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Julia Domna: Roman empress from Syria

In the context of ancient Rome and its Empire, aristocratic women have always been important in maintaining power, assuming relevant political roles, even without established positions, generating future rulers, and being at their side – sometimes at the front, although it is not something present in the titles – of a man occupying political-administrative positions. The power of these women, in turn, was not marked by feminist struggles, but by the families into which they were born and by the weight that the family factor and alliances based on friendship and kinship had in maintaining Roman order and politics. In this way, it is necessary to realize that kinship codes and gender elements were, and still are, essential in political activity, they are part of it without politics being an autonomous dimension and gender being something minor. One of the most important women in the Roman Empire was certainly Julia Domna, empress consort of Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211), mother of Emperors Caracalla and Geta and great-aunt of Emperors Elagabalus (218-222) and Severus Alexander (222-235).

Julia Domna in a statue dating from approximately the year 200. Collection of the Palatine Museum, Rome, Italy.Photo from the author’s personal collection, taken on April 11, 2012.

The name Julia Domna and her ancestry

Julia Domna was the daughter of Julius Bassianus, high priest of the solar deity traditionally known as Elagabal, and member of a noble family from the Syrian city of Emesa (present-day Homs, in Syria). From the names attributed to them that were bequeathed by Greco-Roman textual and material documentation, it is possible to see that the family had received Roman citizenship and joined the important gens Iulia. This fact marks that, most likely, members of Julia Domna’s family had received Roman citizenship at the time of Julius Caesar or the first Julio-Claudian emperors: Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), Tiberius (14-37) and Caligula (37 -41).

In the Principate of the Republican period, Roman women did not receive an individual name, only the name of the gens or family to which they belonged with a feminine ending, plus a nickname that would distinguish them. Thus, the name of this important Syrian woman was traditionally recorded in the history of the Roman Empire, as Julia Domna.

Although the empress’s name Julia signifies an element of her relationship with Rome, her denomination also shows another important aspect to be considered about her and the dynasty that will descend from her, the maintenance of Syriac cultural elements. According to Spanish researcher María José Hidalgo de la Vega (in the book Las emperatrices romanas, 2012), there have been many attempts by researchers to understand the meaning of the term Domna, relating it to the Latin domina (lady). But the origin seems to come from the Arabic form Dumayana, related to the color black.

Brazilian researcher Ana Teresa Marques Gonçalves (in the article Um Olhar sobre Júlia Domna: Esposa e Mãe de Imperadores, 2003) brings another meaning to the term Domna. According to Gonçalves, the empress came to have this nomenclature due to a horoscope she had received, saying that she was predestined to be the wife of a sovereign, with Domna being the transposition of the Syrian word Martha, which means lady or master of the household.

Regardless of the meaning of the term, there continues to be a group of historians who argue that the word Domna linked the empress to the Syrian elements of Emesa. In this sense, even if Julia Domna did not have a proper name in the same way that Roman culture maintained concerning men, the fact that both of her names were used in historical documentation marked her family’s connection to Roman culture; we see that it preserved a cultural element from its region in the name.

Although many historians cite that Julia Domna came from the royal family of Emesa, this information is questionable. We can take it for granted that she came from an important and wealthy family from Emesa linked to the priesthood of the god Elagabal and that this fact demonstrates the family’s enormous prestige in the Syrian region. Thus, regardless of whether or not she belonged to the ancient Emesense royal dynasty, in Roman times, according to the types of relationships established between emperors and local elites, belonging to the noble family responsible for the cult of Elagabal was something that had great value. I consider here, therefore, that the connection of provincial aristocratic families with the power of Rome, of which women were a fundamental element used in marriages, was more important than an ancient royal ancestry. Thus the way Julia Domna’s family negotiated with Rome through her marriage was fundamental to her rise within the imperial government.

Marriage to the future emperor and his imperial family

Around 187, Julia Domna married Septimius Severus, then envoy of the emperor and governor of the Province of Gaul Lugdunense. Severus had served Rome as commander of a legion in Syria, was a widower, and descended from an important family from the city of Leptis Magna, in the province of Africa. Severus already had a successful career in the Roman imperial government and was around 40 years old at the time of his marriage. Julia Domna, in turn, was around thirteen years old when she was given in marriage to Septimius Severus. In 193, after a civil war between Roman generals, Septimius was acclaimed emperor of Rome.

Julia in turn became Augusta since the title of empress did not exist at the time. In addition to being the consort of an emperor, Julia was the mother of two other emperors, Caracalla and Geta. In 211, Caracalla, who shared the imperial government with his brother Geta, assassinated him and arranged for the denial of Geta’s memory to be decreed, which meant the erasure of all physical memories of him as if he had never existed.

Tondo from c. 200 AD showing Julia Domna, Septimius Severus, Caracalla (bottom right) and the erased image of Geta.
Antikensammlung, Altes Museum, Berlin. Public Domain

Julia Domna’s political activities

From the beginning of Septimius Severus’ government, Julia Domna was able to exert influence on the emperor’s decisions, actively participating in the court and the imperial administration. Among the consorts of Roman emperors, the way in which Julia Domna acted politically seems to have had a prominence that no other empress had achieved before.

But Julia Domna’s greatest participation in imperial power seems to have occurred during the government of her son Caracalla; taking care of the emperor’s correspondence and petitions, serving important men at public receptions, accompanying him on trips and military campaigns, intermediating the appointment of aristocrats to public positions and being the emperor son’s advisor on political matters.

One of the main ways the empress wielded her influence was as a patron of intellectuals; men whom she helped establish alliances with the emperors; Septimius, Severus, and Caracalla. About this, Philostratus, sophist, biographer, and also a contemporary of Julia Domna, comments that he was part of a circle of people linked to the empress: “And to me, who belonged to her circle, since she praised and admired all the speeches rhetorical, she commissioned me to write these essays and take care of their publication […]” (PHILOSTRATUS, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, I, 3).

Regarding the circle that Philostratus claimed to be part of, the so-called “circle of Julia Domna”, there is some discussion among scholars about its true nature. Documentary testimonies on the subject are few. However, some authors defend the existence of a group of intellectuals based on a kind of patronage of the empress while others doubt that the circle even existed. In addition to the reference in the work Life of Apollonius of Tyana, it is possible to know about the existence of this group through another report by Philostratus and a comment by his contemporary Cassius Dio (Roman History, LXXVI, 15, 7), who comments that Julia Domna dedicated herself to philosophy and spent time with the sophists.

Julia Domna and Syria in Rome

To legitimize her dynasty and follow the rules of Roman governance, Julia adapted greatly to the Greco-Roman culture of the ruling elites. We know little about the maintenance of Syrian elements in her identity. Some scholars argue that Julia Domna’s hairstyle was a Syrian element. The tortoiseshell hairdo worn by her (where the strands are parted in the middle and cover the ears, like a tortoiseshell, ending in a bun). can be seen on statues and several coins, However, researcher Drora Baharal (in the text The Portraits of Julia Domna from the years 193-211 A.D. and the Dynastic Propaganda of L. Septimius Severus, 1992) argues that many busts of Julia Domna from the period of Septimius Severus’ rule show the empress copying the hairstyle of a young girl named Faustina, daughter of Antoninus Pius (138-161) and wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180). This element represents, along with a series of others, the efforts of Severian politics to seek legitimacy in identification with the gens Aurélia and the Antonine dynasty.

Ulrich W. Hiesinger (in the text Julia Domna: two portraits in bronze, 1969) when studying the image of Julia Domna on a bronze artifact found in the Syrian region, the Fogg Portrait, argues that, although there is a very Roman style of representation in the portrait, there are oriental elements in the representation of the empress produced outside of Rome which did not occur in her Roman portraits. Her face tends to be wider, her cheeks more puffy, giving the sense of a more articulated structure. Her hair is longer, more geometric, and patterned with her face. According to the study cited above, this style gave another spirituality to the empress and is an example of a portrait of Roman political characters produced in the East.

Barbara Levick (in the book Julia Domna. Syrian Empress, 2007) points us to an example of the material culture that has come to us that may bring evidence of the Syrian woman that Julia Domna was. It is a relief from the Arch of the Argentarii (Arcus Argentariorum), in the Forum Boarium, where Domna is shown with her dress without the marked adornments of the clothes of Roman matrons and in her gesture, with her right hand raised and with the palm of her hand forward. In this image, according to the historian mentioned, oriental echoes were seen by scholars in comparison to the statue of a young woman from the royal dynasty of Hatra (238 CE).

Septimius Severus and Julia Domna in a relief that decorates the interior of the Arch of the Argentarii, Rome. © 2012. Photo: Ilya Shurygin. Available in: https://ancientrome.ru/art/artworken/img.htm?id=5765

However, it is necessary to consider that different elements of cultural identities could coexist in the same individual without problems. In this way, Julia Domna could have maintained Syrian elements in her clothing, hair, etc., even though she appeared at times to highlight aspects of Greco-Roman culture.

The death of Julia Domna

Cassius Dio (Roman History, LXXIX, 23) says that in 217 when the news of the murder of her son Caracalla reached Julia, who was in the Syrian city of Antioch at the time, she tried to starve herself to death. But the emotion she felt at that moment was not one of sadness (as she had hated her son), rather she was filled with despair at the idea of having to leave the imperial political procedures since she would no longer have an emperor son who supported her position. However, desirous of maintaining power, Julia Domna puts aside her desire to die and, following the model of Assyrian women, initiates a plot with the soldiers to become ruler, according to Cassius Dio. However, at this point in the historical record, we find a lack of information due to a problem with Cassius Dio’s documentation. Cassius Dio, in later excerpts that have reached us, writes that she may have died from a tumor in her breast that became inflamed when the news of her son’s death was heard. But the ancient historian Herodian (History of the Roman Empire, IV, 13, 8) says that Julia Domna committed suicide after receiving Caracalla’s ashes so that the funeral rites could be carried out.

Regardless of how she met her demise, the portrayal of Julia Domna does not end with her death; it persists with all the intricacy encircling her character. We know for certain that no Roman woman in the imperial house received as many honors and titles as she did. Furthermore, after her death, her sister and her nieces would play important roles in steering the politics of the Severan dynasty, but that is a subject for a future text.

Semiramis Corsi Silva
Semiramis Corsi Silva
PhD in History from UNESP/Franca (Brazil) and History Professor at the Federal University of Santa Maria (Brazil). She carries out research on the government and representations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (218-222), traditionally known as Elagabalus, ruler of Syrian origins and member of the Severan dynasty

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