An Examination of Severan Women and Their Power in the Royal Family

Photo: Family of Septimius Severus

An Examination of Severan Women and Their Power in the Royal Family

By Anna Komisarof



The Severan dynasty controlled Rome from 193 to 235 CE following a seizure of the state by Septimius Severus. A North African native, Septimius Severus tried to emphasize the legitimacy of his dynasty throughout his rule. However, the failure of the male line and short marriages by later emperors meant that the legitimacy of the Severan dynasty came from the maternal side, as women were the most constant figures within the royal family (De la Bédoyère 271). This led women within the imperial family to amass more influence than ever before. Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus and mother of Caracalla, set the example (Salisbury 183). Her younger sister, Julia Maesa, and granddaughter, Julia Mamaea, followed suit by gaining considerable influence over Elagabalus and Severus Alexander (Salisbury 183). These women achieved a great deal of influence in the Roman empire. An examination of these three core female figures shows that they amassed a large amount of influence over the empire yet could not establish power independently from their male family members.


Julia Domna

Julia Domna was born in Syria as the daughter of a priest-king of Emesa (Langford 6). She married Septimius Severus while he was serving in the region and became acquainted with her family (Langford 6). As the emperor’s wife, she bore two children, Caracalla and Geta, who ruled the empire after their father’s death (Langford 6). For twenty-four years, she was a constant presence in the imperial court over the course of both her husband’s and sons’ rule (Rowan 249). She was a key figure in the propaganda campaign for the first two Severan emperors, as Septimius Severus attempted to legitimize his new dynasty and Caracalla began his reign as the sole emperor after murdering his brother.

The usage of Julia Domna as a figure within Septimius Severus and Caracalla’s propaganda campaigns is evident from the coinage of the time. During the reign of Septimius Severus, she was depicted as a traditional Roman empress and frequently associated with the goddesses Juno, Venus, and Diana (Rowan 251). Such a portrayal on coinage was used for empresses since Faustina I and thus established Julia Domna’s connection to the Antonine dynasties (Rowan 251). Coins showcased Julia Domna as the embodiment of sexual virtue and highlighted her role as a mother (Rowan 252). Septimius Severus was trying to legitimize and showcase that his dynasty was aligned with traditional Roman notions of the imperial family, so this propaganda adequately served his aims. However, during Caracalla’s rule, the portrayal of Julia Domna shifted, as the emperor derived his legitimacy from the imagery of deities and wanted to shift the focus away from the fact that he murdered his brother (Rowan 253). Julia Domna’s representation on coinage also shifted as the imagery associated with her became almost exclusively divine (Rowan 253). While the contrast in how Septimius Severus and Caracalla portrayed Julia Domna is apparent through the difference in her portrayal, the imagery of Diana was consistently used for Julia Domna’s coins to create a sense of continuity within the Severan dynasty (Rowan 253). Thus, it is evident that while Julia Domna had a strong presence within the public image of the Severan family, she was still used as a pawn within Septimius Severus and Caracalla’s propaganda campaigns, lacking the autonomy to establish her own unique identity.

A similar phenomenon can be observed by examining the various titles that were awarded to her. Julia Domna appears in numerous inscriptions and received many honorary titles (Rowan 249). She received several maternal titles, such as “Mother of the Emperor and the Camps and the Senate and the Fatherland” and “Mother of the Roman People” (Boatwright 111). For example, she received the title Mater Castrorum, which associated her with the army, in order to showcase the close relationship between Septimius Severus and the military (Langford 22). Furthermore, since Julia Domna was the second woman after Faustina the Younger to receive the title, it drew parallels between the two women and highlighted the Severan dynasty’s connection to Marcus Aurelius (Langford 17). The titles she received after her husband’s death also were not a direct reflection of power, as the senate deliberately awarded her several maternal titles, such as those equating her to Magna Mater, that were mortal in scope and reminded the empress of the importance of maintaining peace between her two sons, and subsequently the empire (Langford 86). As both the coinage and maternal titles show, while Julia Domna had a large degree of recognition within the empire, she was awarded such tokens of acknowledgment to enhance the image of her male family members.

While her role in her husband and son’s propaganda programs was both a showcase of and an example of the limitations to her power, Julia Domna also had considerable influence due to her proximity to powerful figures within the Severan family. The most significant relationship she had within the family was with her two sons: Caracalla and Geta. After Septimius Severus’s death, there was much fear in the empire that civil war would break out as both brothers wanted complete control of the empire (Langford 18). Not only did she maintain the peace between the two brothers during her husband’s funeral, but even after Geta was murdered, Julia Domna served as an enduring factor of the imperial family to ensure that the public didn’t lose confidence in the Severan dynasty (Langford 18). She also became an integral part of Caracalla’s government, overseeing much of her son’s external correspondence (De la Bédoyère 280). Thus, Julia Domna clearly leveraged her close relationship with her sons to accumulate power, particularly during the reign of Caracalla.

However, all her power disappeared after her son, Caracalla, was assassinated. According to Dio, she intended to stage a coup against Macrinus until she heard that the public received the news of her son’s death with joy (Langford 22). Thus, while she seems to have had both private and internal influence within the Severan family, her power was ultimately contingent on her relationships with the powerful men of her family. Furthermore, the imagery on coinage and the intent behind the maternal titles showcase that she did not have full, autonomous power during her husband or son’s reign.


Julia Maesa

Julia Maesa amassed power through a less traditional method, and despite her successes, she was still restricted in her ability to derive legitimacy from sources besides her grandsons. Julia Maesa was Julia Domna’s younger sister and had significant influence over the empire for more than a decade after her sister’s death (Salisbury 183). She arguably amassed the most power out of the Severan women, as she belonged to the imperial court when Julia Domna was in power (Boatwright 270) and had an influence across both Elagabalus and Severus Alexander’s reigns (Salisbury 184).

Her rise to power aligned with Elagabalus’s rise to the throne, and it is said that she was integral in orchestrating the overthrow of Macrinus so that her grandson could rule. Macrinus gained power after assassinating Caracalla and posed a threat to the continuity of the Severan dynasty. Specifically, Julia Maesa had a high degree of influence over the army through her position in the royal court, so she spread the rumor that Elagabalus was the illegitimate child of Caracalla (De la Bédoyère 277). She argued that the army’s loyalty should be with Elagabalus, as he was the rightful heir to the throne (De la Bédoyère 277). The coup was successful, and Elagabalus was installed on the throne (De la Bédoyère 277). When he was emperor, Elagabalus granted both Julia Maesa and her daughter, Julia Soaemias, the title of empress (Salisbury 184). Beyond the title, Julia Maesa kept a tight grip on Elagabalus’s rule by performing many of his political duties (Boatwright 274) and making him divorce his Vestal Virgin wife for a descendent of Marcus Aurelius (De la Bédoyère 287). She also established a female senate under the rule of her grandson, which was significant, as politics was a traditionally male-dominated space (Salisbury 184). She was the mastermind behind her incompetent grandson’s rule and strategically set up Severus Alexander as his successor (Salisbury 185). She also did not lose her power when Severus Alexander overthrew Elagabalus as she strategically aligned herself with the incoming emperor (Boatwright 274). Julia Maesa’s grip on the throne continued into Severus Alexander’s rule. She set the serious tone of the next administration by appointing a council of sixteen senators to advise the young emperor and ensure that there was oversight of the position (Salisbury 185). She was an overall politically popular figure with the Roman people, based on her deification after her death (Salisbury 185). As evident from these occurrences, Julia Maesa proved to be even more politically savvy than her older sister and attained influence by promoting her grandsons to the throne.

This significant role of Julia Maesa is also reflected in the coinage that originates from when she was in power. The coinage of Julia Maesa draws on the iconography of a Roman matron (Rowan 272). Specifically, a large portion of the coinage is of the Pudicitia type, showcasing her sexual virtue (Rowan 265). She was presented similarly to Julia Domna alongside honorary titles such as Mater Castrorum and Mater Sentus (Rowan 265). This representation of Julia Maesa could be a part of a propaganda campaign by the Severans to showcase the continuation of Roman tradition or else a direct representation of her public image during the reign of Elagabalus (Rowan 267). With either interpretation, it is evident that Julia Maesa had a significant influence on the public perception of the Severan family.

Julia Maesa consolidated a significant amount of power through her status as the grandmother of two emperors. She had a massive influence over Elagabalus’s reign and held a significant portion of responsibility for elevating Severus Alexander to the throne. Her presence within the imperial family is also evident through her appearance on coinage. However, it is still evident that her power is constricted to her relationship with powerful male family members, as she derived legitimacy and power from these kinship connections.


Julia Mamaea

Julia Mamaea gained considerable power under her son’s rule but was also limited in her power by this relationship. Julia Mamaea was one of Julia Maesa’s daughters and the mother of Severus Alexander. She gained power after her son overthrew his cousin Elagabalus (De la Bédoyère 277). She played an integral part in this overthrow, as both she and Julia Maesa convinced Rome’s Praetorian Guard to assassinate Elagabalus and claimed that Severus Alexander was also an illegitimate child of Caracalla (Boatwright 248). She had a tight grip on her son’s throne and was granted unprecedented access to both the military and senate by her son (Boatwright 249). She was not as politically savvy as her mother and ultimately lost all her power when she was killed alongside Severus Alexander (Salisbury 186). During the rule of Severus Alexander, she became the most powerful member of the family, as she plotted to make her son’s marriage fail (Sailsbury 186). Subsequently, Severus Alexander could not give the title of empress to his wife and bore no children, enabling Julia Mamaea to ascend to power (Salisbury 186). She also joined Severus Alexander in his military endeavors (Salisbury 186). This was unique, as military grounds traditionally were only reserved for male individuals (Boatwright 112). She was extremely unpopular among the soldiers, however, due to her greed and favoritism towards soldiers from the East (Salisbury 186). Her unpopularity with the military ultimately led to her demise, as she was murdered along with her son when he was overthrown by Roman soldiers (Salisbury 186).

Mamaea also played an integral part in the public display of the Severan family. Particularly, she was part of Severus Alexander’s campaign to emphasize restoration and renewal in the post-Elagabalus era (Rowan 267). As a part of this campaign, she appeared on milestones, was associated with building projects in Rome, and received the title of Mater Castrorum (268). She was also associated with Venus Felix, Genetrix, and Victrix, imagery that could also be seen on the coinage of Julia Domna (Rowan 270). Thus, she too was used within the public imagery of the Severan dynasty to symbolize continuity and promote the unique agendas of her associated emperor.

While less politically savvy than her mother, Julia Mamaea still mustered considerable amounts of power as she had such a tight grip over her son’s rule. From causing Severus Alexander’s marriage to fail to being highly involved in his military campaigns, she had power through her influence over her son. However, she also showcases the limitations of female power at this time, as she lacked the independent ability to make policy decisions. Rather, it is through her influence over her son that her preferences can be considered in the ruling of the empire.



The examination of Julia Domna, Julia Maesa, and Julia Mamaea as political figures during the Severan dynasty showcases both the high degrees of influence and limitations of power for women in this family. Compared to previous women in the royal family, Severan women had considerable influence. However, their power and legitimacy were still derived from their relationships with powerful male family members. While they had significant influence over the policies and trajectory of the dynasty, they could never make such decisions independently from the male family member who was the emperor. Furthermore, the coinage and maternal titles present an interesting insight into the integral role these Severan women played in the public display of the imperial family. Evidently, in this public display, Severan women were often used as a symbol of continuity and a representation of values that the emperor wanted to promote. Thus, while their influence was significant, ultimately, their opinions were still at the mercy of their male family members’ judgment.


Anna Komisarof (College ‘24) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics with minors in Classical Studies and Consumer Psychology.



Works Cited

Boatwright, Mary T. Imperial Women of Rome : Power, Gender, Context /. Oxford University Press, 2021,

De la Bédoyère, Guy. Domina : the Women Who Made Imperial Rome /. Yale University Press, 2018.

Langford, Julie. Maternal Megalomania: Julia Domna and the Imperial Politics of Motherhood. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Rowan, Clare. “The Public Image of the Severan Women.” Papers of the British School at Rome, vol. 79, 2011, pp. 241-273.

Salisbury, Joyce E. Encyclopedia of Women In the Ancient World. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2001.