31 January 2007

Pagan Revival II (Updated)

Take back your holiday

It occurs to me that the pagan revivalists have the perfect holiday to celebrate this year on December 25th. If they do, they will owe it (sadly enough) to Zenobia.

In the year 274, the Emperor Aurelian inaugurated the feast of the Sun-god in Rome on the day of that god's birthday, that is, on the winter solstice, which falls on December 25th in the old Julian calendar. The god he had in mind was Sol Invictus, "the Unconquered Sun", but the god he had in hand was Bel-Helios of Palmyra. When the emperor had destroyed Zenobia's city the previous year, the eagle-bearers of the Third Legion Cyrenaica despoiled the Temple of Bel: Aurelian, we are told, removed from this temple the statue of Bel-Helios to a new home in Rome.

He built a temple for the new god on the eastern Campus Martius, today between the Via del Corso and the Piazza San Silvestro (so Bel may still be lurking under the church of San Silvestro in Capite). Something of this huge temple remained on the site until at least 1629 when Giovanni Battista Mercati made this haunting etching of its ruins.

Happy Birthday, Sun!

Aurelian established annual Games to honour the Sun's birthday and kicked off the event with 30 chariot races. We last hear of the Games of the Sun being celebrated in 354 AD. In that same year, coincidentally, the so-called Philoclian calendar (a list of the early bishops of Rome) mentions under the year 336, "25 Dec.: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae." The supreme god of the Empire had changed, but his birthday hadn't.

Updated 13 December 2011 

On the question of Sol's precedence on December 25th, see now 'Whose Christmas Is It Anyway?'

26 January 2007

23 January 2007

A genius for intrigue and a thirst for power?

Mea culpa

When I wrote that "
Julia Maesa had a genius for intrigue and a thirst for power," I let myself slip into the stereotypes of scheming-female and oriental-craftiness so assiduously promoted by our Roman sources.

I do not deny that Maesa was capable of intrigue. The proximity of the murderous Emperor Macrinus at Antioch would surely have sharpened her skills. That he didn't slay her and the two potentially-claimant grandsons may be indirect testimony to this very ability. Macrinus moved against her only when the uprising had already begun (from his vantage point, a year too late): at his urging, the Roman Senate declared and solemnly proclaimed war against not only the usurper and his cousin but also against their mothers and their grandmother.

Perhaps Maesa did have a thirst for power, but not for the simplistic reasons ascribed to her: that she wanted to be in the royal palace again, or she would rather have risked any danger than live as an ordinary person.

Let's look at what happened from her point of view.

The murdered Caracalla was, after all, the legitimate emperor. There is some truth in the dispatch that the victorious Syrians sent to the Senate, denouncing Macrinus as a man of low birth who had dared treacherously to murder the emperor whom he had been trusted to guard, dared to appropriate his office and to become emperor. Let's not forget either that Maesa was Caracalla's aunt and his closest surviving relative (her husband, the Consul Julius Avitus, was dead). Did she take on herself the duty of family revenge? The Romans regarded such revenge in a positive light -- at least for a man. Indeed, it was said that her grandson achieved glory because he avenged his [putative] father's death. Such glory could not have been due to any act of a 14-year old: it should have have been credited to her. But, of course, it wasn't.

I might as well make a full breast of it.

I don't believe that Maesa or her daughter ever claimed that Caracalla was the actual birth father of Elagabalus. Being a bastard was not a recommendation for power. Our sources are out to blacken their names. Much more likely, Maesa and Soaemias put about the story that Caracalla had adopted the boy, something for which there was loads of precedence. And honour.

So Maesa restored a legitimate line.

19 January 2007

More Uppity Women: the 4 Julia's (Part II)

The Second Julia, Julia Maesa

After Caracalla’s death, his murderer, the Praetorian Prefect, Macrinus by name, pretended for all of four days that he hadn’t done it -- then he grasped the supreme power. He lost it almost as fast, ruling only one year and two months (minus three days), not because he was a murderous upstart: the 3rd century was a good time for treacherous brutes. No, his rule was cut short because he greatly underestimated the elder sister of Julia Domna, the iron-willed Julia Maesa.

When Julia Domna died, Macrinus thought that he was rid of the house of Severus, but Julia Maesa had a genius for intrigue and a thirst for power. She had accompanied her royal sister to Rome, where she used her position to acquire much influence and great wealth. Macrinus now ordered her back to Emesa, which proved to be a most advantageous base. She wanted to restore the Syrian dynasty, and she had a handsome grandson, the son of her daughter Julia Soaemias, who would make a good emperor. His name was Bassianus, he was 14-years old, and was the priest of the Sun-god Elagabal in Emesa. He is better known to history under the name of his god: Elagabalus or Heliogabalus.

Maesa returned to Emesa and lived with her two daughters, Julia Soaemias (the elder) and her son Bassianus, and Julia Mamaea (the younger) with her son, Alexianus, who had just turned nine. As priest of the cult of the Sun-god, Bassianus often appeared in public wearing a long-sleeved chiton that hung down to his feet, richly embroidered in gold and purple. On his head he wore a crown of precious stones glowing with different colours. He was in the prime of his youth and he resembled, it was said, the most magnificent statues of Dionysus.

The Soldiers and the Bastard

At the time there was a large military garrison near Emesa. The soldiers used to go regularly to the city and to the temple. As Bassianus performed his priestly duties, dancing at the altars to the music of flutes and pipes, everyone, especially the soldiers, viewed him with close interest because he was a member of the imperial family. Maesa now told them (what may or may not have been true) that he was actually the natural son of Caracalla. Caracalla, she said, had slept with her daughter at the time when she was living in the imperial palace with her sister. This was gradually made known to all the soldiers, and the story soon got round the army. Maesa had loads of money, all of which she was willing to distribute to the soldiers if they restored the empire to her family. The local legion was persuaded to desert Macrinus. Quietly one night, Maesa slipped out of the city with her daughters and their children and went to the military camp. The garrison saluted Bassianus as Emperor. Maesa put the the imperial purple cloak on the boy's shoulders and he accepted the rule.


The rumours were spreading throughout the rest of the eastern legions that a son of Caracalla had been found and that the sister of Julia Domna was distributing money. It was an irresistible combination: suddenly recalling their devotion to Caracalla, the soldiers accepted the story as true ... and the lure of money, above all else, made many of them join the new Emperor’s army.

It was destiny, too.

Nature herself foretold the result as clearly as any event that ever happened: for a mule gave birth to a mule in Rome and a sow to a little pig with four ears, two tongues, and eight feet, a great earthquake occurred, blood flowed from a pipe, and bees formed honeycombs in the meat and fish market -- all of which, as one can well imagine, caused terrible alarm.

The decisive battle took place near Antioch in 218 AD. Julia Maesa was on the battlefield. Bassianus’ army made a very weak fight, and the men could not hold their ground against the Praetorian Guards. Some units had turned their backs and already begun to retreat. At this critical moment, Maesa ... leaped down from her chariot and rushing among the fleeing men restrained them from further flight by her lamentations, and the lad himself was seen by them dashing along on horseback, with drawn sword, in a headlong rush that seemed divinely inspired, as if about to charge the enemy.

All those bad omens came home to roost and Macrinus fled the field.

Now, the reign of Bassianus could begin. The immediate business in the East was dealt with by his grandmother and her circle of advisers. Step 1 was to slay the man who had helped bring about the uprising, who had caused the soldiers to revolt, who had given him the victory over Macrinus, and who had been his foster-father and guardian (and perhaps his mother's lover). That done, they did not delay long in setting out for Rome, where Maesa particularly was anxious to get to the imperial palace she had been used to. Maesa's exalted status is indicated by the fact that coins were minted with her portrait and she was honoured with the title of Augusta avia Augusti (Augusta, grandmother of Augustus).

We’ll tell about the bizarre life of the Emperor Elagabalus ("a farrago of cheap pornography") in the next section, when we talk about his mother. Now I want to stress the extraordinary activities of his grandmother. The historian Herodian, who lived at this time, had no doubt that she was the real ruler of the Roman empire. She was also the first and only woman to sit in the Roman Senate.

When he held his first audience with the senate on his arrival in Rome, he gave orders that his [grand]mother should be asked to come into the senate-chamber. On her arrival she was invited to a place on the consuls' bench and there she took part in the drafting -- that is to say, she witnessed the drawing up of the senate's decree. And Elagabalus was the only one of all the emperors under whom a woman attended the senate like a man, just as though she belonged to the senatorial order.

And not as a silent witness, but she spoke:

When he went to the Camp or the Senate-house he took with him his grandmother ...in order that through her prestige he might get greater respect -- for by himself he got none. And never before this time ...did a woman come into the Senate-chamber or receive an invitation to take part in the drafting of a decree and express her opinion in the debate.

Such felicity could not last.

Compare Zenobia:

1. Zenobia was on the battlefield at the battle of Antioch, encouraging her troops;
2. She came to public assemblies in the manner of a Roman emperor;
2. She, too, was the real ruler of her empire, "showing sternness, when necessity demanded, and the clemency, when her sense of right called for it, of a good emperor".

The Third Julia, Julia Soaemias

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.

Compare Zenobia

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

06 January 2007

Why Did She Do It?

Before writing Chronicle of Zenobia, I of course read virtually every word written about her and all the surviving Greek and Latin sources. In every book (almost all written by men), one word is always used: she was “ambitious” – as if male aspirants to the Empire were not ambitious; suggesting, too, that she was scheming and foolish or imprudent. Yet, why did so many men take the huge risk of rebellion on her behalf? Surely not to satisfy a woman's frivolous dreams. No one even considered that she might have been right: the Romans could no longer defend the East. Rome was corrupt.

They had debased the currency; inflation was rampant; taxes had reached confiscatory levels. Emperor after emperor was murdered, unleashing civil wars as ambitious generals fought against each other, rather than against the common Persian enemy. The Emperor Aurelian, who defeated her in 272 AD, cobbled the Empire back together, but none of the underlying problems were solved (and three years later, he too was murdered). Twenty years later, the Empire was being ruled by four Emperors; sixty years later, Constantine established his capital at Byzantium and it was split into East and West.

So, rather than ‘ambitious’, she seems to me visionary.

03 January 2007

Zenobia's blog

Sylvia Plath, a poem by Anne Stevenson asks

Poor Sylvia, could you not have been
a little smaller than a queen –
a river, not a tidal wave
engulfing all you tried to save?

This is how I think of Zenobia and what she tried to do.

I originally intended to use this blog to ask for comments on my Wilkinson lecture on Zenobia, part of the Women of Power series, given on 2 May 2006 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York -- and I hope to have at least the text part of the lecture up within the next weeks. But I also hope occasionally to blog about Zenobia's world, together with like-minded enthusiasts, in thinking about Palmyra between West and East, the third century A.D., Rome and the Parthian, then Sassanian Persian Empire, their history, politics, art. And thinking, always, about the incredible but true story of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who united the whole of the Eastern Empire under her rule and almost succeeded in breaking free of Rome.

The lifeblood of the blog will be comments and contributions from all Zenobia enthusiasts, academic or not: you are invited to participate.

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