It was prophesied that Julia Domna would marry a king and in AD 185 she became the second wife of the Emperor Septimus Severus. Julia bore him two sons, Caracalla and Geta, and would go on to suffer the appalling tragedy of her youngest son Geta dying in her arms, having been stabbed to death on the orders of his elder brother Caracalla. Julia finally died or committed suicide in Antioch AD 217 apparently upon hearing of the death of Caracalla.
Both Julia Domna and Septimius Severus were born outside of Rome, as part of the local aristocracies of Emesa in Roman Syria and Lepcis Magna in Tripolitania, respectively. Julia Domna was the younger daughter of Julius Bassianus, a priest of the sun god Elagabal. The Imperial marriage appears to have been a happy and prosperous union with Julia accompanying her husband on campaign and travels throughout the empire and was widely honoured with inscriptions and numerous coin issues emphasising her imperial position. The second half of their marriage however is characterised by a power struggle between Julia and Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, the Praetorian Prefect who was Severus’s closest advisor. Likely in response to this, Julia appears to have built up her own power and influence, gathering promising individuals around her, sponsoring intellectuals and philosophers and in effect, establishing her own network of clients by presiding over cultural ‘salons’.
When Severus died in Britain, at York in early 211, Julia returned to Rome with her sons Caracalla and Geta, having gained the full title of mater castrorum et senatus et patriae, (‘Mother of the camp, Senate and Fatherland’). Severus had intended for his two sons to share rule, as they had been co-emperors with their father until his death. Despite Julia’s best efforts to mediate, this arrangement was doomed to failure.
The image of the Empress Julia Domna
Her distinctive likeness is recognised in many surviving portraits on coins, in marble and on engraved gems.
- A fine beryl intaglio of Julia in the Met: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/251870
- British finds of coins of Julia Domna: https://finds.org.uk/database/search/results/ruler/274/page/1/show/100
- See forensic hairdresser Janet Stephens recreate the Empress Julia Domna’s intricate hairstyle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4P2ZO6YEKs&w=430