Julia Domna

Bust of Julia Domna at the Vatican Museum. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Gabby Storey

Julia Domna (c. 160-217) was born in Emesa, Syria, to an Arab family that was part of the Ermesan dynasty. Her father was Julius Bassianus, and prior to her marriage she had inherited the estate of her great-uncle Julius Agrippa, a centurion. The circumstances of her marriage are difficult to ascertain, but she married the future emperor Septimus Severus in 187, in Lugdunum, France.

Julia gave birth to two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus, in 188, and Publius Septimius Geta in 189. After Commodus’ death in 192, Severus vied for the imperial throne, overthrew the second emperor in the Year of Five Emperors, Didius Julianus, and focussed on quelling the two other imperial rivals and claimed the title of emperor in 193. Julia was established as empress by 197.

She accompanied Severus on his military campaigns, and was granted several official titles, including Mater Augustus. She was also depicted on several medallions and coins, and appears to have acted as a mediator and adviser during Severus’ reign. Upon his death in 211, she would depend upon these mediation skills as their two sons, Caracalla (Lucius) and Geta, were to co-rule but did not have a harmonious relationship.

Caracalla had Geta murdered later in 211, and spent much of his early reign outside Rome and on campaign, to which Julia also accompanied him. Whilst on campaign in Parthia in 217, Caracalla was assassinated by the orders of Macrinus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard who then succeeded Caracalla as emperor. Julia allegedly committed suicide upon hearing about the rebellion, perhaps in part due to suffering with breast cancer as well.

Recommended Reading

Barbara Levick, Julia Domna: Syrian Empress (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007)

David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180-395 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004)

Drora Baharal, “The Portraits of Julia Domna from the Years 193-211 AD and the Dynastic Propaganda of L. Septimius Severus,” Latomus 51 (1992) 110-118.

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