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Public Life

180. The family of Julia Domna. Rome, 3rd cent. A.D. (Dio Cassius, History of Rome, 78.2, 18.1-3; 79.23, exc. Early 3rd cent. A.D. G)

Julia Domna, born in Syria, was the wife of the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) and mother of his successor, Caracalla (Antoninus, 211-17). She was known for her love of learning and her wit. After her husband's death, she supported her younger son, Geta, in his unsuccessful claim to the throne against Caracalla.

(78.2) Antoninus had planned to murder his brother Geta at the Saturnalia, but he was unable to, because his evil intentions were so well known as to make concealment impossible. From this point on there was constant conflict between them, with each planning against them other, and many, counterplots. Since many soldiers and athletes were guarding Geta, both home and abroad, by day and by night, Antoninus persuaded his mother to summon both of them to her room, on the pretext that he wanted a reconciliation. Since Geta trusted her, Antoninus went in with him, and when they were inside, a group of centurions who had been assembled by Antoninus, rushed out and struck Geta, who had run to his mother as soon as he saw them and put his arms round her neck and held himself to her bosom, weeping and crying out 'Mother, mother, who bore me, who bore me, help, I am being murdered'.

And because she had been deceived in this way, she saw her son murdered most impiously and dying in her lap. In a manner of speaking, she received his death into the same womb from which he had been born; she was completely covered with blood, so that she did not take any account of the wound inflicted on her own hand. But Antoninus did not allow her to weep or to lament her son, even though she had seen him die so piteously (for he was twenty-two years and nine months old), but she was forced to rejoice and be cheerful as if she had been very fortunate, so closely watched were all her words and gestures and expressions. Thus it was only she, the wife of the emperor and the mother of emperors, who could not weep even in private over so great a misfortune.

During the year 214-15

78. 18 [Antoninus continued] to pollute himself and break the law and squander money. Neither in these matters nor in any others did he pay attention to his mother, although she gave him much excellent advice. And yet he assigned to her the supervision of petitions and correspondence in both language, except for very urgent cases and included her name along with his own and that of the legions in correspondence with the Senate, stating that she was well, and with expressions of high praise. Need I mention that she held public receptions for all the most prominent men, as did the Emperor himself? But while she involved herself in philosophical discussions still more intensely with these men, he said that he himself needed nothing but the essentials, and in addition stated pompously that he could live on the simplest fare, while in fact there was nothing from the earth, sea or air that we did not provide for him at both public and private expense.

At the time of Caracalla's assassination in 217 A.D.

79.23. Julia, Tarautas' (Caracalla's) mother, happened to be in Antioch, and at the news of his death, she was so shocked that she struck herself violently and tried to starve herself. She had hated him while he was alive, but now that he was dead she missed him, not because she wished that he was alive, but because she hated to return to private life. For this reason she complained bitterly about [his assassin and successor] Macrinus. Then, when he did not make any changes in her royal retinue or in her cohort of the Praetorian guards, and sent her friendly greetings, although he had heard what she had said about him, she was encouraged, and put aside her desire for death. She did not make any reply to his message, but [began to plot] with her soldiers ... so that she might become sole ruler like Semiramis or Nitocris, since she was in a manner of speaking from the same part of the world.[1] ...

Some lines are missing, in which her plot was discovered.

When Macrinus ordered her to leave Antioch as soon as she could and go wherever she wished, and she had heard what was being said in Rome about Caracalla, she no longer wanted to live, and although she was already dying of cancer (she had had for some time a dormant cancer of the breast, which she had inflamed by the blow that she gave herself on the chest at the time of her son's death, she brought on her death by starving herself.

And so a woman who had risen high from a common origin, who during her husband's reign had led a miserable existence because of Plautianus,[2] and who had seen the younger of her two sons slaughtered on her own bosom, and who had always hated her older son and had learned of his death in such a violent manner, fell from power while she was alive and killed herself ... This is what happened to Julia, and her body was brought to Rome and placed in the tomb of Gaius and Lucius.[3] Later, however, her bones, along with her son Geta's, were moved by her sister Maesa to the precinct of Caracalla.


Notes:

1. Semiramis and Nitocris were legendary queens of Babylon.

2. Plautianus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, had extraordinary power under Severus, until he was assassinated in 205.

3. The adopted grandsons of Augustus, who died before they could succeed to the throne. Cf. Tacitus, Ann. 1.3.