The Fashioning of the Roman Empress, Severan-Style: Portraits of Julia Domna (20 min)


Julie Van Voorhis, Indiana University


In 193 C.E. Septimius Severus became the first African-born emperor and his Syrian-born wife, Julia Domna, was elevated to the station of empress. Much has been made of Severus’s African roots in imperial biographies, both ancient and modern. The emperor’s career prior to his assumption of imperial power, however, was typical for provincial elites, and with his posthumous self-adoption into the Antonine family, Severus unequivocally inserted himself and his sons into the distinguished lineage of Roman emperors. Julia Domna, in contrast, was an outsider: daughter of a Syrian client-king, the empress would have been seen in Rome as foreign, thus rendering her suspect. Furthermore, Domna held significant influence within the imperial court, serving as a trusted advisor to both her husband and son during their respective reigns. Domna’s eastern origins and unprecedented power subjected her to a pejorative discourse that in modern terms would be characterized as “orientalist.” The many surviving portraits of the empress are also frequently interpreted in light of this orientalist rhetoric.

In this paper I argue that the public image of Julia Domna was carefully constructed to counter the bias against the eastern origins of the empress. Portraits that situated the empress within long-standing traditions of commemorating imperial women were one tool in this campaign. The immediate model for Domna’s public image was that of Faustina the Younger, but the utilization of divine and allegorical references, particularly in later portraits, can be traced back to Livia (also wife and mother of emperors). At the same time, Domna’s portraits deliberately highlight her unprecedented authority and her centrality within Severan ideology. This paper examines a selection of portraits of Julia Domna in different media to explore how they simultaneously fit within the tradition of imperial portraiture and reinvent it to create a new visual model of feminine power.