losses before Alexander retreated to Antioch. The Persians may have been temporarily checked, but Alexander's reputation suffered irreparable damage: the army now saw him as a coward who did not even possess the backbone of his unpopular mother.
Compounding Alexander's problems was a subsequent German breakthrough along the Rhine frontier for which he readied another campaign, this time by transferring eastern troops to the new breaches. His army thus raised, Alexander assumed his northern command in 234, but, under the influence of Mamaea, he preferred diplomacy to military action. This alone confirmed for the army its estimation of his "manhood," but when it came out that Alexander's diplomacy was constituted of nothing more than an attempt to bribe the German chieftains arrayed before him to go away, his troops became irate, demanding both battle and the money that Alexander was prepared to pay the Germans. Conspiracies abounded, and in 235 an imperial rival, Julius Verus Maximinus, was acclaimed near Mainz. When Alexander heard the news, he handled it in the wrong way: instead of acting decisively, he broke down emotionally before the troops under his immediate command as he reminded them of past favors and accused Maximinus of gross disloyalty. The sight of the sobbing emperor won from his army a short-lived oath of loyalty, but when Maximinus with his following approached the imperial camp, both Alexander and Mamaea were murdered by their own troops. It is said that Alexander died weeping, clutching Mamaea and berating her as the source of all his sorrow. Whatever condemnation might be made of Mamaea's domination of her son's reign, clearly without her Alexander would not have lasted a day. And, although her administration may not have been the most successful, it nevertheless was much better than what the empire was in for: between 235 and 284, the Roman world would face its greatest crisis in half a millennium.
William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California