Julia Domna

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Julia Domna
Bust of Julia Domna
Roman empress
Bornc. 160 AD
Emesa, Roman Syria
SpouseSeptimius Severus
(m. 187; died 211)
Regnal name
  • Julia Domna Augusta[1]
  • Julia Augusta[1]
  • Julia Pia Felix Augusta[1]
FatherJulius Bassianus

Julia Domna (Latin: [ˈjuːli.a ˈdomna]; c. 160 – 217 AD) was Roman empress from 193 to 211 as the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus. She was the first empress of the Severan dynasty. Domna was born in Emesa (present-day Homs) in Roman Syria to an Arab family[2] of priests of the deity Elagabalus. In 187, she married Severus, who at the time was governor of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis. They had two sons, Caracalla and Geta. 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's opponents.

As empress, Domna was famous for her political, social, and philosophical influence. She received titles such as "Mother of the Invincible Camps".[a] After the elder of her sons, Caracalla, started ruling with his father, she was briefly co-empress with Caracalla's wife, Fulvia Plautilla, until the latter fell into disgrace.[4] Following the death of Severus in 211, Domna became the first empress dowager to receive the title combination "Pia Felix Augusta", which may have implied greater powers being vested in her than what was usual for a Roman empress mother.[5] Her sons succeeded to the throne. They had a conflictual relationship and Domna acted as their mediator, but Caracalla had his brother Geta assassinated later that year.

Domna committed suicide in 217 upon hearing of Caracalla's assassination in the course of his campaign against Parthia, on which she had accompanied him to Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey). After the death of Domna, her older sister Julia Maesa successfully restored the Severan dynasty to power in 218.

Family background

Julia Domna was born in Emesa (modern day Homs) in Syria around 160 AD[6] to an Arab family that was part of the Emesene dynasty.[7] Her name, Domna, is an archaic Arabic word meaning "black",[8][9] referencing the nature of the sun god Elagabalus which took the form of a black stone. She was the youngest daughter of the high priest of Baal, Julius Bassianus, and sister to Julia Maesa. Through Maesa and her husband Julius Avitus, 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).[10]

Domna's ancestors were priest kings of the temple of Elagabalus. The family had enormous wealth and was promoted to Roman senatorial aristocracy. Before her marriage, Domna inherited the estate of her paternal great-uncle Julius Agrippa, a former leading centurion.[10]


The Historia Augusta, a generally unreliable source, relates that, after losing his first wife around 186,[11] politician Septimius Severus heard a foretelling of a woman in Syria who would marry a king. So Severus sought her as his wife.[12] This woman was Domna. Bassianus accepted Severus' marriage proposal in early 187, and in the summer the couple married in Lugdunum (modern-day Lyon, France), of which Severus was the governor.[13] The marriage proved happy, and Severus cherished Domna and her political opinions. Domna built "the most splendid reputation" by applying herself to letters and philosophy.[14] She gave birth to their two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus in 188 in Lugdunum, and Publius Septimius Geta the following year in Rome.[15]

Civil war

After the Roman emperor Commodus was murdered without an heir in 192, many contenders rushed for the throne, including Domna'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.[16] Another politician, Didius Julianus, was called to Rome and appointed emperor. Severus, coming from the north into Rome, overthrew Julianus and had him executed.[17]

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.[17] When afterwards Severus openly declared his son Caracalla as his 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, Domna became Empress-consort.[18]

Power and influence

Coin featuring Domna (IVLIA AVGVSTA).

Unlike most imperial wives, Domna remarkably accompanied her husband on his military campaigns and stayed in camp with the army.[19] As worded by Barbara Levick, Domna "was to exceed all other empresses in the number and variety of her official titles."[20] Honorary titles were granted to Domna similar to those given to Faustina the Younger, including "Mother of the Invincible Camps",[21][a] and Mater Augustus (Mother of Augustus).[22][b] She was respected and viewed positively for most of her tenure, as indicated by coins minted with her portrait that mention her titles or simply refer to her as "Julia Augusta". The title Pia Felix Augusta (Latin: [ˈpi.a ˈfeːliːks au̯ˈɡusta]) which she received after Severus' death was "perhaps a way of implying that Domna had absorbed and was continuing her husband's attributes" after his death.[24]

Several medallions for Domna were issued by Severus as early as 207, on the reverses of which is "Vesta Mater" (Mother Vesta), which, according to Molly M. Lindner, "could refer to an invocation to Vesta during prayers and supplications that the Vestal Virgins made whenever they prayed publicly".[25] According to Lindner,

While some scholars have proposed that Julia Domna's medallions commemorate the restoration of the Temple of Vesta by the empress, Melanie Grunow Sobocinski pointed out that [the temple] burned down in 191, whereas Julia Domna's use of Vestal iconography does not occur until 207. Either the reconstruction of [the temple] took more than fifteen years, or Julia Domna had a different motivation, perhaps one connected to her role as the mother of Septimius Severus' heirs, as the legend on the reverses suggests.[26]

Transition of power

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

When Severus died in 211 in Eboracum (York), Domna 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. However, the two young men had a discordant relationship,[27] and Geta was murdered by Caracalla's soldiers in December of the same year.[28] Geta's name was then removed from inscriptions and his image erased as the result of a damnatio memoriae.[29] As explained by Caillan Davenport:

[Caracalla] spent the majority of his reign outside Rome, departing the city in late 212 or early 213 for a campaign against the Alemanni on the Rhine, for which he claimed the title Germanicus Maximus. After a rocky—and near fatal—crossing of the Hellespont, the emperor and his court established themselves at Nicomedia in Bithynia during the winter of 213/4. Caracalla's mother, Julia Domna, accompanied her son on his provincial tour. There is only circumstantial evidence for her presence in Germany, but she was certainly at court in Nicomedia, and later resided at Antioch in 216 (see § Death, below).[30]


Lady with her hair dressed in the fashion first set by Julia Domna. The disguised legend reads Amo te ego.[31]

In 217, Caracalla began a new war with Parthia. Domna went with Caracalla as far as Antioch.[32] There she stayed, helping to deal with his correspondence, while he went on to the frontier.[33] During the campaign, Caracalla was assassinated by a Roman soldier.[34] Domna chose to commit suicide after hearing about the rebellion,[35][36] perhaps a decision hastened by the fact that she was suffering from breast cancer, as well as a reluctance to return to private life.[37] Her sister, Julia Maesa, restored the Severan dynasty in 218.[38][39] 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 Maesa to the Mausoleum of Hadrian.[40]


Domna encouraged Philostratus to write the Life of Apollonius of Tyana,[41] but is thought to have died before he finished the eight-volume work.[35] She also influenced Roman fashion: the hairstyle that she used would later be worn by Roman empress Cornelia Salonina and Palmyran queen Zenobia.[42] Domna seems to have made the wearing of wigs, a custom of Assyrians, popular among Romans.[43]

Severan dynasty family tree


  1. ^ a b Ancient Greek: Μήτηρ τῶν ἀηττήτων στρατοπέδων, romanizedMḗtēr tôn aēttḗtōn stratopédōn; Latin: Mater invictorum castrorum.[3]
  2. ^ According to Caillan Davenport, there is significant controversy about the dating of the titles Mater senatus (Mother of the Senate) and Mater patriae (Mother of the Fatherland), which, "as Rowan (2011) 254 points out, [...] only occur on coinage minted after Severus' death, which is surely a significant development in the official presentation of the Augusta's public image."[23]


  1. ^ a b c Société française de numismatique et d'archéologie 1873, p. 151.
  2. ^ Rodinson 1981, p. 55: "Roman Syria was in part populated by Arabs. The emperor Septimius Severus married an Arab from Emessa, Julia Domna, whose sons and great-nephews ruled Rome."
  3. ^ Definition of μήτηρ Archived 2019-12-08 at the Wayback Machine. www.perseus.tufts.edu.
  4. ^ Lendering, Jona. "Plautilla". Livius.org. Archived from the original on 2019-01-15. Retrieved 2019-11-26.
  5. ^ Langford 2013, Introduction, note 88; Bédoyère 2018, p. 282.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Gagarin 2010, p. 3; Bowman, Garnsey & Cameron 2005, p. 502; Ball 2016, p. 769; Bowersock 1994, pp. 126–128; Shahîd 1984, p. 167; Rodinson 1981, p. 55.
  8. ^ Shahîd 1984, p. 41.
  9. ^ Definition of دِمنة Archived 2019-11-06 at the Wayback Machine (in Arabic). www.almaany.com.
  10. ^ a b Levick 2007, p. 18.
  11. ^ Birley 1999, p. 75.
  12. ^ Birley 1999, p. 71.
  13. ^ Birley 1999, pp. 76–77; Fishwick 2005, p. 347.
  14. ^ Gibbon 1831, p. 74.
  15. ^ Birley 1999, pp. 76–77.
  16. ^ Rahman 2001.
  17. ^ a b Birley 1999, pp. 89–128.
  18. ^ Collingwood 1998.
  19. ^ "Julia Domna 170 CE Syria". Women-philosophers. Archived from the original on 19 January 2015. Retrieved 3 July 2019.
  20. ^ Levick 2007, p. 66.
  21. ^ Rowlandson & Bagnall 1998, p. 45; Levick 2007, p. 66.
  22. ^ Bernario 1958.
  23. ^ Davenport 2017, p. 80.
  24. ^ Bédoyère 2018, p. 282.
  25. ^ Lindner 2015, p. 231–232.
  26. ^ Lindner 2015, p. 232.
  27. ^ Davenport 2017, pp. 77–78.
  28. ^ Goldsworthy 2009, pp. 68–69; Davenport 2017, p. 76.
  29. ^ Dunstan 2011, pp. 405–406; Goldsworthy 2009, pp. 70–71; Davenport 2017, p. 77.
  30. ^ Davenport 2017, p. 76.
  31. ^ King, Charles William (1885). Handbook of Engraved Gems (2nd ed.). London: George Bell and Sons. p. 238.
  32. ^ Greenwalt 2000, p. 383.
  33. ^ Goldsworthy 2009, p. 76.
  34. ^ Goldsworthy 2009, p. 74.
  35. ^ a b Jones 2005, p. 2.
  36. ^ Birley 1999, p. 192.
  37. ^ Potter 2004, p. 148.
  38. ^ Salisbury 2001, p. 183.
  39. ^ Burns 2006, p. 209.
  40. ^ Cassius Dio, Roman History, Epitome of Book LXXIX Archived 2012-05-26 at archive.today.
  41. ^ Dzielska & Stucchi 1986, p. 14.
  42. ^ Southern 2008, p. 119.
  43. ^ Baharal 1992. For a comparison between the facial structures of Domna and Faustina the Younger, see Baharal, Plates I and II.


Further reading

Royal titles
Preceded by Empress of Rome
with Fulvia Plautilla (202–205)
Succeeded by