I entered [Alexandria] by the Sun Gate, as it is called, and was instantly struck by the splendid beauty of the city, which filled my eyes with delight. From the Sun Gate to the Moon Gate – these are the guardian divinities of the entrances – led a straight double row of columns, about the middle of which lies the open part of the town, and in it so many streets that walking in them, you would fancy yourself abroad while still at home.(Not an extract from Mamaea’s diary, but from Leucippe and Clitophon, a late-2nd-century potboiler written by Achilles Tatius, a native of “the most glorious city of the Alexandrians”.)
Sometime between August 228 and August 229, when her son was not quite 21, Mamaea apparently dared to leave Alexander alone in Rome and took herself off to Alexandria. We have no idea why she travelled to Egypt, but there must have been a more compelling reason than sightseeing, despite the city’s many famous monuments (affairs of state would have been put aside, however, for a visit to the pyramidal tomb of Alexander the Great: could she have shared the dream of her son’s foolish boast – that there would be “a great difference between a Roman and a Macedonian Alexander ”? If he truly said it, it boomeranged: the difference, indeed, would soon become stark).
Turning round and round to face all the streets, I grew faint at the sight and at last exclaimed, like a luckless lover, ‘Eyes, we have met our match.’”
The Empress, too, must have been impressed, for she celebrated her visit by giving the city a gift: this Alexandrian coin* (which dates her visit) shows her holding the model of a gateway with two arches and three towers. This is numismatic shorthand for saying that she had a gateway built in the city, presumably inscribed with her name to record the gift for all posterity.
Mamaea thus seems to have been the only Empress between the very early days of empire and the time of Constantine to initiate a public building project. Urban embellishments and imperial gifts were the perogative of Emperors, not their females – even if emperors built rather more rarely than we suppose (outside Rome at least) and grandly put their names on monuments very often constructed with local money.
A Palmyran Visitor?
I just wonder, without any evidence at all, if J. Aurelius Zenobius, the father of Zenobia, travelled to Alexandria to meet the Empress. He was governing Palmyra in the year 229, so he would have been likely to lead any official embassy, such as might be sent to convey his city's greetings to the Empress. Especially since he was a distant relative of hers, having two Emesene paternal ancestors: one a Samsigeramus, a traditional name in Emesa’s once-royal family, and a C. Julius Bassus, whose name recalls that of Julius Bassianus, high priest of the Sun at Emesa, and the father of Julia Domna.
The idea of their meeting is a pleasant conceit.
Meanwhile, back in Rome
Sometime in 228 Cassius Dio returned to Rome after having governed wild Upper Pannonia [roughly present-day Hungary, with chunks of Slovenia and Croatia] where he had kept his troops under firm discipline and managed to suppress a mutiny without being killed (“I ruled the soldiers in Pannonia with a strong hand.”). He was rewarded by the emperor by being appointed consul, with the Emperor himself as his colleague, and entered office, no doubt with appropriate fanfare, on January 1, 229. This was Dio’s second consulship, a great honour ... and his political swan song.
It may be that Mamaea had judged him a safe and trusted pair of hands, thus freeing her to travel to Egypt. Dio had served in high positions under the family since the early days of Septimius Severus (as praetor, proconsul of Africa, Dalmatia, and lately Upper Pannonia). Best yet, he was in his seventies and unlikely to change either his life-style or his loyalties: a devoted public servant, keeping a fatherly eye on Alexander, and controlling the Praetorian Guards as he had controlled the soldiers in Upper Pannonia.
If so, a sound plan went awry. She probably had to cut short her trip.
The Awry Praetorians
The Praetorians were unhappy about Dio’s appointment as consul. Dio himself tells us, in the last book of his Roman History, about their antagonism:
The malcontents evinced displeasure at this, and they demanded my surrender, through fear that someone might compel them to submit to a régime similar to that of the Pannonian troops.... [Severus Alexander] became afraid that they might kill me if they saw me in the insignia of my office, and so he bade me spend the period of my consulship in Italy, somewhere outside of Rome. And thus later I came both to Rome and to Campania to visit him, and spent a few days in his company, during which the soldiers saw me without offering to do me any harm.He didn't push his luck, but prudently asked to be excused, and "set out for home, with the intention of spending all the rest of my life in my native land" [in far-away Bithynia], leaving Homer's words behind:
...out of range of the missiles. Out of the dust and the slaying of men and the blood and the uproar.(Il. XI 189-92)
Despite this unfortunate precedent, Mamaea planned a second trip to Egypt, this one with Alexander in tow, for the year 333 AD.
After arriving at Alexandria, the imperial party apparently intended to sail down the Nile at least as far as Middle Egypt. Two papyri attest to this expected itinerary. One instructs the local governors and royal scribes of Middle Egypt to prepare for the visit.
In the second, an overseer of pigs informs the governor of the Oxyrhynchite nome, under oath, that he has on hand:
the pigs which are being prepared for the propitiously impending visit of our lord Imperator Severus Alexander and his mother Julia Mamaea Augusta ... I have with me the collected pigs, numbering forty, each weighing 50 pounds, totalling two thousand pounds
Small pigs (but not unlike the lean pigs in Coptic villages today); yet the overseer must have had a very experienced eye to round out the chubby and the thin, and take his oath on exactly 2,000 pounds of pork. It was also his job to maintain the pigs at this or better weight until the imperial visitors and their party reached the nome capital, where they presumably were to be fed and entertained.
They never got there.
Regime Change in Iran
In 228 the Persian vassal king of the Parthians overthrew his master in battle and proclaimed the new Persian empire. Whereas the Parthians had often been content to defend themselves against attack, the Sassanian Persians – as they are known – were just as aggressive as the Romans. They were out for conquest, not defense. Ardashir, their first king, took on the title King of Kings and claimed the inheritance of his imagined forefathers whose kingdom Alexander the Great had destroyed. He boasted that he would win back everything that the ancient Persians had once held as far as the Grecian Sea – Anatolia, Syria, and all of the East. Two years later, he drove the Romans out of Mesopotamia...
One of Cassius Dio’s last thoughts in the Roman History reads
The danger lies not in the fact that he [Ardashir, king of the Persians] seems to be of any particular consequence in himself, but rather in the fact that our armies are in such a state that some of the troops are actually joining him and others are refusing to defend themselves.He was wrong about the first danger, right as rain about the second.
Severus Alexander was forced to attempt to recover the lost territories with the army he had (not the army he needed). In the spring of 231, he made a generous distribution of money to the soldiers and, with tears in his eyes, left Rome, arriving in Antioch by the late summer. His mother went with him. A tiny detail preserves a record of their route: a milestone appears in Thrace with the name of Mamaea upon it – the first recorded case of a milestone with the name of an empress.
I think she was enjoying herself.
Next, Mamaea’s Travels In The East
* I apologise for the poor quality of this photograph (though I've Photoshopped it to bits): it was taken in 1917, and I haven't found a more recent image. You'll probably have to take my word for the arches and towers, or believe, if you prefer, J.G. Milne, the eminent numismatist who originally published it.
[I warmly thank Prof. Peter van Minnen for sending me a copy of his article on the papyrus in the Duke University Papyrus Archive, Imperial Pork, AncSoc 27, 1996.]