04 March 2007
More Uppity Women: the 4 Julia's (Part III) ... continued
Do you believe a word of it?
I don't think I do, or rather only the last paragraph: Elagabalus did make Alexander his Caesar and both Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias were present on that day (26 June 221) in the Senate.
Maesa may have persuaded Elagabalus to adopt his cousin by arguing something like this: "Bassianus, my pet," (for she would hardly have called him by the name of the god that they both adored) "you should devote yourself to your divine duties and the worship of our god, since that is what you most love in life. Let someone else look after worldly affairs and keep you free from the cares and worries of the empire." And she might have added, "We don't want someone from outside the family," and sotto voce, certainly not your favourite charioteer, "but the task should be kept in Severan hands, like those of your little cousin." It was quite incidental that, given Alexander's youth, Maesa would thus remain the
de facto ruler of the Roman Empire.
Clearly, Julia Soaemias did not have the power to resist her mother. Indeed, you may have noticed that she was largely absent in the earlier post ostensibly dedicated to her name. I apologize for slighting her, but this is due to Maesa's continued domination. She was the one pulling the strings.
However, things didn’t go quite as she had planned. Or did they?
Julia Soaemias versus Julia Mamaea
Not everyone appreciated the emperor's passion for Sol Invictus Elagabal, while his marriage and remarriage to a Vestal Virgin was a running scandal. The sources mention criticism, coming mostly from the Senate. After a while, voices of discontent were heard among the Praetorian Guards as well. The behaviour of the emperor may have been quite normal in Emesa, in Rome it was unacceptable. The man who was expected to represent Roman virtues, was a Syrian in all his ways and merely proved that the Roman anti-Syrian prejudices were exactly right.
When all that was once held in respect was reduced in this way to a state of dishonour and frenzied madness, everyone, and particularly the praetorians, began to grow bitterly angry. They were revolted at the sight of the emperor with his face made up more elaborately than a modest woman would have done, and effeminately dressed up in golden necklaces and soft clothes, dancing for everyone to see in this state. So they inclined more favourably towards Alexander, expecting better things of a boy who was receiving such a modest and serious education.
For Mamaea was bringing up Alexander like a little Roman.
[She] removed him from contact with activities which were shameful and unbecoming for emperors. In private she summoned teachers of all the arts, and trained him in the exercise of self-control, introducing him to the wrestling schools and manly exercises, and gave him both a Latin and a Greek education. [Elagabalus]was absolutely furious about this and regretted the adoption of Alexander and his participation in the empire. He cleared out all Alexander's teachers from the court, executing some of the extremely distinguished ones and driving others into exile.
One unsurprising consequence is that the two mothers viciously quarrelled. Openly at variance with each other, both "were inflaming the spirits of the soldiers." In what must have been a bitter struggle for praetorian loyalty, Soaemias didn't rise to the challenge: it was Mamaea who had inherited the skills and guile of her mother.
Although Alexander was winning favour, it would have been foolish to leave things to chance, so, of course, Mamaea also privately handed over some money for clandestine distribution to the soldiers. In this way she hoped to capture the loyalty of the soldiers with money as well, always the most attractive inducement for the men.
In this conflict, Julia Maesa and the Senate backed the Caesar. The crisis came to a head during a visit of Elagabalus and his mother to the Praetorians' camp on 11 or 12 March 222:
[He] became aware that he was under guard and awaiting execution ... so he made an attempt to flee, [but was] discovered and slain, at the age of eighteen. His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked ... and dragged through the city for a long time and mutilated, were thrown into the sewers which run down to the River Tiber.
His name was expunged from the public records and his images and statues were destroyed. Julia Soaemias, having already been the only female member of an imperial family ever to have been dragged through the streets and dumped into the sewer, also suffered a damnatio memoriae; and her images, too (such as the statue pictured above) were mutilated.
Alexander, though extremely young and very much under the tutelage of his mother and grandmother, was greeted as emperor by the soldiers and conducted up to the palace.
Julia Maesa died not long after the accession of Alexander: perhaps in 223, but in any case before 3 August 224. She had chosen well, and was deified.
Orientalism Gone Wild
What's wrong with this story?
[Elagabalus] served ... huge platters heaped up with the viscera of mullets, and flamingo-brains, partridge-eggs, thrush-brains, and the heads of parrots, pheasants, and peacocks. And the beards of the mullets that he ordered to be served were so large that they were brought on, in place of cress or parsley or pickled beans or fenugreek, in well-filled bowls and disk-shaped platters -- a particularly amazing performance. For ten successive days, moreover, he served wild sows' udders with the matrices, at the rate of thirty a day, serving, besides, peas with gold-pieces, lentils with onyx, beans with amber, and rice with pearls; and he also sprinkled pearls on fish and truffles in lieu of pepper.
And so on ... and so fantasizingly on.
Greeks and Romans liked to believe that all eastern potentates devoted themselves to luxury: that they stayed indoors in their self-indulgence, were thus pale and unmanly, and never seen by anyone except their eunuchs and wives (it's hard to imagine such kings leading armies -- as they certainly did -- but inconsistency was not a hobgoblin for ancient authors). Elagabalus had proved himself not to be a Roman; therefore he was a Syrian, and depraved, extravagant, and feminine.
In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his [guests] with violets and other flowers, so that some of them were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.
This deliciously decadent story, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, as illustrated above, is probably right about the reversible ceiling (Nero had it, too), but the rest is overheated fantasy, typical of ancient writing about Elagabalus. As if, once they started, they couldn't stop. Cassius Dio sneeringly refers to the emperor as 'Sardanapalus', the name of the legendary king of Assyria who was said to have outdone all eastern kings in his sybaritic way of life. And Sardanapalus was, of course, more of a woman than a man. When a visitor came to his palace, he saw
...the king with his face covered with white lead and bejewelled like a woman, combing purple wool in the company of his concubines and sitting among them with knees uplifted, his eyebrows blackened, wearing a woman's dress and having his beard shaved close and his face rubbed with pumice (he was even whiter than milk, and his eyelids were painted), and when he looked upon [him]he rolled the whites of his eyes.
Exactly the same accusations were leveled against Elagabalus:
He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet [a red-dyed ointment used to colour faces, similar to modern rouge]. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman.
Need we go on? What is astonishing is that so many modern commentators believe this tripe. In fact, to prove the point, I shall write one more post on the subject of Elagabalus' beard, before (finally!) turning to the last of the four Julia's.
- ► 2015 (13)
- ► 2014 (11)
- ► 2013 (19)
- ► 2012 (21)
- ► 2011 (26)
- ► 2010 (28)
- ► 2009 (43)
- ► 2008 (59)
- ▼ March (7)