Julia Domna

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Julia Domna
Empress consort of the Roman Empire
Giulia domna, moglie di settimio severo, con busto non pertinente, inv. 2210.JPG
Bust of Julia Domna
Empress consort of the Roman Empire
Tenure 193 AD - 217 AD
Born 160 AD
Emesa, Syria
Died 217 AD (aged 57 years)
Rome, Italy
Burial Mausoleum of Hadrian
Spouse Septimius Severus
Full name
Julia Domna
Dynasty Severan
Father Julius Bassianus
Roman imperial dynasties
Severan dynasty
Septimius Severus 193–198
—with Caracalla 198–209
—with Caracalla and Geta 209–211
Caracalla and Geta 211–211
Caracalla 211–217
Interlude: Macrinus 217–218
Elagabalus 218–222
Alexander Severus 222–235
Severan dynasty family tree
All biographies
Preceded by
Year of the Five Emperors
Followed by
Crisis of the Third Century

Julia Domna (AD 160–217) was a Roman empress of Syrian origins, the second wife of Septimius Severus (reigned 193–211), and a powerful figure in the regime of his successor, the emperor Caracalla. She was born in Emesa in the Roman province of Syria, to Julius Bassianus, the hereditary high priest of Elagabalus at Emesa. She had an older sister, Julia Maesa, who also contended for political power after Julia's death. Julia Domna and Septimius Severus had two sons: the emperors Geta and Caracalla, as a powerful political figure and member of the imperial family, she received the titles of Augusta (193) and "mother of the army camps" (195).

Julia was famous for her prodigious learning as well as her extraordinary political influence, and is remembered for being a patron of the arts, music, and philosophy, using her title and influence to spread the previously persecuted Philosophy and helping it improve and flourish in Rome.

Family background[edit]

Julia Domna was born in Emesa (modern day Homs) in Syria around 160AD[1] to a family of Arab descent.[2][3][4][5][6] Her name, Domna, is an archaic Arabic word that means black,[7] she was the youngest daughter of the high-priest of Ba'al, Gaius Julius Bassianus and sister to Julia Maesa, and she had two nieces: Julia Mamaea, mother of Severus Alexander, and Julia Soaemias, mother of Elagabalus. Her ancestors were Priest Kings of the famous temple of Elagabalus, the family had enormous wealth and was promoted to Roman senatorial aristocracy. Before her marriage, Julia inherited the estate of her paternal great-uncle Julius Agrippa, a former leading Centurion.[8]


In the late 180s, Julia married future emperor the Libyan Roman general Septimius Severus, and together they had two sons, Caracalla (Lucius Septimius Bassianus) in 188 and Geta ( Publius Septimius Geta) in 189. She traveled with her husband throughout the Roman Empire during his military campaigns until his death in 211, the same year, her eldest son Caracalla instructed the Praetorian Guard to kill his brother Geta and destroy his image (damnatio memoria). She then co-ruled the Empire alongside her son until his murder in 217, at which point Julia Domna committed suicide.

Civil War[edit]

After the Roman emperor Commodus was murdered without an heir in 192, many contenders rushed for the throne, including Septimius Severus, Julia's husband.[9] An elder senator, Pertinax, was appointed by the praetorian guard emperor of Rome, but when Pertinax would not meet the guard's demands, he was murdered, too.[9] His son-in-law Iulianus was called to Rome. Iulianus was appointed emperor, but Septimius Severus, coming from the north into Rome, overthrew Iulianus and had him executed.[10] Septimius claimed the title of emperor in 193. By offering Clodius Albinus, a powerful governor of Britannia, the rank of Caesar, Septimus could focus on his eastern rival to the throne, Niger, whom he defeated at the Battle of Issus in 194. When afterwards Severus declared openly his son Caracalla as successor, Albinus was hailed emperor by his troops, at the Battle of Lugdunum in 197, Severus defeated and killed Albinus, establishing himself the Emperor, thus Julia Domna became Empress consort.

Julia's Power and Influence[edit]

Bust of empress Julia Domna ca. 200 AD. Munich, Germany

Unlike most imperial wives, Julia Domna remarkably accompanied her husband on his campaigns and stayed in camp with the army.[11]. During this time, honorary titles were granted to Julia Domna reminiscent of titles given to Faustina the Younger, including MATER CASTORVM, or mother of the camp[12], MATER AVGVSTVS, mother of Augustus, and MATER PATRIAE, or mother of the fatherland.[13].

One of her biggest achievements in her tenure is supporting Philosophy and helping it grow, as Julia Domna used her power and authority to protect philosophers and she helped philosophy to flourish in Rome after emperors such as Nero banishing philosophy and presecuted it,[11] and she also was a patron of learning and surrounded herself with philosophers, writers, and artists.[11] The empress was also involved in many building projects, most notably the aedes Vestae after the fire of Commodus in 192 destroyed areas of the temple and the home, or Atrium, of the Vestal Virgins. Based on numismatic evidence, historical authors, and a laconic inscription found in situ, most scholars agree that Julia Domna funded restorations to the site during Septimius Severus's reign.[14]

Julia Domna was respected and viewed positively for most of her tenure, as indicators and evidence include the coins minted with her portrait, mentioning her with several honorary titles[12] and also simply as "Julia Augusta"[12], as Julia is said to have exceeded all other Roman empresses in titles and honours.[12]

As Julia Domna hailed from the east, and her husband Septimius Severus from North Africa, one aspect that define Julia's reign was the defining of and embodiment of "romanitas" or "Romanness," and what it means to be not just an imperial woman, but a Roman woman, she brought in a Syrian hairstyle to the heart of Rome, and influenced much private female portraiture. Additionally, her coinage shows her promotion of traditional Roman virtues including pudicitia (prudence) and fidelitas (faithfulness) aligned with specific goddesses like Diana (Artemis) and Vesta (Hestia). Bearing sons was also essential to ensure her family lineage, as well as an expectation placed on Roman women.

Controversy and transition of power[edit]

Coin featuring Julia Domna

When Severus died in 211 in Eboracum (York), Julia became the mediator between their two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were to rule as joint emperors, according to their father's wishes expressed in his will. The two young men were never fond of each other and quarrelled frequently. Geta was murdered by Caracalla's soldiers in the same year.

Caracalla was now sole emperor, but his relations with his mother were difficult, as attested by several sources, probably because of his involvement in Geta's murder (see Cassius Dio's "Life of Septimius Severus"). Nevertheless, Julia accompanied Caracalla in his campaign against the Parthian empire in 217.


During this trip, Caracalla was assassinated and succeeded (briefly) by Macrinus. Julia chose to commit suicide after hearing about the rebellion,[15][16] perhaps a decision hastened by the fact that she was suffering from breast cancer,[17] her body was brought to Rome and placed in the Sepulcrum C. et L. Caesaris (perhaps a separate chamber in the Mausoleum of Augustus). Later, however, both her bones and those of Geta were transferred by her sister Julia Maesa to the Mausoleum of Hadrian.[18]


After her death, Julia Domna and her sister, Julia Maesa were deified and worshipped in Emesa.

Julia Domna is also remembered for encouraging Philostratus to write Life of Apollonius of Tyana.[19]; if not for Julia, there would have been very little surviving information about Apollonius. Julia is thought to have died before Philostratus could finish his work of eight volumes.[15]

In Syria she is fondly remembered as a strong willed empress and a patron of learning and the arts, and Syrians view the fact that a Syrian woman rose to the Roman empire's throne as a part of Syrian nationalism.


Further reading[edit]

  • (in French) Minaud, Gérard, Les vies de 12 femmes d’empereur romain - Devoirs, Intrigues & Voluptés , Paris, L’Harmattan, 2012, ch. 9, La vie de Julia Domna, femme de Septime Sévère, p. 211-242.
  • Barbara Levick, Julia Domna: Syrian Empress, Routledge, 2007
  • Jane Fejfer, Roman Portraits in Context, 2008.

See also[edit]

  1. ^ Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mothers and Wives of the Caesars": "The date of Julia's birth is not known, but coins of her sister Julia Maesa, minted about 220, show a woman nearing 60 (see figures 11.2, 11.17). Thus Julia Domna was probably born around 160.
  2. ^ Ancient Greece and Rome. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-19-517072-6. 
  3. ^ Alan Bowman; Peter Garnsey; Averil Cameron (8 September 2005). The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume 12, The Crisis of Empire, AD 193-337. Cambridge University Press. p. 502. ISBN 978-0-521-30199-2. 
  4. ^ Warwick Ball (10 June 2016). Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire. Taylor & Francis. p. 769. ISBN 978-1-317-29634-8. 
  5. ^ Glen Warren Bowersock (1994). Roman Arabia. Harvard University Press. p. 128. ISBN 978-0-674-77756-9. 
  6. ^ Irfan Shahid, Rome and The Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs, Washington, 1984, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, p. 167, ISBN 0-88402-115-7; Glen Warren Bowersock, Roman Arabia, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 126128, ISBN 0-674-77756-5 [1]. "with the last of his names, he clearly tried to forge a link with the ultimate Antonines, who were the Arab emperors from the family of Julia Domna"; Maxime Rodinson, The Arabs, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pp. 55, ISBN 0-226-72356-9, [2], "The emperor Septimus Severus married an Arab from Emessa, Julia Domna, whose sons and great-nephews ruled Rome."
  7. ^ Barbara Levick (10 May 2007). Julia Domna: Syrian Empress. Routledge. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-134-32351-7. 
  8. ^ Levick, Julia Domna: Syrian Empress, p.18
  9. ^ a b Rahman, Abdur (2001). The African Emperor? The Life, Career, and Rise to Power of Septimius Severus, MA thesis. University of Wales Lampeter. 
  10. ^ Birley, Arthur R. (1999). Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. New York: Routledge. p. 89-128. ISBN 0415165911. 
  11. ^ a b c "Julia Domna 170 CE Syria". Women-philosophers. Archived from the original on 30 May 2012. Retrieved 6 March 2014. 
  12. ^ a b c d Levick, Barbara (2007). Julia Domna: Syrian Empress. Routledge. p. 66. ISBN 9781134323517. 
  13. ^ Bernario, H. W. (1958). "Julia Domna: Mater Senatus et Patriae". Phoenix. 12: 67–70. 
  14. ^ Lindner, M. M. (2015). Portraits of the Vestal Virgins: Priestesses of Ancient Rome. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 
  15. ^ a b Jones, Christopher P. (2005). Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Harvard University Press. p. 2. 
  16. ^ Birley, Anthony (1999). Septimius Severus: The African Emperor, Routledge, p. 192. ISBN 0-203-02859-7.
  17. ^ Potter, David S (2004). The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180–395, Routledge, p. 148. ISBN 0-415-10058-5.
  18. ^ "Cassius Dio — Epitome of Book 79". University of Chicago. Archived from the original on 2012-05-26. 
  19. ^ Dzielska, Maria; Stucchi, Sandro (1986). Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History. p. 14. ISBN 88-7062-599-0. 
Preceded by
Manlia Scantilla
Empress of Rome
with Fulvia Plautilla (202–205)
Succeeded by
Nonia Celsa