23 January 2007

A genius for intrigue and a thirst for power?


Mea culpa


When I wrote that "
Julia Maesa had a genius for intrigue and a thirst for power," I let myself slip into the stereotypes of scheming-female and oriental-craftiness so assiduously promoted by our Roman sources.

I do not deny that Maesa was capable of intrigue. The proximity of the murderous Emperor Macrinus at Antioch would surely have sharpened her skills. That he didn't slay her and the two potentially-claimant grandsons may be indirect testimony to this very ability. Macrinus moved against her only when the uprising had already begun (from his vantage point, a year too late): at his urging, the Roman Senate declared and solemnly proclaimed war against not only the usurper and his cousin but also against their mothers and their grandmother.

Perhaps Maesa did have a thirst for power, but not for the simplistic reasons ascribed to her: that she wanted to be in the royal palace again, or she would rather have risked any danger than live as an ordinary person.

Let's look at what happened from her point of view.

The murdered Caracalla was, after all, the legitimate emperor. There is some truth in the dispatch that the victorious Syrians sent to the Senate, denouncing Macrinus as a man of low birth who had dared treacherously to murder the emperor whom he had been trusted to guard, dared to appropriate his office and to become emperor. Let's not forget either that Maesa was Caracalla's aunt and his closest surviving relative (her husband, the Consul Julius Avitus, was dead). Did she take on herself the duty of family revenge? The Romans regarded such revenge in a positive light -- at least for a man. Indeed, it was said that her grandson achieved glory because he avenged his [putative] father's death. Such glory could not have been due to any act of a 14-year old: it should have have been credited to her. But, of course, it wasn't.

I might as well make a full breast of it.

I don't believe that Maesa or her daughter ever claimed that Caracalla was the actual birth father of Elagabalus. Being a bastard was not a recommendation for power. Our sources are out to blacken their names. Much more likely, Maesa and Soaemias put about the story that Caracalla had adopted the boy, something for which there was loads of precedence. And honour.

So Maesa restored a legitimate line.





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