14 January 2007
More Uppity Women: the 4 Julia's
Zenobia would have known all about the four Julia’s. As wife, sister, daughters, and mothers of four Emperors, they may have been her role models.
The Julia’s were from the family of hereditary high-priests of the Sun-god of Emesa, a city on the Orontes River and Palmyra’s nearest western neighbour: the boundary between their territories was a little less than 100 miles of desert road. Emesa, modern Homs, is now a dusty, unpleasant town, but it was famous in antiquity for a venerable temple of the Sun-god who was worshipped there as a black stone - an ancestor of the somewhat better-known black stone of Mecca. Today, I want to talk about the first Julia, the wife of the Emperor Septimius Severus.
The First Julia, Julia Domna
According to the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta, when Septimius Severus was governor of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis in the mid 180s,
He ... made inquiries about the horoscopes of marriageable women, being himself no mean astrologer; and when he learned that there was a woman in Syria whose horoscope predicted that she would wed a king (I mean Julia, of course), he sought her for his wife, and through the mediation of his friends secured her.
Rather more likely, the future emperor met Julia in her home town, when he commanded the IV Scythica, the legion stationed close to Antioch, capital of the East. During this tour of duty, or perhaps when he briefly served as acting governor (ca 182 AD), he must have visited Emesa. This was then a wealthy city, rich in crops, but also a stop on the caravan route that brought the fabulous goods of the East, especially silks and spices, across the desert from Palmyra to the Mediterranean sea. Julia’s father was priest of the Sun-god Elagabal (El= god, gabal = mountain), and probably a descendent of the kings of Emesa from the time before the Romans had come to Syria. One imagines he was very rich and able to provide Septimius with a tempting dowry. They married in 187 AD (when she was 17) and had two sons: the future Emperor, the mad, bad Caracalla, and his younger brother, Geta. Most unusually for an Empress, Julia travelled with her husband in his military campaigns (receiving the honorary title of mater castrorum, mother of the camp), returning twice to Syria during the 190s.
She and her sons were with her husband when he died on campaign in Britain (211 AD). According to Septimius’ wishes, her sons were to share the imperial power. Cassius Dio, who lived at the same time as Julia, picks up the story:
There now ensued many sharp encounters between the two [brothers], each of whom felt that the other was plotting against him, and many defensive measures were taken on both sides. Since many soldiers and athletes, therefore, were guarding Geta, both abroad and at home, day and night alike, [Caracalla] induced his mother to summon them both, unattended, to her apartment, with a view to reconciling them. Thus Geta was persuaded, and went in with him; but when they were inside, some centurions, previously instructed by [Caracalla], rushed in in a body and struck down Geta, who at sight of them had run to his mother, hung about her neck and clung to her bosom and breasts, lamenting and crying: "Mother that did bear me, mother that did bear me, help! I am being murdered." And so she, tricked in this way, saw her son perishing in the most impious fashion in her arms, and received him at his death into the very womb, as it were, whence he had been born; for she was all covered with his blood....
Caracalla began as he meant to go on, immediately putting to death some twenty thousand friends and associates of Geta, men and women alike. Veering from murder to sport, Dio tells us, he showed the same thirst for blood. It was nothing, of course, that an elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, and hippotigris [zebra] were slain in the arena, but he took pleasure in seeing the blood of as many gladiators as possible.
At least he loved his mother:
[Caracalla] appointed her to receive petitions and to have charge of his correspondence in both languages [Latin and Greek], except in very important cases, and used to include her name, in terms of high praise, together with his own and that of the legions, in his letters to the senate, stating that she was well. Need I add that she held public receptions for all the most prominent men, precisely as did the emperor? But she devoted herself more and more to the study of philosophy....
Julia was passionate about literature, too, persuading Philostratus to write a life of the charismatic miracle worker, Apollonius of Tyana – as that author himself tells us.
Now I belonged to the circle of the empress, for she was a devoted admirer of all rhetorical exercises; and she commanded me to recast and edit these essays, at the same time paying more attention to the style and diction of them.
It had to end in tears. Caracalla was finally murdered in Mesopotamia in 217 AD. Julia Domna who had gone to Antioch to be near him, starved herself to death.
1. Zenobia went on campaign with her husband, Odenathus;
2. She, too, had a salon of literary and philosophical friends, including Longinus of Athens, the (purported) author of On the Sublime;
3. One version of her death has her committing suicide by starving herself.
The Second Julia, Julia Maesa
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