The Four Roman Julias: Powerful Women of Imperial Rome

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Who Were the Four Julias?

Hierapolis Theatre
Hierapolis Theatre, associated with Julia Domna and Septimius Severus. ralucahphotography.ro / Getty Images

The four Roman Julias: they were four women named Julia, all descended from Bassianus, who was the high priest of Emesa's patron god, the sun god Heliogabalus or Elagabal. One was married to an emperor, three had sons who were Roman emperors, and another had two grandsons who were Roman emperors. But all four exercised real power and influence from their positions.

Julia Domna, the one most remembered in history, married emperor Septimius Severus.  Her sister was Julia Maesa, who had two daughters, JuliaSoaemias and Julia Mamaea.

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Julia Domna

Head of Julia Domna (wife of Septimius Severus) outside the site museum, Djemila, Algeria
Head of Julia Domna (wife of Septimius Severus) outside the site museum, Djemila, Algeria. Chris Bradley / Design Pics / Getty Images

Classical sources say that Septimius Severus married Julia Domna, sight unseen, based on the word of astrologers. Unlike most Roman royal wives, she traveled with her husband on his military campaigns, and was in Britain when he was killed there. Her two sons were joint rulers of Rome until one committed fratricide; she gave up hope when that son was assassinated and Macrinus became emperor.

Julia Domna Facts:

Known for: one of the four Severan Julias or Roman Julias; sister of Julia Maesa and mother of Caracalla and Geta, emperors of Rome
Occupation: regent, wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus
Dates: 170 - 217

About Julia Domna:

When Septimius Severus became emperor in 193, Julia Domna invited her sister, Julia Maesa, to come to Rome.

Julia Domna often went with her husband on military campaigns. Coins show her image with the title "mother of the camp" (mater castrorum). She was with her husband in York when he died there in 211.

Their sons Caracalla and Geta were declared joint emperors. The two did not get along, and Julia Domna tried to mediate, but Caracalla was likely behind Geta's murder in 212.

Julia Domna exerted influence over her son Caracalla during his rule as emperor. She even accompanied him when he fought against the Parthians in 217. Caracalla was murdered on that campaign, and when Julia Domna heard that Macrinus had become the emperor, she committed suicide.

After her death, Julia Domna was deified.

Septimius Severus is blamed by the historian Edward Gibbon for the fall of Rome, because of his adding northern Mesopotamia to the Roman empire and the resulting costs.

Another image: Julia Domna

Background, Family:

  • Father: Julius Bassianus, high priest in Emesa of Syrian sun god Heliogabalus or Elagabal, patron god of Emesa
  • Sister: Julia Maesa

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Septimus Severus, emperor of Rome
  • children (sometimes called twins):
    • born about 188: Lucius Septimius Bassilanus (Caracalla)
    • born about 189: Publius Septimius Geta

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Julia Maesa

Cast sculpture of head of Roman empress Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, sister of Julia Maesa
Cast sculpture of head of Roman empress Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, sister of Julia Maesa. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Sister of Julia Domna, Julia Maesa had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea. Julia Maesa helped see Macrinus overthrown and her grandson Elagabulus installed as emperor, and when he turned out to be an unpopular ruler who put religious change above administration, she may have helped in his assassination. She then helped another grandson, Alexander Severus, succeed his cousin Elagabulus.

Dates: May 7, about 165 - August 3, about 224 or 226

Known for: grandmother of Roman emperors Elagabalus and Alexander; one of the four Severan Julias or Roman Julias; sister of Julia Domna and mother of Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea

Background, Family:

  • Father: Julius Bassianus, high priest in Emesa of Syrian sun god Heliogabalus or Elagabalus, patron god of Emesa
  • Sister: Julia Domna

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Julius Avitus, a Syrian nobleman
  • children:
    • Julia Soemias
    • Julia Avita Mamaea

About Julia Maesa:

Julia Maesa was the daughter of a high priest in Emesa of Elagabal, patron god of Emesa, a city in western Syria. When the husband of her sister, Julia Domna, became the Roman emperor, she moved to Rome with her family. When her nephew, the emperor Caracallo, was murdered and her sister committed suicide, she moved back to Syria, ordered by the new emperor Macrinus.

From Syria, Julia Soaemias joined with her mother, Julia Maesa, in spreading the rumor that the son of Julia Soaemias, Varius Avitus Bassianus, was really the illegitimate son of Caracalla, cousin of Julia Soaemias and nephew of Julia Maesa. This would make him a more legitimate candidate for emperor than was Macrinus.

Julia Maesa helped overthrow Macrinus and install Julia Soaemias' son as emperor. When he became emperor, he took the name Elagabalus, named for the sun god Elagabal, chief god of the Syrian city of Emesa, of whom his great-grandfather Bessianus, had been high priest. Elagabalus gave his mother the title "Augusta avia Augustus." Elagabalus served as a high priest of Elagabal, too, and began promoting worship of this and other Syrian deities in Roman. His second marriage to a Vestal Virgin outraged many in Rome.

Julia Maesa forced her grandson Elagabalus to adopt his nephew, Alexander, as his son and heir, and Elagabalus was then murdered in 222. Julia Maesa ruled as regent with her daughter Julia Mamaea during Alexander's reign, until her death in 224 or 226. After Julia Maesa died, she was deified, as her sister had been.

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Julia Soaemias

Bronze statue of Julia Mamaea, mother of Alexander Severus, found in Sparta, Roman civilization, 3rd century
Bronze statue of Julia Mamaea, sister of Julia Soaemias. De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

Daughter of Julia Maesa and a maternal niece of Julia Domna, Julia Soaemias helped her mother overthrow Macrinus and make Julia Soaemias' son, Elagabalus, emperor. Her fate was tied to that of her unpopular son, who worked to bring Syrian gods to Rome.

Dates: 180 - March 11, 222

Known for: one of the four Severan Julias or Roman Julias; niece of Julia Domna, daughter of Julia Maesa and sister of Julia Mamaea; mother of Roman emperor Elagabalus

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Julia Maesa
  • Father: Julia Avitus
  • Sibling: Julia Mamaea

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Sextus Varius Marcellus, a Syrian
  • children include:
    • Varius Avitus Bassianus, who ruled Rome as the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus or Elagabalus

About Julia Soaemias:

Julia Soaemias was the daughter of Julia Maesa and her husband, Julius Avitus. She was born and raised in Emesa, Syria, where her grandfather Bassianus was the high priest of Emesa's patron god, the sun god Heliogabalus or Elagabal.

After Julia Soaemias married another Syrian, Sextus Varius Marcellus, they lived in Rome and had a number of children, including a son, Varius Avitus Bassianus.

When Septimius Severus, husband of her maternal aunt, was killed while at war in Britain, Macrinus became the emperor, and Julia Soaemias and her family returned to Syria.

Julia Soaemias joined with her mother, Julia Maesa, in spreading the rumor that the son of Julia Soaemias, Varius Avitus Bassianus, was really the illegitimate son of Caracalla, cousin of Julia Soaemias and nephew of Julia Maesa. This would make him a more legitimate candidate for emperor than was Macrinus.

Julia Maesa helped overthrow Macrinus and install Julia Soaemias' son as emperor. When he became emperor, he took the name Elagabalus, named for the sun god Elagabal, chief god of the Syrian city of Emesa, of whom his great-grandfather Bessianus, had been high priest. Elagabalus served as a high priest of Elagabal, too, and began promoting the worship of this and other Syrian deities in Roman. His second marriage to a Vestal Virgin outraged many in Rome.

With Elagabalus focusing mainly on religious issues, Julia Soaemias took over most of the administration of the empire. But in 222, the army revolted, and the Praetorian Guard murdered Julia Soaemias and Elagabulus.

Unlike her mother and aunt, both of whom were deified on their deaths, Julia Soaemias' name was erased from public records, and she was declared an enemy of Rome.

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Julia Mamaea

Bronze medallion with portraits of Alexander Severus and his mother Julia Avita Mamaea, Roman coins, 3rd century AD
Bronze medallion with portraits of Alexander Severus and his mother Julia Avita Mamaea, Roman coins, 3rd century AD. De Agostini / A. De Gregorio / Getty Images

Julia Mamaea, another daughter of Julia Maesa and a maternal niece of Julia Domna, influenced her son Alexander Severus and ruled as his regent when he became emperor. His behavior in fighting enemies led to a rebellion, with dire consequences for both Julia and Alexander.

Dates: about 180 - 235

Known for: one of the four Severan Julias or Roman Julias; niece of Julia Domna, daughter of Julia Maesa and sister of Julia Soaemias; mother of Roman emperor Alexander Severus

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Julia Maesa
  • Father: Julia Avitus
  • Sibling: Julia Soaemias

Marriage, Children:

  • first husband: unknown name
  • husband: Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus, a magistrate in Syria
  • son: Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus, known as Alexander Severus

About Julia Mamaea:

Julia Mamaea was born and raised in Emesa, Syria, where her grandfather Bassianus was the high priest of Emesa's patron god, the sun god Heliogabalus or Elagabal. She lived in Rome when her maternal aunt's husband, Septimius Severus, and then his sons, ruled as emperors, and moved to Syria when Macrinus was emperor, and then lived in Rome again when her sister Julia Soaemias's son Elagabalus was emperor. Her mother, Julia Maesa, arranged for Elagabalus to adopt Julia Mamaea's son Alexander as his successor.

When Elagabalus and her sister Julia Soaemias were murdered in 22, Julia Mamaea joined her mother, Julia Maesa, as regents for Alexander, then 13 years old. She traveled with her son on his military campaigns.

Julia Mamaea saw her son married to a respectable wife, Sallustia Orbiana, and Alexander gave her father-in-law the title of caesar. But Julia Mamaea grew to resent Orbiana and her father, and they fled Rome. Julia Mamaea charged them with rebellion and had Orbiana's father executed and Orbiana banished.

Alexander fought attempts of the Parthian ruler to take back territory that Rome had annexed, but alexander failed, and was seen in Rome as a coward. He no sooner returned to Rome than he had to be off to fight Germans along the Rhine. Instead of fighting, he preferred to bribe the enemy, which was also seen as cowardice.

The Roman legions declared a Thracian soldier, Julius Maximinus, emperor, and Alexander's response was to seek shelter with his mother back at camp. There, soldiers murdered both of them in their tent in 235. With Julia Mamaea's death came the end of the "Roman Julias."

Places: Syria, Rome