Julia Mamaea was notorious for her love of money. Although she was, according to the Life of Alexander, "a woman greatly revered", she was also, alas, "covetous and greedy for gold and silver."
This unlovely trait in her character brought her into disrepute and provoked one of the few recorded disputes between mother and son:
Alexander found fault with his mother and was very much upset to see her avarice and absolute obsession with money.... This cast a certain cloud upon his reign, though Alexander opposed and deplored her forcible confiscation of some people's inherited property.But was she, as the usually reliable Herodian tells us, simply piling it up for her own private hoard? Or, as she herself alleged, was she saving money for a rainy day: "in order to enable Alexander to make a generous ex gratia payment to the troops"? One would have thought that personal experience had taught her that the Praetorians not only could be bought but must be bought as the only way to maintain their loyalty. More on this after the second (female) sin.
Orbiana Augusta in the left corner
Mamaea mater Augusti et castrorum et senatus et patriae
in the right corner
In autumn 225 AD, when Alexander was 17, his mother chose a bride for him, the delightfully named Gneia Seia Herennia Sallustia Barbia Orbiana, a girl of impeccably aristocratic family. Marital bliss was short-lived:
though [Alexander] lived with her and loved her, Mamaea banished her from the palace with insults. Wishing to be the only empress, Mamaea was jealous of the title of Augusta going to the girl.It is difficult to imagine that it came as a surprise to Mamaea that the Emperor's wife was given the title of Empress ... but women are jealous creatures so the explanation has always sufficed.
Is there no other way to explain her behaviour? If we start from the assumption that Mamaea was a rational being - despite her sex - and hardly likely to risk the empire in a fit of pique, one lies to hand.
Remember that Ulpian, her right-hand man, had been murdered by the Praetorians more than a year earlier. Mamaea would certainly have chosen her son's wife on the basis of her father's ability to lend needed support. Honours for him = more backing for her. This is what seems to have happened: Orbiana's father, L. Seius Sallustius, who held consular rank, was given the title of Caesar in 224/225. This may have been meant as an honorific title since the reigning Emperor was so much younger and Seius (now) Caesar was unlikely to succeed him in the normal course of nature. But the Caesar was ambitious, too, and betrayed his trust some time in 227.
Not that you would know it from Herodian. For him, it's a mother-in-law tiff that got out of hand:
Seius Caesar could not stand the insults Mamaea offered him and his daughter. He took refuge in the military camp and, though he acknowledged his gratitude to Alexander for his honours , he laid charges against Mamaea for her insults. Furious at this, the empress ordered him to be executed and the girl, already turned out of the palace, was exiled to Libya.*What really seems to have happened is an attempted coup d’état, with Seius Caesar trying to rouse the ever-restless Praetorians against Mamaea, no doubt intending to replace her as regent himself (hence his claim that he had no quarrel with the Emperor, just with his mother). If he hoped to draw a distinction between the two, Alexander disappointed him.
A fragment from the Greek historian Dexippus (writing a generation or so later) confirms as much: the Caesar, he says, tried to kill [the Emperor] by treachery but Alexander detected the plot, had him put to death on a charge of attempted murder, and divorced his wife.
The Praetorian Guards had rioted in 223, murdered Ulpian in 224, and now joined a plot against Mamaea in 227 (and were again on the verge of revolt in 229). It is as sure as anything in the third-century can be that Mamaea and her son came through again unscathed because some of the money she had stashed away paid off the mutineers. The waverers returned to their allegiance and the revolt fizzled out.
Avarice can serve a purpose.
Still more to come.
* Exile to Libya was not as terrible then as it would be now. The old Phoenician and Greek coastal cities were still prosperous, and Lepcis Magna, the birthplace of Septimius Severus, had been much embellished by him and was positively flourishing; perhaps that's where Orbiana was sent. I wonder if the choice of Libya does not indicate some kinship between the Severans and Orbiana's family. Septimius had always favoured his fellow Libyans (or Syrians from Julia Domna's orbit). Enriched and ennobled, they formed the nucleus of a new aristocracy that was prominent for generations. You could trust these men ... but, then again, as the ancient saying has it, Periculosum est credere et non credere: It is dangerous to trust and dangerous not to trust.