The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 18, Number 41, October 11, 2015, Article 23


Lorie Ann Hambly published this article about Julia Maesa: The First Female Caesar in the Heritage Classical Coin News October 8, 2015. It's a fascinating and bizarre tale. -Editor

Coin of Julia Maesa The first female Caesar The later Severan dynasty, commencing with the infamous reign of Elagabalus, represents one of the few times in Roman history when women wielded true power. This ascendency was largely due to the machinations of one Julia Maesa, sister of the Roman Empress Julia Domna, who had been the wife of Septimius Severus and mother of Caracalla.

The daughter of the hereditary priest-ruler of Emesa, Maesa was likely born around AD 165, a few years before her sister Domna. The family was wealthy and influential in the Roman East, and both Maesa and Domna married well: Maesa was wed to a wealthy knight and important local magistrate, Julius Avitus Alexianus, while Domna became the bride of a rising senator from North Africa, Lucius Septimius Severus. In AD 193, the family's fortunes surged when Severus was proclaimed Emperor and successfully bested all rivals for the throne in a three-year civil war. If they did not reside there already, Maesa and her family moved to Rome and became important members of the regime, with Alexianus being named a senator and serving a consul in AD 200.

But by AD 218, the Severan dynasty's fortunes seemed at a low ebb: Septimius had died in 211, his successor Caracalla had been murdered and replaced by the dull civil servant Macrinus, and Julia Domna had been compelled to return to her Syrian hometown of Emesa, where she succumbed to breast cancer and self-starvation. Perhaps moved to pity by Domna's death, the new Emperor Macrinus allowed Maesa to keep her wealth and property, though he compelled her to move back to Emesa. Both of these calls turned out to be atrocious mistakes.

Maesa was by this time apparently widowed, but she had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, each of whom had also married well and produced male children. Maesa was determined to avenge her sister and restore the Severan-Emesan dynasty to power, and seized upon her 13-year-old grandson Varius Avitus, son of Soaemias, as the means. The boy, who was the hereditary high priest of the god Elagabal, greatly resembled a young Caracalla and Maesa had it put about to the soldiers that he was the emperor's natural son and true successor. That, plus a liberal sprinkling of gold from Maesa's fortune, induced the troops to revolt and proclaim Avitus (now renamed Antoninus, but widely known as Elagabalus after his god) as emperor.

Macrinus tried to crush the rebellion, but he was held in contempt by the soldiers, whose pay he had slashed as an economy measure (another catastrophic mistake). His legions thus fought with little enthusiasm against the Severan rebels. In one battle, Julia Maesa rode a chariot to the front line clad in a helmet and breastplate and personally exhorted her soldiers to victory like a female Julius Caesar. Her soldiers rallied and the spectacle induced the soldiers of Macrinus to switch sides. Macrinus was hunted down and killed.

Maesa, Elagabalus and their retinue made their way slowly to Rome, arriving early in AD 219. The new 14-year-old emperor was greeted by the Roman populace with mixed curiosity, bafflement, amusement, and horror. For in addition to his Syrian birth, Elagabalus was what would today be called "transgendered," an exotic dancer, and totally committed to the orgiastic rites of his cult.

Despite the best efforts of Maesa to contain his behavior, the youthful emperor ran wild and seemed intent on alienating Romans of all classes. He married three times in rapid succession, including a scandalous union with a Vestal Virgin. Athletes, dancers, actors and charioteers reached high office based on their sexual prowess. The populace and soldiery soon became disgusted with their emperor's untethered behavior.

Though Julia Maesa ably guided the reins of government from behind the scenes, she finally decided that he must be replaced to save the dynasty. She induced Elagabalus to adopt her docile other grandson, Mamaea's son Alexander, as Caesar, then coolly arranged for the Praetorians to murder their oddball emperor along with his mother in March, AD 222. Whatever qualms Maesa felt about the deaths of her daughter and grandson she kept to herself. Maesa continued to rule as emperor in all but name under Severus Alexander, who proved an obedient figurehead, until her death in late AD 224, after which her surviving daughter Mamaea stepped seamlessly into her role.

Like the other Severan women, Julia Maesa was honored extensively on the Roman coinage. This denarius, struck during the reign of Elagabalus, shows her has rather more hard-featured than her sister Julia Domna, perhaps reflecting her calculating personality.

Wayne Homren, Editor

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