Julia Soaemias

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Julia Soaemias
Denarius-Julia Soaemias-RIC 0237.jpg
Julia Soaemias on the observe of a Denarius, styled Julia Soaemias Augusta. On the reverse, Juno Regina.
Born180 AD
Emesa, Syria
DiedMarch 11, 222 AD (aged 41–42)
Rome, Italy
SpouseSextus Varius Marcellus
Full name
Julia Soaemias Bassiana
Regnal name
Julia Soaemias Bassiana Augusta
FatherGaius Julius Avitus Alexianus
MotherJulia Maesa

Julia Soaemias Bassiana (180 – March 11, 222) was a Syrian noblewoman and the mother of Roman emperor Elagabalus who ruled over the Roman Empire from 218 to 222. She was born and raised in Emesa, Syria and through her mother was related to the Royal family of Emesa, and through marriage, to the Severan dynasty of Ancient Rome.


She was the first daughter of the powerful Syrian Roman noblewoman Julia Maesa and Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus, sister of Julia Avita Mamaea, niece of Julia Domna, and a niece by marriage of Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus.

At some point, she married Syrian Equestrian and Politician Sextus Varius Marcellus, a native of Apamea. As members of the imperial Roman family of the Severan dynasty, they resided in Rome, and Julia's husband rose to the Roman senate.[1] Julia bore Marcellus two children: one son whose name is unknown and another son called Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, who became the Roman emperor Elagabalus. Her husband died in c.215, during his time as Roman governor in Numidia. The recently widowed Soaemias and her two sons later dedicated to him a tombstone which was found in Velletri, not far from Rome.[2] The tombstone has two preserved bilingual inscriptions[2] in Latin and Greek. The inscriptions reveal her political career, her various titles, designations and distinctions he received.[2]

As Empress[edit]


In 217, her maternal cousin the Roman emperor Caracalla was killed and Macrinus ascended to the imperial throne. Her family was allowed to return to Syria with their enormous wealth, and they returned to Emesa.[3] Back in Emesa, her son, Bassianus, ascended as the chief priest of the Syrian deity Elagabalus.[3]

Restoration of the Severan dynasty[edit]

A coin of Elagabalus, Soaemias' son and future emperor

Using her enormous wealth[1] and the claim that Caracalla had slept with her daughter and that the boy was his bastard, [4][3] Julia Maesa, Soaemias's mother, persuaded soldiers from The Gallic Third Legion stationed near Emesa to swear loyalty to Bassianus. Later, Bassianus was invited alongside his mother and her daughters to the military camp, clad in imperial purple and crowned as emperor by the soldiers.[4]

Cassius Dio records a different story, citing that "Gannys", a "youth who has not yet reached manhood" and the lover of Soaemias was the reason for the revolt.[4] Since the boy's father was no longer alive, Gannys acted as the boy's protector and foster father, and late at night, he dressed him in Caracalla's clothing and smuggled him to camp, without either Maesa or Soaemias's knowledge, and persuaded the soldiers to swear loyalty to him.[4] But nonetheless the story is likely a fabrication, seeing as it's unlikely that Maesa, who has much to gain if her grandson would become emperor, would be totally unaware of the coup,[4] but Herodian's story, which tells that the coup was handled by Maesa and her family alone is also unlikely, seeing that Dio's story tells that the boy later had the support of many Equestrians and Senators from Emesa, which was most likely.[4]

Whatever the circumstances for Elagabalus's rise to the purple were, he later rode to battle against Macrinus, and entered the city of Antioch emerging as emperor, with Macrinus fleeing before being captured near Chalcedon and executed in Cappadocia.

Reign of Elagabalus[edit]

A full-body statue of Soaemias, in the Antalya Archaeological Museum, Turkey

Thus, Bassianus emerged as emperor and was styled Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, with Soaemias, as his mother, styled as Iulia Soaemias Augusta.[1] Elagabalus as emperor was mainly concerned with religious matters, and as sun worship had increased throughout the Empire since the reign of his maternal great-uncle by marriage, Septimius Severus,[5] Elagabalus and his mother saw this as an opportunity to install Elagabal as the chief deity of the Roman pantheon. The god was renamed Deus Sol Invictus, meaning God of the Undefeated Sun, and was honored even above Jupiter.[6] Elagabalus and his entourage spent the winter of 218 in Bithynia at Nicomedia,[7] where the emperor's religious beliefs first presented themselves as a problem. The contemporary historian Cassius Dio suggests that Gannys was in fact killed by the new emperor because he pressured Elagabalus to live "temperately and prudently".[8] To help Romans adjust to having an oriental priest as emperor, Julia Maesa (Soaemias's mother) had a painting of Elagabalus in priestly robes sent to Rome and hung over a statue of the goddess Victoria in the Senate House.[7] This placed senators in the awkward position of having to make offerings to Elagabalus whenever they made offerings to Victoria.[9]

The duo attempted to gain popularity with Roman religion, and as a token of respect, joined either Astarte, Minerva, or Urania to Elagabal as consort.[10] But while her son was concerned in religion, Soaemias and her mother were busy administering Rome, and both are featured heavily in literary accounts of Elagabaus's reign, and were credited with much influence in Rome.[11] She attended meetings of the senate, and even held a "Women's Senate" deciding on matters of fashion and protocol.[11] She was honored with various titles, including 'Augusta, mater Augusti' (Augusta mother of Augustus) and 'Mater castorum et senatus et totius domus divinae' (Mother of camp and the senate and the divine house).[11] Their rule was not popular, however, and soon discontent arose, mainly because of the strange sexual behaviour and the Eastern religious practices of Elagabalus, and Elagabalus lost favour from both the Praetorian guard and the senate, mainly because of his many eccentricities, particularly his relationship with Hierocles, which increasingly provoked the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard.[12] When Elagabalus' grandmother Julia Maesa perceived that popular support for the emperor was waning, she decided that he and his mother, who had encouraged his religious practices, had to be replaced.[12] As alternatives, she turned to her other daughter, Julia Avita Mamaea, and her grandson, the thirteen-year-old Severus Alexander.[12]

Controversy and transition of power[edit]

Maesa arranged for Elagabalus to appoint his cousin Severus Alexander as his heir and to give him the title of Caesar. Alexander shared the consulship with the emperor that year.[12] However, Elagabalus reconsidered this arrangement when he began to suspect that the Praetorian Guard preferred his cousin to himself.[13]


After failing various attempts to slay his cousin, Elagabalus decided to strip his cousin of his titles, revoking his consulship, and invented the rumor that Alexander was near death, in order to see how the Praetorians would react.[13] A riot ensued, and the Guard demanded to see Elagabalus and Alexander in the Praetorian camp.[13] Julia entered the camp to protect her son, but was slain along with Elagabalus by the Praetorian Guard in 222.[1] Their bodies were dragged through the streets and disposed of in the Tiber River,[1] and Julia was later declared a public enemy and her name erased from all records.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e The Severan Women
  2. ^ a b c Sextus Varius Marcellus’ article at Livius.org
  3. ^ a b c Gibbon, Edward (1776). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. p. 182.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Icks, Martijn (2011). The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor. p. 11. ISBN 1848853629.
  5. ^ Halsberghe, Gaston H. (1972). The Cult of Sol Invictus. Leiden: Brill. p. 36.
  6. ^ Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXX.11
  7. ^ a b Herodian, Roman History V.5
  8. ^ Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXX.6
  9. ^ van Zoonen, Lauren (2005). "Heliogabalus". livius.org. Retrieved 10 July 2016
  10. ^ Herodian, Roman History V.6
  11. ^ a b c Icks, Martijn (2011). The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor. p. 19. ISBN 1848853629.
  12. ^ a b c d Herodian, Roman History V.7
  13. ^ a b c Herodian, Roman History V.8

Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Julius Capitolinus, Opellius Macrinus ix; Aelius Lampridius, Antoninus Heliogabalus i-ii, iv, xvii-xviii.

External links[edit]

Media related to Iulia Soaemias at Wikimedia Commons