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


  1. With regards to all the Julias (and Zenobia): is there a cultural reason why they were such powerful women? What I mean is, was there something about Syrian culture of the time that gave women the opportunity and confidence to be such forceful figures? Or were they just a group of extraordinary females?

  2. I hope that this blog will help us get a little further in figuring out what was special about these women or their culture. Not easy, since we're stuck with our scanty historical sources -- and most of those are fanciful (to put it mildly). One idea that I like: in times of crisis (the 3rd century in spades!), cracks appear in the normal power structure so that people on the outside(women, foreigners, plebs)can, by extraordinary talent or luck, slip through and get inside. Or perhaps, as a colleague suggested, many of the emperors at this time were in such a weak position, they would take any help they could get.

    We shall see.


Blog Archive