(This article first appeared in The Celator, Vol.12, no. 1, Jan. 1998)
Despite the turbulent episodes which characterized her life, Julia
Domna's's profound influence during the latter Roman Empire is well documented on
numerous coins, sculptures and paintings bearing her likeness in addition to
literary sources recounting the events in her
As the wife of Emperor
Septimius Severus and mother of his successor Caracalla, Julia possessed the
privileges associated with her elevated status. Moreover, she managed to rise above
her station as a woman in the imperial world in remarkable displays of fortitude
and wisdom. Following in the wake of several unfavorable empresses,
Julia Domna's political eminence and intellectual bearing greatly contributed to
her public image although unsubstantiated rumors would call her virtue into
Remaining familial portraits
point toward the dramatic power struggle which plagued Severan rule and
allude to the discord between her sons, which she fought to reconcileto no avail.
Although she endured a life fraught with personal tragedy and political
adversity, Julia Domna's ambition and will prevailed, preserving her image as a
significant figure in ancient Rome and as a model of feminine achievement.
Julia Domna's ascendance to the throne was propelled by the fortuitous
elements of her birthplace and her birth sign. Septimius Severus, from
Lepcis Magna in Tripolitania, arose from humble African origins to a high post
in the Roman military. Still, he foresaw a grander destiny for himself. As
related in Dio Cassius' Roman History,
Severus' superstitious inclinations led him to
conclude from a series of signs that he would one day become
Upon learning of Julia's complementary
horoscope predicting that she would marry a king, Septimius sought her in her
homeland Emesa in Syria, a region where he had once commanded
Severus actualized these omens by first securing
Julia as his wife and later the Roman Empire as
his possession. In vying for the sovereign seat with other
provincial military leaders following the murder
of Pertinax, and the brief rule of Didius Julianus,
Severus was proclaimed victor in AD 193. He ruled as emperor until
his death in 211.5
During her husband's reign,
Julia Domna maintained a strong identity and established a cultivated salon devoted
to the intellectual pursuits she favored. Two renowned members of this circle
were Philostratus, the biographer of the mystic Appolonius of Tyana, and Galen,
the father of western medicine.6
Philostratus referred to this group as "the
circle around Julia"7
and was said to have
written about Apollonius at Julia's request, reflecting her spiritual
Bestowed with the title Julia the
Philosopher, Laertius most likely dedicated his History of the Greek
to her. From Dio's account it appears that
Julia's animosity toward Plautianus, Septimius' influential praetorian prefect,
compelled her to seek the company of literary figures and philosophers to escape the
torrent of abuse and accusations of infidelity that he directed at
The Scriptores Historiae
makes reference to Julia's alleged adulteries and
supposed conspiracy against Septimius although Dio's earlier record gives no credence
to hints of such deceits.10
speculations surrounding her honor were later
exacerbated by her purportedly incestuous involvement with her son, Caracalla,
during his succeeding reign.11
such charges or in a repudiation of their validity, Julia was said to have been
revered by Septimius, accompanying him on military expeditions and earning the
title "Mother of the Camps" from the soldiers.
She also was conferred the status of an Augusta eight years into her reign
and was honored as a "new Demeter" among the
Despite the allegations, the public image of Julia Domna
apparently was not diminishedjudging from the preponderance of art pieces
commemorating her and the number of women who mimicked her
trademark hairstyle in their portraits.
The degree to which Julia
influenced the governing of the Roman Empire leads some to attest that she acted as
co-ruler, a role unprecedented in the Roman world dominated by
The fact that Julia's image often
appears shadowing that of her husband in coins, paintings, reliefs, and in historical
accounts demonstrates the powerful influence she exerted on Septimius.
An aureus minted at Rome in AD 201 juxtaposes the steady gaze and firm
profile of the emperor against the thoughtful, inclined head of the empress
Although the disparate
temperaments of the rigid, vigorous military Septimius and the cultured,
philosophical Julia would seem at odds, their twin ambitions would unify them
during their reign as in this portrait. The harmonious relationship imparted
by this image is also reflected in the coin's inscription,
Following the death of Severus, Geta and Caracalla were
bequeathed joint reign of the empire. But in a bloody bid to become sole ruler,
Caracalla had Geta murdered in a vicious plot which unfolded in Julia's presence.
Julia's efforts to reconcile the two warring brothers were in vain, as Geta
died in her arms where he rushed for protection from his slayers. According
to Dio, Julia was not allowed to weep for Geta but instead was "compelled
to rejoice and laugh as some great good fortune, so closely were all her
words, gestures, and changes of color
Caracalla's alleged incompetence and Julia's dominant will, she essentially took on
the administration of the kingdom in her son's
Dio also notes that Julia gave Caracalla intelligent advice
which he failed to heed in his cruel measures and squandering of
Julia handled all of Caracalla's
correspondence and was responsible for receiving petitions as
Following Caracalla's murder in 217, Julia
opted for suicide by starvation rather than risk a loss of power and possible
exile with the enthronement of Macrinus.20
Although she reportedly had little affection for Caracalla, her grief upon
his death was immense for this reason alone.
In one of the few surviving
imperial portraits in painting, a medallion said to have been discovered in
Egypt portrays Julia and Septimius with Geta and Caracalla in tempera on
Geta's face is scratched off of
the panel, probably at Caracalla's behest, as most portraits of Geta,
including some on coins, were defaced with the intent of erasing his memory
Compared to portraits in bronze
or marble, the painted medium is customarily considered the more expressive medium. The medallion, dating to 199
does provide a clearer depiction of the Severans' physical coloring but is
provincial in style.23
Julia's distinctive hair
is colored chestnut and her wide, almond-shaped eyes brown. The artist
makes some attempt to convey a sense of dignity in Julia's placid expression but
unfortunately his technical shortcomings prevent a truly accurate revelation into
the inner souls of his subjects.
The force of Julia's character
better manifests itself in the artistic rendering of her features on imperial coinage.
Through the vast quantity of coins minted with her image, Julia Domna's
progression from youth to maturity is widely recorded. An earlier aureus dated after
198 depicts her sons Caracalla (left) and Geta on the reverse in a clear
propagandistic message, AETERNIT IMPERI asserting the continuance of the Severan
dynasty, while the obverse boasts the smooth countenance and ingenuous spirit of a
young Julia (Figure 2)24
A later sestertius
minted in 213, during Caracalla's reign, betrays Julia's advanced age and personal
trials with a sharpness about the features and an air of determination (Figure
Through the skilled engraving on
roman coinage, the toll of her life's tragedies as well as her indomitable spirit is thus
These two coins also display
changes in Julia Domna's coiffure, On the earlier coin, Julia wears the hairdressing
typical at the end of second century in which the hair is parted in the middle with two
large bands brought up into a complicated chignon behind her head, echoing the
styles of Faustina the Younger, Lucilla and Crispina (Figure
Julia's later hairstyle takes on heavier, helmetlike
characteristics consistent with the pronounced gravity of her life's hardships on the
coin dating to Caracalla's reign Figure 3).27
This later hairstyle is most associated with Julia Domna, usually featuring
additional padding to appear more massive with stiff waves around the face
covering the ears and quantities of coiled braids organized behind the
With this shift in style, wigs were more
widely used, and occasionally sculptural
portraits incorporated detachable hairpieces to accommodate changes in vogue.
Julia helped popularize wigs, which were prized as a sign of wealth and
Indeed several private portraits are
dated to the Severan period on the basis of the resemblance in hairstyle to that worn
by Julia, indicating the public affinity for imperial
Representation of Julia Domna in various sculptural reliefs demonstrate the emergence of new techniques in
Roman sculpture of "Late Antiquity," a term loosely referring to
Graeco-Roman civilization dating from AD 200 to its collapse in the West and its
merging with Byzantine civilization in the
While retaining some vestiges of the Classical past, the new era
in sculpture took on the spiritual and mystical dimensions which had
gained prominence in the ancient world. Religious orientations manifested
themselves in politics as well as the arts. Abandoning Classical conventions
in compositional arrangement and employment of space and proportion, sculptural reliefs of late antiquity are
characterized by frontally situated block-like figures stacked in a symbolic
The Arch of Septimius Severus erected at Lepcis Magna sometime
between 203-207, typifies third century Roman relief sculpture in its "
anti-classical" composition and treatment of
Historical reliefs decorate the panels of the arch with tiers of
forward-facing figures rendered in the chiaroscuro effect of
Julia Domna appears
in several reliefs with her characteristic hairstyles, broad oval face and
large eyes .
On the reverse of a gold aureus struck in AD 202, Domna is
depicted in one of the first facing portraits in Roman coinage (Figure 4).
Flanking her, are profile busts of Caracalla and Geta. All three portraits are a
distinct departure from the classical norm.
Several portraits of Julia Domna
in the round reveal her trademark hairstyle in greater detail but convey
little of the inner turmoil beneath a placid exterior. Interestingly, in female
portraiture of the Severan era, classicism predominates with features idealized
in a bland manner conveying little insight into the psychological makeup of
The Severan taste for
elegant features realized in simple contours and soft modeling is shown in
portrait busts which unveil little emotive content but give a sense of Julia's
basic physiognomy and wig style (see illustration on page 10 of a portrait bust
in the Vatican museum).36
Some reveal more evident use of the drill while
most contain indicated pupil and incised iris to lend life to Julia's
There exists a marked symmetry of her features with
her arched brows, wide slanted eyes set in a broad face consistent with her Syrian origins but the overriding concern seems to be achievement of an
idealized image of imperial majesty and beauty.
Although she is viewed as a tragic
figure, Julia Domna's influential role in the third century indicates that she
managed to assert her will in many instances to direct the course of her life and her
realm in a capacity limited by her gender but certainly not her wit and ambition.
Her influence during the Severan rule was keenly felt and observed by public
and artist alike in a blend of positive and negative interpretations. Some
viewed her as strong while others would deem her ruthless. Some saw her as
beautiful and exotic while others found her plain.
Some saw merit in her virtuousness while others discounted her as depraved
and immoral. Hence, Julia Domna remains an enigma despite her obvious
accomplishments and widespread influence. While an art historical survey
yields many works depicting Julia Domna, only fragments of information may be
gleaned to form a sound judgment of her character and exploits. Discrepancies
persist but hopefully with additional studies, these pieces may coalesce into a
coherent picture of an empress worthy of the same examination accorded her
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