Matrons of Awesome Part XIV – A Surfeit of Julias

So those who have read the lead story in Love and Romanpunk know that the book has a fixation on the name ‘Julia.’ It’s not just because that name was attached to so many women of the first, Julio-Claudian era, or because, thanks to the various Caesars, it had a great many sacred and significant connotations in its own right.

There was another dynasty which cemented the importance of the name Julia, and it marked a huge change in the image that Roman imperial families showed to the world.

41. Julia Domna

When ambitious African-born Roman general Septimius Severus heard of a horoscope for a young woman named Julia that predicted she would marry a king, he hurried across country to court her. Julia Domna was the Syrian daughter (of Arab descent) of the high priest of a sun god. She not only married Septimius but also bore him two sons, Caracalla and Geta. She was a highly intelligent, educated woman who served as a valued advisor to her husband.

Some time later, Septimius brought the horoscope to fruition by using his military and political skills to make himself emperor of Rome. Which is… one way to do it. Ah, Romans. We say they were supersitious, but really they just used the supernatural as a ‘how to’ guide.

Like other imperial wives such as Sabina and Faustina Minor, Julia travelled with her husband on campaign. At other times, when he travelled abroad without her, she administered the Empire in his absence.

She acquired a reputation as a patron of the arts, promoting such artists, writers and philosophers as Cassius Dio, Galen and Philostratus.

Modern historians see Julia as “the foreign empress” even more than they see Septimius as “the foreign emperor.” Septimius’ public image was very much that of the quintessential Roman man, while Julia’s appearance in public art reflected the more “exotic” fashions that she brought to court: jewellery, elaborate hair pieces and embroidered clothing.

(there aren’t enough inverted commas in the world to put around a word like “exotic” but it’s used so often in relation to this particular woman, presumably as a way of not mentioning explicitly that she wasn’t white, that it’s hard to escape. I will try.)

Julia Domna unapologetically brought her own fashions to the Roman court. She wore jewellery and fancy frocks. The imperial family was finally getting over that whole Octavian vs. Cleopatra thing, embracing the other cultural influences of the empire instead of insisting that the women of the family go around in plain wool robes and pretend they weren’t the richest and most privileged ladies in the city.

At least, that’s the accepted wisdom from the various 20th century historians who liked to get terribly excited about how “exotic” Julia Domna was. In truth most of her statues look a lot like Faustina Minor’s, and there are only a few examples of public art that show a hint of bling.

Still, from this point onwards, the fashion was far more towards conspicuous luxury, even on the statues and portraits. Rome was heading directly for what we associate with its Byzantine era, and everything was about to get just a little bit more sparkly fabulous.

More so than any other imperial woman, Julia Domna’s image is associated with that of her husband and sons in group portraiture. This nuclear family appears on coins, relief sculpture and even painted portraits, in much greater quantity than had ever been seen before in the imperial family.

When Septimius died, Julia’s two sons inherited the Empire jointly, but it wasn’t long before Geta was murdered, an event most likely organised by his brother Caracalla. Caracalla then employed a systematic destruction of all images and inscriptional references to his brother, evidence of which can be seen on many surviving artworks and public monuments today.

Geta died in Julia Domna’s arms, and yet she stayed firmly supportive of Caracalla’s rule. As imperial mother, she again ruled Rome in the emperor’s name when he was absent from the city. Unlike Agrippina, Julia Domna’s public status was much the same during the reigns of her husband, and her son.

When Caracalla himself was murdered, Julia Domna killed herself. Dio suggests that she considered the possibility of taking over Rome in her own name, but that she was ill (possibly with breast cancer) and/or griefstricken, and that the thought of going on alone was just too much for her.

All of which is credible, but I prefer to think that she felt her life’s work was just done, at that point, and that she disliked the idea of anyone else making choices on her behalf.

42. Plautilla

Plautilla, wife of Caracalla, had a brief imperial career. She was married to Caracalla during his father’s reign, in a marriage brought about because of her father Plautianus’ strong friendship with Septimius Severus.

The period in which Plautianus was at the height of his influence on the emperor was also the one period in which Julia Domna’s influence on her husband temporarily waned, though she was returned to Septimius’ confidence once Plautianus was revealed as a traitor, and executed.

Caracalla used this excuse to rid himself of Plautilla, whom he reputedly hated so much that they had been living in separate palaces during their marriage. As was by now traditional for unpopular wives in the imperial family, Plautilla was banished to an island and then executed.

43. Julia Maesa

Julia Maesa was the sister of Julia Domna. When Caracalla died and Julia Domna committed suicide, it seemed as though the Severan dynasty was over. Julia Maesa, however, had other ideas. She promoted a rumour that her daughter Julia Soaemias had given birth to the illegitimate son of Caracalla, and set off a civil war between that son, Elagabalus (born Avitus, he renamed himself after a Syrian god, and didn’t that go well?), and the new Emperor Macrinus, who had murdered Caracalla.

It came as a surprise to Elagabalus to discover he was illegitimate, as he had up until this point had a far more conventional personal history. But let’s not let that get in the way of a good story…

There was war and bloodshed, with Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias pushing teenage Elagabalus every step of the way. When he became emperor, Mum and Grandma basically did all the ruling on his behalf while he got on with the less bureaucratic concerns of the Empire: cross dressing, marrying Vestal Virgins, acting all foreign (the word ‘exotic’ got bandied about with him too), and living a life so debauched that he went down in history as the ickiest emperor ever

44. Julia Soaemias

Julia Soaemias, mother of the eccentric Elagabalus, went along with her mother’s schemes and basically ended up ruling Rome on his behalf. Along with her mother Julia Maesa, Julia Soaemias became one of the first women to actually be included in the Senate, the male ruling body that had been such a conservative centre of Roman bureaucracy since the beginning of the Republic.

Elagabalus was a very unpopular emperor what with all that anti-Roman and anti-religious behaviour, as well as publicly subverting expectations of gender and sexuality, and Julia Soaemias and her son were eventually murdered by the Praetorian guard, the very people who were supposed to protect them.

45. Julia Paula

Julia Paula was one of the three women Elagabalus took as wives during his very short reign. All three of them were given the title Augusta and put on the coinage, despite their husband’s obvious lack of regard for them. Which tells us that Elagabalus was slightly more thoughtful about these husbandly duties than Caligula, but only slightly.

46. Aquilia Severa

Aquilia Severa is perhaps the most interesting of Elagabalus’ three wives because she was a Vestal Virgin when he seduced her and married her. Traditionally, the punishment for breaking a Vestal’s 30 year vow of chastity was death – on behalf of the Vestal, anyway, who would be buried alive, though the man usually got off lightly by being scourged and exiled. Elagabalus, however, thought it would be okay because he had arranged a proxy marriage between the god he named himself after, and Vesta.

So he not only violated the chastity of a Vestal Virgin, but also that of her equally virginal goddess. Nice work.

Because of the controversy, this marriage was declared invalid and Elagabalus married again, though he later returned to Aquilia Severa, claiming their marriage had never been dissolved.

47. Annia Faustina

Annia Faustina, who was actually a great-granddaughter of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina Minor, was considered a far more appropriate wife for Elagabalus. Obviously he couldn’t stand that, so he divorced her and went back to the marriage that had earned him more scandalous looks in the Forum.

48. Julia Mamaea

After the murder of Julia Soaemias and the emperor Elagabalus, good old Grandma Julia Maesa decided that what had worked once might work again. So she brought forward her other daughter Julia Mamaea, who also had a teenage son, Alexander. Can you guess where this is heading?

Maesa had already talked Elagabalus into adopting his younger cousin and naming him Caesar (ie. heir), but she now spread one of those rumours she was so good at, suggesting that Julia Mamaea had also had an affair with her cousin Caracalla, and that Alexander was, like Elagabalus, his illegitimate son.

Julia Maesa was getting on a bit by now, so it was up to Julia Mamaea to help her son manage a sensible reign. She did her best, and was actually pretty good at it, though neither Julia Mamaea nor Alexander were strong enough military figures to keep the armies in check. Julia ensured her son had many wise counsellors, and Alexander certainly had a much greater reputation for wisdom, sensibleness and patronage of the arts than his predecessor Elagabalus.

Mind you, that wouldn’t be hard.

Alexander was killed by his own troops while at war, and his mother who had travelled alongside him for so long was killed in the same manner: messily.

Meanwhile, the head troublemaker of them all, Julia Maesa had quietly passed away in her sleep, which goes to show that there’s just no justice in the world.

49. Orbiana

Alexander did have a wife for a part of his reign: Gneaea Seia Herennia Sallustia Barbia Orbiana. She appears on many of his coins, and he was reportedly completely in love with her.

But Julia Mamaea became jealous of Orbiana’s influence over her son. When Orbiana’s father was found to be involved in a plot against Alexander (these Romans, always plotting against someone!), Mamaea saw her chance and insisted that the marriage be dissolved. Orbiana’s dad was executed, and Orbiana herself was exiled to Libya.

Which, considering the history of imperial women, means she got off pretty lightly, all things considered.

NEXT: Saint Helena


The Matrons of Awesome series was originally posted on Livejournal (LJ user: cassiphone) in March 2006 for Women’s History Month.

I’m reprinting the (reworked) series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.

One reply

  1. Rowena says:

    Fascinating, Tansy!

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