The Fourth Julia: Julia Mamaea
When [Elagabalus] had been put out of the way, Alexander, the son of Mamaea ... inherited the supreme power. He immediately proclaimed his mother Augusta, and she took over the direction of affairs and gathered wise men about her son, in order that his habits might be correctly formed by them....
Of course, the appellation 'son of Mamaea' was not official, but its use is significant as denoting his entire subordination to his mother. Nor was this a mere literary conceit: some inscriptions also traced his lineage through the maternal line, ‘son of Julia Mamaea, grandson of Julia Maesa’. While he took on the name of Severus to stress the connection with the founder of the dynasty (the emperor Septimius Severus), that prestige, too, flowed through the female line, as great-nephew of that emperor's wife, Julia Domna.
The three surviving ancient biographies of (now) Severus Alexander – the eulogistic, almost entirely fictitious Life of Alexander in the Hist. Augustae, and the contemporary histories of Cassius Dio and Herodian – all confirm the influence of his mother and grandmother in the imperial administration.
...he possessed the trappings and the name of emperor, but the control of administration and imperial policy was in the hands of his womenfolk, who tried to bring back a complete return to moderate dignified government.
So, for the first time in its imperial history, the Roman empire was de facto, though not de iure, governed by women.
Ten Good Years (222-231 AD)
As long as she lived, Maesa exercised supreme power.
Her first moves were astute: she hastily presented the young emperor to the Senate, to have his elevation to the purple confirmed before the mutinous Praetorians could substitute a candidate of their own. She even persuaded the senators to confer on the boy-emperor titles such as Pater Patriae (Father of his Country), borne by earlier Emperors but not usually assumed till a later stage in the reign. Her means of persuasion was simple: she chose sixteen senators as advisers to the emperor, treating them with respect, while herself informing them of all that had to be done. She thus restored the old dignity of the senate without, in fact, giving them any authority: she was free to accept or reject advice as she chose. Maesa survived but a short time to enjoy her role as female regent, dying no later than August 224, and, as we have said, she was deified.
Luckily for the Severan dynasty, Mamaea inherited much of her mother’s ability. While Maesa was alive, both women held equal public honours as ‘Mother of Augustus’ and ‘Mother of the Camp’. Now, her daughter increased her prestige considerably, adding ‘Mother of Senate and of the Country’ to her titles. Her position in government was highlighted by becoming the first woman ever to receive the title consors imperii, usually translated as ‘imperial consort’ but better expressed as a ‘partner in [exercising] imperial power’.
Even as Severus Alexander grew to manhood, Mamaea still controlled and dominated him, though whether this was due to her strength of will or because her son was simply indolent and weak is uncertain. A golden glow seemed to bathe his reign. The frontiers of Empire remained quiet, the Roman world was at peace. For ten years, the empire throve.
The fly in the ointment
Despite such good government, Mamaea encountered serious trouble early on with the Praetorian Guards. Perhaps her rule was not as firm as that of Julia Maesa, or the flow of bribes to the troops had dried up, now that she no longer needed to outbid her sister for their support. This led to a revolt by the increasingly hostile Praetorians. At some point there was even fighting in the streets of Rome between the ordinary people and the Guards. This revolt might well have been the reason why the execution of two of their commanders was ordered. In their place, Ulpian, one of the great jurists of Rome and Mamaea's right-hand man in government, was appointed commander.
You may well wonder what a jurist has to do with the command of the city garrison, a large and formidable body of soldiers, most of whose recruits came from alien Danubian and Balkan lands (seemingly as violent then as now). Military experience might be a better requirement for the post. There was, however, a family precedent: Septimius Severus had made the Syrian jurist Papinian (perhaps a relative of Julia Domna's) commander of the Praetorians in 206 [he was killed by his son Caracalla five years later]. The difference was that Severus was himself a great general who had crushed any and all opposition to his rule. Without the backing of such a stern disciplinarian, a fine legal mind, tried loyalty, and the confidence of the ruler goes only so far.
Still, for a time, it seemed a good move. Ulpian imposed discipline on the Praetorians, anxious to show that a lawyer could be as firm as a soldier. And rewarded his patroness with two legal declarations, to wit:
"The Emperor is not bound by the laws."
"What pleases the prince has the force of law."
Adding the useful rider that, although the Empress is not above the law, she can acquire from the Emperor the same privileges that he possesses himself. [Ulpian was clearly the kind of top legal advisor that George W. Bush and Tony Blair would like to have behind them].
Who really ran the Empire?
Both ancient and modern writers have puzzled over who actually administered the Roman Empire during the reign of Severus Alexander. The ancient sources are contradictory. While I have stressed the the role of Julia Maesa and Julia Mamaea in the imperial administration, The Life of Alexander in the Hist. Augustae and Cassius Dio emphasize the role of Ulpian, although they give few supporting details. Modern historians, too, have traditionally sought a comfortable 'male' solution to the problem and the bias, if not the evidence, of the ancient sources has tended to support them. Based on a misreading of Dio, it was almost universally assumed that Ulpian had served as a kind of regent, in fact if not in name, during the first six years or so of Severus Alexander’s reign and thereby furnished the male guidance and direction so necessary for the smooth functioning of the government.
In full adulatory flow, The Life devotes two chapters to Alexander's imagined virtues (his shouldering the responsibilities of direct imperial rule himself, in the tradition of the great emperors of the past. A perfect counterplot, in fact, to the previous rule of the wicked Elagabalus, who could do no right).
Alexander always treated Ulpian as his guardian – a fact which called forth, first the opposition of his mother, but, later, her gratitude – and he frequently protected him from the soldiers’ ill-will by sheltering him under his own purple robe. In fact, it was because he ruled chiefly in accordance with Ulpian’s advice that he was so excellent an emperor.
As it happens, this tale is wrong -- dead wrong. Ulpian, we now know, was murdered by the Praetorians less than eighteen months after taking office (appointed commander on 1 December 222, dead as a doornail before May/June 224).
In summer or late 223, the Praetorians staged a serious mutiny under the leadership of a certain Marcus Aurelius Epagathus. Ulpian was the prime target, and he was slain by the Praetorians, who attacked him in the night; and it availed him naught that he ran to the palace and took refuge with the emperor himself and with the emperor's mother.
He thus had little time to be regent, still less for Mamaea to change her mind and think this a good idea, before the shelter of purple turned out to be utterly illusory.
Her chief advisor killed, Julia Mamaea found herself humiliatingly forced to 'reward' the mutinous Epagathus with the post of governor of Egypt. But there was an iron fist in her velvet glove: he "was sent to Egypt, ostensibly as governor, but really in order to prevent any disturbance from taking place in Rome, as it would if he were punished there. From Egypt he was taken to Crete and executed."
How do we know when this happened?
A papyrus from Egypt (P. Oxy. 2565) preserves two texts that change the presumed date of Ulpian’s death. The first is dated in the Egyptian month of Payni (May 26 to June 24) of the year 224 and provides indisputable evidence that Epagathus, the murderer of Ulpian, was serving as prefect of Egypt on this date. Hence, by June of 224 Ulpian had already been dead for some time. One must imagine that, for the sake of decorum, Epagathus was kept at his post as prefect of Egypt for at least a few months before getting his one-way ticket to Crete
In fact, that is what happened. The second text reveals that by a date within the same year another person, Tiberius Claudius Herennianus, had assumed the duties of the prefecture of Egypt as acting prefect, which means that Epagathus was terminated with extreme prejudice some time before the end of 224. Under the circumstances, it would have been extremely important to present his powerful friends in Rome with a fait accompli, in order to prevent further trouble from developing there. Dio says as much. Also, a few weeks or months will have been required after the death of Ulpian to arrange successfully for the transfer of such a dangerous man as Epagathus out of Rome to Egypt. Thus the murder of Ulpian could not have occurred much later than the summer of 223 and may well have occurred even earlier.
Exit Ulpian. Welcome back Julia Mamaea.
Much more to come.