Julia Domna is a philosopher from the Near East. She was born in Syria but became Empress of Rome. She both practiced philosophy in her life and was patron to a number of philosophers of her time.
Julia Domna is known to historians as a Roman Empress and in the Numismatics community as the face on numerous collectible Roman coins. In philosophy she is celebrated as the woman who restored philosophy to a place of honor in the Roman Empire and who brought political acumen to the ruling of the Roman Empire.
LIfe of Jula Domna
Julia Domna was born in Emesa (now Homs), Syria in 170 CE. Emesa was the birthplace of three other Roman Empresses ( her sister, Julia Maesa, Julia Mammea and Julia Soemia) and one emperor, her nephew, Emperor Elagabalus [Heliogabalus in Greek]. Our philosopher was the daughter of Bassianus, a hereditary high priest of the Sun god, Heliogabalus. Heliogabalus is the patron of Emesa (Homs)]. It should be noted that she was proud of her Syrian heritage and never forsook Domna, her Syrian family name even after she went to Rome.
As a young woman she married Septimius Severus, a Roman. Septimus Severus had served in the Roman army while Marcus Aurelius was emeperor and had been stationed in various parts of the empire, including Syria. After the death of his first wife, Marica, Septimus Severus sought out the young women – some say because his astrological inquiries indicated that Julia would marry a king and Septimus wanted to be that person.
Actually, Julia Domna was very respected by her husband. She was not only intelligent but she also had great political sense. During this marriage, she gave birth to two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus (Caracalla) in 188 BCE and Publius Septimius Geta in 189 BCE.
Severus became Emperor in 193 BCE and of course that made Julia Domna empress. They immediately faced civil war. Julia Domna, unlike most wives, accompanied her husband on his campaigns. She stayed in camp and not at home. One of the signs of Septimus Serverus’ positive view of his wife and Empress was his order to mint coins with her portrait and the words, “mater castrorum” (mother of the camp). These coins are not collector items.
She continued to accompany Severus during his military campaigns. When he was killed at York [England] in 208 BCE, her two sons became co-emperors as Severus had wanted. The two men could not rule together, however, and they were constantly warring with one another. Julia Domna frequently attempted to mediate between them.
Julia Domna died of breast cancer in 217 C.E. – some says that she starved herself to death after the murder of her second son – some say she died on the order of the Emperor Maximus. What we know today about food intake in the last stages of breast cancer, might shed a different light on both these claims.
She was well known among historians of her time. Dio Cassius writing in the 3rd century details her life and its end in his History of Rome. You can read Dio Cassius piece about Julia Domna in his History of Rome
Empress of Rome
As empress Julia Domna was a patron of the learning and surrounded herself with philosophers, writers and artists. It appears that she was interested in the Pythagoreans and it is said that she commissioned Philostratus to write the biography of Apollonius of Tyana, a Pythagorean Philosopher.
Beatrice Zeller points out that Philostratus “speaks of Julia’s circle of mathematicians and philosophers….[and that] mathematicians means astrologers here”. This claim by Zeller supports the contention of scholars who say that Julia Domna never lost her interest in ancient Syrian ways of wisdom. Source: Beatrice H. Zeller, “Julia Domna”. A History of Women Philosophers vol 1. ed. Mary Ellen Waithe. p.123.
The use of astrology was part of the way to wisdom in many ancient cultures and it held a powerful influence on people’s lives as Severus’s choice of Julia for his wife illustrates. It was his acquaintance of her horoscope predicting future queenship that led Severus to marry this sixteen year old young woman of no wealth whatsoever.
We do not have any extant writing of the philosopher. We only know that scholars of her day said she conversed with and encouraged philosophers.
Beatrice Zeller notes that earlier emperors “such as Nero and Domitian had banished philosophy and persecuted philosophers but Julia Domna used her imperial power to protect philosophy and help philosophers flourish. This was no mean achievement.”(Source: Zeller. op. cit. p. 132.)
One could claim that like Christina Wasa, Queen of Sweden, the Empress was a fulfillment of Plato’s philosopher ruler from the Republic.
1. Homs, current name of Emessa, Julia Domna’s birth place can be found on the www. Syriatourism.org site.
The site does not mention her by name. Instead it mentions the daughter of Bassianos who married the Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus. . . You can read about the city and at the end of the article pursue links to some photos of the city at Homs
2. QuintusCinna Cocceius has authored an article about the period and her ‘turn to philosophy’ entitled, Julia Domna an Empress’ Struggle
3. Robertino Solarion. Appolonius of Tyana & the Shroud of Turn covers this philosopher in some detail – including some of the scandalous accusations made in Rome about her relationships with her son and other men. See: Appoloinus of Tyanna
4. WordIQ offers an article about the philosohers and it includes some images. It also includes the oft repeated story as to why Septimius Severus wanted her as his wife. See: Julia Domna
5. WordIQ offers an article about : Septimius Severus