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 170 AD
Emesa, Syria
Died 217 AD (aged 47 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, (died 217), second wife of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193–211) and a powerful figure in the regime of his successor, the emperor Caracalla. She was also a mother of Emperors Geta and Caracalla.Julia was a Syrian (Domna being her Syrian name) and was the daughter of the hereditary high priest Bassianus at Emesa (present-day Ḥimṣ) in Syria and elder sister of Julia Maesa. As the emperor’s wife, she received the titles of augusta (193) and “mother of the army camps” (195).  She was born in Emesa in the Roman province of Syria to a family of king priests devoted to the god Ba'al and Elagabalus. 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.[1][2] 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.[3]


In the late 180s, Julia married future emperor the Libyan Roman general Septimius Severus, and together they had two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus in 188 and Publius Septimius Geta in 189.

Civil War[edit]

After the Roman emperor Commodus was murdered without an heir in 192 CE, so many contenders rushed for the throne, including Septimius Severus, Julia's husband. [4] 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. [4] 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. [5] Septimius claimed the title of emperor in 193. Co-ruling Rome with Clodius Albinus, Septimius declared his sons AVGVSTVS, and defeated Albinus and his British legions. Septimius remained at war with an eastern rival to the throne, Niger, until he defeated Niger's forces in 201 CE, establishing himself, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, and so Julia Domna became Empress consort.

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

Unlike most consorts, Julia Domna remarkably accompanied her husband on his campaigns and stayed in camp and not at home. [2]. 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 [6], MATER AVGVSTVS, mother of Augustus, and MATER PATRIAE, or mother of the fatherland.[7].

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 presecuting it, [2] and she also was a patron of learning and surrounded herself with philosophers, writers and artists. [2] The empress was also involved in many building projects, most notably the aedes Vestae after the fire of Commodus in 192 CE 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.[8]

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 [6] and also simply as "Julia Augusta" [6], as Julia is said to have exceeded all other Roman empresses in titles and honours. [6]

Controversy and transition of power[edit]

Coin featuring Julia Domna

Her good reputation between the people didn't prevent the Empress from being subjects of gossip, accusations and intrigues, as Julia was often involved in intrigues and had plenty of political enemies, who accused her of treason and adultery. There was a report that she was having a romantic affair with the legendary bandit leader Bulla Felix, her husband's nemesis, whilst he was away in Britain. None of these accusations were proven, but she was linked to Bulla Felix's capture in Liguria. Despite this, Severus continued to favour his wife and insisted on her company in the campaign against the Britons after Bulla Felix's capture, that started in 208. 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. 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,[9][10] perhaps a decision hastened by the fact that she was suffering from breast cancer.[11] 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.[12]


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

Julia Domna is also remembered due to the biography of Appollonius of Tyana, as it was at the behest of Julia that Philostratus wrote his now famous Life of Apollonius of Tyana.[13], as if it were not for Julia, there would have been very little surviving information about the philosopher. Julia is thought to have died before Philostratus could finish his work of eight volumes.[9]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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."
  2. ^ a b c d "Julia Domna 170 CE Syria". Women-philosophers. Archived from the original on 30 May 2012. Retrieved 6 March 2014. 
  3. ^ Levick, Julia Domna: Syrian Empress, p.18
  4. ^ a b Rahman, Abdur (2001). The African Emperor? The Life, Career, and Rise to Power of Septimius Severus, MA thesis. University of Wales Lampeter. 
  5. ^ Birley, Arthur R. (1999). Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. New York: Routledge. p. 89-128. ISBN 0415165911. 
  6. ^ a b c d Levick, Barbara (2007). Julia Domna: Syrian Empress. Routledge. p. 66. ISBN 9781134323517. 
  7. ^ Bernario, H. W. (1958). "Julia Domna: Mater Senatus et Patriae". Phoenix. 12: 67–70. 
  8. ^ Lindner, M. M. (2015). Portraits of the Vestal Virgins: Priestesses of Ancient Rome. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 
  9. ^ a b Jones, Christopher P. (2005). Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Harvard University Press. p. 2. 
  10. ^ Birley, Anthony (1999). Septimius Severus: The African Emperor, Routledge, p. 192. ISBN 0-203-02859-7.
  11. ^ Potter, David S (2004). The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180–395, Routledge, p. 148. ISBN 0-415-10058-5.
  12. ^ "Cassius Dio — Epitome of Book 79". University of Chicago. Archived from the original on 2012-05-26. 
  13. ^ 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