Julia Domna was one of the most influential and powerful women in Roman history. She was the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, the mother of Emperors Caracalla and Geta, and the grandmother of Emperors Elagabalus and Severus Alexander. She was also a patron of arts, literature, and philosophy, and a leader of the Severan dynasty that ruled Rome from 193 to 235 CE.
Julia Domna was born around 160 CE in Emesa, a city in Roman Syria, to an Arab family of priests who worshipped the sun god Elagabalus. Her father, Julius Bassianus, was the hereditary high priest of the cult, and her sister, Julia Maesa, was also a prominent member of the aristocracy. Julia Domna’s name means “black” in Arabic, referring to the color of the sacred stone that represented Elagabalus.
In 187 CE, Julia Domna married Septimius Severus, who was then the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis (modern France). They had two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were born in 188 and 189 CE respectively. Septimius Severus was a successful military commander and a loyal supporter of Emperor Commodus, but after Commodus was assassinated in 192 CE, he joined the civil war that erupted among several claimants to the throne. In 193 CE, he defeated his rivals and became the sole emperor of Rome. Julia Domna accompanied him on his campaigns and received the titles of Augusta (empress) and Mater Castrorum (mother of the army camps).
As empress, Julia Domna played an active role in politics and administration. She advised her husband on various matters and acted as his representative when he was away. She also maintained good relations with the Senate and the people of Rome, who respected her for her intelligence and dignity. She was especially interested in culture and learning, and gathered around her a circle of philosophers, writers, historians, and artists. Among them were Philostratus, who wrote a biography of Apollonius of Tyana; Cassius Dio, who wrote a history of Rome; Galen, who was a famous physician; and Herodian, who wrote a history of the Severan dynasty.
Julia Domna’s influence continued after her husband’s death in 211 CE. Her sons succeeded him as co-emperors, but they soon fell into conflict with each other. Julia Domna tried to mediate between them and prevent a civil war, but her efforts failed. In 212 CE, Caracalla murdered Geta in their mother’s arms. Julia Domna was devastated by this tragedy, but she remained loyal to Caracalla and supported his rule. She accompanied him on his campaigns against the Parthians and the Germans, and shared his title of Pia Felix Augusta (pious happy empress). She also continued to patronize scholars and artists, and commissioned several public works in Rome.
Julia Domna’s life ended in 217 CE, when Caracalla was assassinated by one of his soldiers near Edessa (modern Urfa) in Mesopotamia. Upon hearing the news, Julia Domna decided to starve herself to death in Antioch (modern Antakya) in Syria. She was buried next to her husband in the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome. Her sister Julia Maesa took over her role as the matriarch of the Severan dynasty and arranged for her grandsons Elagabalus and Severus Alexander to become emperors.
Julia Domna was a remarkable woman who left a lasting legacy in Roman history. She was not only an empress, but also a patroness, a philosopher, a diplomat, and a mother. She witnessed and shaped some of the most turbulent events of her time, and earned the respect and admiration of many people. She was truly one of the most influential women in ancient Rome.