Julia Domna, also known as Julia Domma, (170 AD – 217 AD) was a member of the Severan dynasty of the Roman Empire. Empress and wife of Roman Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus and mother of Emperors Geta and Caracalla, Julia was famous for her prodigious learning as well as her extraordinary political influence.
Julia was from a family of the city of Emesa (known today as Homs), Syria. She was the youngest daughter of the high-priest Gaius Julius Bassianus and her eldest sister was Julia Maesa. 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.
In the late 180s, Julia married future Emperor Septimius Severus, usually considered to be of Punic background. The marriage proved to be a happy one, and Severus cherished his wife and her political opinions. She was very wellread and keen on philosophy. They had two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus (Caracalla) in 188 and Publius Septimius Geta in 189. Because of her love of philosophy, Julia protected philosophers and helped philosophy to flourish in Rome.
This bust depicts the empress with conventions that are typical of the Severan period. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
When Severus became emperor in 193 (known as "Year of the Five Emperors"), he had a civil war waiting for him, against rivals such as Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. Julia accompanied him in his campaigns in the East, an uncommon event at a time when women were expected to wait in Rome for their husbands. Nevertheless, she remained with the emperor and among the several proofs of affection and favour are the minting of coins with her portrait and the title mater castrorum (mother of the camp).
Controversy and transition of power
Coin featuring Julia Domna
As empress, Julia was often involved in intrigues and had plenty of political enemies, who accused her of treason and adultery. None of these accusations was proven. Severus continued to favour his wife and insisted on her company in the campaign against the Britons 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, perhaps a decision hastened by the fact that she was suffering from breast cancer. 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. She was later deified.
If it were not for Julia, there would have survived little information about the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana. It was at the behest of Julia that Philostratus wrote his now famous Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Julia is thought to have died before Philostratus could finish his work of eight volumes.