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


  1. Isn't it likely that the two women were related? If I'm remembering correctly, Zenobia was descended from some Emesan high priests, too.

  2. As far as I know, they were not related, although it's not improbable that the old royal houses of Emesa and Palmyra had intermarried. There is some evidence that Odenathus, her husband, the Prince of Palmyra (= ras tadmor) at least had cousins among the Emesene aristocracy. We'll come back to that much later in our story. Zenobia claimed descent from the Hellenistic king, Antioch the Illustrious, of Syria, and his wife Cleopatra Thea, daughter of Ptolemy VI, - thus combining in her person the lineage of the old rulers of Syria and of Egypt.

  3. Do you accept the theory that she was descended from Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony as well?

    This page (http://www.geocities.com/christopherjbennett/ptolemies/selene_ii.htm#Selene.9) has a very interesting discussion of the issue and seems to also indicate that Zenobia probably DID have Emesan ancestry.

  4. Thank you, Frank, for the link to Christopher Bennett’s page: a fascinating investigation. The arguments are extremely complex (as always concerning the extended families and marriages of Ptolemies and Seleucids). It obviously needs more study, but I think it safe to say this much:

    1. The connections between Zenobia and Cleopatra VII and Mark Anthony and, through them, to the Emesene kings seem weak to me. For example, a putative, far from certain wife of Juba II (otherwise married to Cleopatra Selene), Julia Urania “known only through a funerary inscription of her freewoman” is linked by her name alone to Uranius Antonius of 3rd C Emesa..

    2. Then there is the Mauretanian Drusilla, about whom...

    “At first sight, since there is no suggestion that Alexander Helios or Ptolemy Philadelphus had any children, one would conclude that Drusilla, granddaughter of Cleopatra, must be the daughter of Cleopatra Selene.”

    Or, possibly, “Drusilla must be a great-granddaughter of Antony and Cleopatra, and almost certainly a daughter of Ptolemy rather than of his sister.”

    Then, “As to the identity of [Drusilla’s] royal husband, we know nothing.” Nonetheless it is “a reasonable guess” that he was C. Julius Sohaemus, who became king of Emesa in 54 AD.

    3. Rather more convincing are two ancestors of J. Aurelius Zenobius (who may have been Zenobia’s father, though this is not really proven) with the decidedly Emesene-looking names of Sampsigeramus and C. Julius Bassus. If Zenobius is indeed her father, this would be the relationship you are looking for.

    I wonder why no trace of this remains in literature, whereas Odenathus is remembered as having family in Emesa...?

    4. Finally, if Zenobia was a descendent of the Great Cleopatra, why would she have claimed descent – if she truly did – from the relatively unknown Cleopatra Thea? That she was called the ‘New Cleopatra’ is rhetoric (as is her claimed descent from Semiramis, etc). The whole episode of the Palmyran conquest of Egypt is extremely obscure and her propaganda is not really clear. I hope to come to grips with this, as best I can, when we get to that part of the story.

  5. I do take your point: it's a rather long chain of supposition. However, with regards to #4, and you're in a better position to know this, but WAS Cleopatra VII considered "The Great Cleopatra" at this period? I mean, when you really think about it, she failed. We remember her for the romance and drama of her story 2000+ years on, but what did those closer to her age think of her? Would Zenobia, who wanted to be Empress of the East, want to explicitly associate herself with a woman who ALMOST did the same thing, but was ultimately defeated by Rome? And wouldn't Cleopatra Thea, a much bigger figure in Syriac history, be more advantageous to claim descent from anyway?

  6. Hmmm, that’s a good question. There’s no doubt that Cleopatra’s reputation in Roman circles was mud: smearing her name was a key aim of Augustan and subsequent propaganda. As always, it’s the victor who writes the script! And it still works. Yes, we remember her for ‘romance and drama’ but also for (oriental) craftiness and lasciviousness. I'm no expert on Egypt, but there's some evidence that Egyptians and Syrians did not accept this version of history. Otherwise, it makes no sense that Zenobia’s contemporary, Kallinikos of Petra, dedicated his history of Alexandria to “Cleopatra”, in fact, to Zenobia. The same is implied by her being called the “New Cleopatra”: was that to establish her as the legitimate successor to the well-remembered Ptolemies?

    I’ve asked Prof. Janet Johnson of the Oriental Institute in Chicago if she would give us her opinion on how Egyptians may have remembered Cleopatra VII. Last year, Janet gave one of the Wilkinson lectures, the wonderfully titled, "Cleopatra as CEO: Bureaucracy and Scandal in the Hostile Takeover of a First-Century (BCE) Multinational." It was a masterful dissection of Roman propaganda, contrasting it with the archeological record of Cleopatra’s queenship – an altogether different story. I hope that she’ll be able to comment.

  7. Anonymous21/1/07 19:06

    I wonder if there is a text of the lecture on the lecture you mention on Cleopatra as C.E.O. anywhere on the web. I would dearly love to read it, as Cleopatra Viii is of interest to me, more for her abilities and skill as a ruler than anything else, and this lecture sounds fascinating!

    Very, very interesting blog, BTW!


  8. I'm afraid that Janet Johnson's lecture is not on the web. You might follow up your interest in Cleopatra as ruler through Diotima (a site for the study of women and gender in the ancient world): www.stoa.org/diotima/

    You'll find their recommended books and articles on Cleopatra at:


Blog Archive