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Julia Domna

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Julia Domna
Julia Domna (Julia Pia), inv. 2210, Roman - Braccio Nuovo, Museo Chiaramonti - Vatican Museums - DSC00897.jpg
Bust of Julia Domna, Vatican Museums
Empress of the Roman Empire
Tenure193–211 AD
Empress Mother of the Roman Empire
Tenure211–217 AD
Bornc. 160 AD
Emesa (today Homs), Syria
Died217 AD (aged 57)
Rome, Italy
SpouseSeptimius Severus
Full name
Julia Domna
Regnal name
Julia Domna Augusta
HouseRoyal family of Emesa
DynastySeveran dynasty
FatherJulius Bassianus

Julia Domna (AD 160–217) was Roman empress consort from 193 to 211. She was born in Emesa (present day Homs) in Syria into an Arab family of priests of the deity Elagabalus. She married Septimius Severus sometime during the late 180s. A civil war over the Roman throne broke out in 193, and shortly afterwards Severus declared himself emperor. The war ended in 197 with the defeat of the last of Severus' opponents.

As empress, Julia received titles such as "mother of the army camps". She was famous for her political, social, and philosophical influence. Her two sons with Severus succeeded their father after his death in 211. They had a distraught relationship and Julia acted as their mediator, but the elder, Caracalla, had his brother Geta assassinated later that year. Julia committed suicide in 217 upon hearing of the assassination of Caracalla.

After the death of Julia Domna, her older sister Julia Maesa successfully contended for political power. The Severan dynasty was restored to power with the accession of Julia Maesa's grandson, Elagabalus, in 218. It continued to rule until 235 when the reign of Severus Alexander, the cousin and successor of Elagabalus, ended, marking the start of the Crisis of the Third Century.

Family background[edit]

Julia Domna was born in Emesa (modern day Homs) in Syria around 160 AD[1] to an Arab family from Emesa.[2][3] Her name, Domna, is an archaic Arabic word that means black. She was the youngest daughter of the high-priest of Ba'al, Gaius Julius Bassianus, and sister to Julia Maesa. Through her sister and Maesa's husband Julius Avitus, Julia Domna had two nieces: Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, the respective mothers of future Roman emperors Elagabalus (r. 218–222) and Severus Alexander (r. 222–235).[4]

Julia's 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.[4]


In the late 180s, Julia married the Libyan Roman general Septimius Severus. The marriage proved happy, and Severus cherished Julia and her political opinions, since she was very well-read and a student of philosophy. They had two sons, Caracalla (Lucius Septimius Bassianus) in 188 and Geta (Publius Septimius Geta) in 189.[5]

Civil war[edit]

After the Roman emperor Commodus was murdered without an heir in 192, many contenders rushed for the throne, including Julia's husband Severus. An elder senator, Pertinax, was appointed by the Praetorian Guard as the new emperor of Rome. But when Pertinax would not meet the Guard's demands, he too was murdered.[6] Another politician, Didius Julianus, was called to Rome and appointed emperor. Severus, coming from the north into Rome, overthrew Julianus and had him executed.[7]

Severus claimed the title of emperor in 193. By offering Clodius Albinus, a powerful governor of Britannia, the rank of Caesar (successor), Severus could focus on his other rival to the throne, Pescennius Niger, whom he defeated at the Battle of Issus in 194.[7] When afterwards Severus declared openly his son Caracalla as successor, Clodius Albinus was hailed emperor by his troops. At the Battle of Lugdunum in 197, Severus defeated and killed Albinus, establishing himself as Emperor. Thus Julia Domna became Empress consort.[8]

Power and influence[edit]

The Severan Tondo, depicting Julia Domna, Septimius Severus, and their sons (Geta's image erased)

Unlike most imperial wives, Julia remarkably accompanied her husband on his military campaigns and stayed in camp with the army.[9] During this time, honorary titles were granted to Julia similar to those given to Faustina the Younger, including mater castrorum, mother of the camp,[10] mater Augustus, mother of Augustus, and mater patriae, mother of the fatherland.[11] She was respected and viewed positively for most of her tenure, as indicators and evidence include the coins minted with her portrait, mentioning her with the titles and also simply as "Julia Augusta". Julia is said to have exceeded all other Roman empresses in titles and honours.[10]

The empress was involved in 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, some scholars agree that Julia funded restorations to the site during Septimius Severus's reign.[12]

Transition of power[edit]

Relief of Caracalla with Julia Domna as Victoria, National Museum, Warsaw

When Severus died in 211 in Eboracum (York), Julia became the mediator between their two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were supposed 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.[13] Geta's name was then removed from inscriptions and his image was erased.[14][15]


During his campaign against the Parthian empire in 217, Caracalla was assassinated by a Roman soldier.[16] Julia chose to commit suicide after hearing about the rebellion,[17][18] perhaps a decision hastened by the fact that she was suffering from breast cancer, as well as a reluctance to return to private life.[19] Her sister Julia Maesa restored the Severan dynasty in 218;[20][21] the dynasty ruled again until 235 (when the Crisis of the Third Century, a fifty-year period of Roman civil war, commenced).[22] Julia Domna's 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 Julia Maesa to the Mausoleum of Hadrian.[23]


Julia Domna is remembered for encouraging Philostratus to write the Life of Apollonius of Tyana.[24] Julia is thought to have died before Philostratus could finish his work of eight volumes.[17] She also influenced Roman fashion: the hairstyle that she used would later be worn by Roman empress Cornelia Salonina and Palmyran queen Zenobia.[25] Julia seems to have introduced the wearing of wigs, a custom of Assyrians, to Rome.[26]



  1. ^
    • Burns, Jasper (2006). Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mothers and Wives of the Caesars Archived 2019-03-23 at the Wayback Machine. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-13184-6: "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."
    • Gagarin, Michael (2010). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-1951-7072-6.
    • Bowman, Alan; Garnsey, Peter; Cameron, Averil (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.
    • Ball, Warwick (2016). Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire. Taylor & Francis. p. 769. ISBN 978-1-317-29634-8.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Levick, Barbara (2007). Julia Domna: Syrian Empress. Routledge. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-134-32351-7.
  5. ^ Birley, Anthony (1999). Septimius Severus: The African Emperor, Routledge, pp. 76–77. ISBN 0-203-02859-7.
  6. ^ Rahman, Abdur (2001). The African Emperor? The Life, Career, and Rise to Power of Septimius Severus, MA thesis. University of Wales Lampeter. Archived from the original on 2017-10-29. Retrieved 2017-07-07.
  7. ^ a b Birley, Anthony (1999). Septimius Severus: The African Emperor, Routledge, p. 89–128. ISBN 0-203-02859-7.
  8. ^ Collingwood, R. G. (Robin George) (1998) [1936]. Roman Britain and the English settlements. Myres, J. N. L. (John Nowell Linton). New York: Biblo and Tannen. ISBN 0819611603. OCLC 36750306.
  9. ^ "Julia Domna 170 CE Syria". Women-philosophers. Archived from the original on 19 January 2015. Retrieved 3 July 2019.
  10. ^ a b Levick, Barbara (2007). Julia Domna: Syrian Empress. Routledge. p. 66. ISBN 978-1134323517.
  11. ^ Bernario, H. W. (1958). "Julia Domna: Mater Senatus et Patriae". Phoenix. 12 (2): 67–70. doi:10.2307/1086523. JSTOR 1086523.
  12. ^ Lindner, M. M. (2015). Portraits of the Vestal Virgins: Priestesses of Ancient Rome. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  13. ^ Goldsworthy, Adrian (2009). How Rome Fell: death of a superpower. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 68–69. ISBN 978-0-300-16426-8.
  14. ^ Dunstan, William E. (2011). Ancient Rome. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield. pp. 405–406. ISBN 978-0-7425-6832-7.
  15. ^ Goldsworthy, Adrian (2009). How Rome Fell: death of a superpower. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 70–71. ISBN 978-0-300-16426-8.
  16. ^ Goldsworthy, Adrian (2009). How Rome Fell: death of a superpower. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-300-16426-8.
  17. ^ a b Jones, Christopher P. (2005). Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Harvard University Press. p. 2.
  18. ^ Birley, Anthony (1999). Septimius Severus: The African Emperor, Routledge, p. 192. ISBN 0-203-02859-7.
  19. ^ Potter, David S (2004). The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180–395, Routledge, p. 148. ISBN 0-415-10058-5.
  20. ^ Salisbury, Joyce E. (2001). Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World. ABC-CLIO. p. 183. ISBN 9781576070925.
  21. ^ Burns, Jasper (2006). Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mothers and Wives of the Caesars. Routledge. p. 209. ISBN 9781134131853.
  22. ^ "The Severan Dynasty (193–235 A.D.)". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2000. Archived from the original on 2019-05-03. Retrieved 2019-06-06.
  23. ^ "Cassius Dio – Epitome of Book 79". University of Chicago. Archived from the original on 2012-05-26.
  24. ^ Dzielska, Maria; Stucchi, Sandro (1986). Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History. p. 14. ISBN 88-7062-599-0.
  25. ^ Southern, Pat (2008). Empress Zenobia: Palmyra's Rebel Queen. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 119. ISBN 978-1-441-17351-5.
  26. ^ Baharal, Drora (1992). "The Portraits of Julia Domna from the Years 193–211 A.D. and the Dynastic Propaganda of L. Septimius Severus". Latomus. 51 (T. 51, Fasc. 1): 110–118. JSTOR 41536198. For a comparison between the facial structures of Julia Domna and Faustina the Younger, see Baharal, Plates I and II.

Further reading[edit]

Preceded by
Manlia Scantilla
Empress of Rome
with Fulvia Plautilla (202–205)
Succeeded by
Nonia Celsa