Julia Domna was born around 170 A.D. in Syria. While there is no record of her education, it is speculated that she was exposed to many ideas from a young age due to the position of her father, Julius Bassianus, who was the high priest of the temple of the sun-god Elagabalus. Her father entertained many prominent visitors in Julia’s childhood, one of whom would become her husband: Roman general Lucius Septimius Severus. Just a few years later her husband became emperor of Rome and she became one of the most influential women of the Roman Empire and later was made into a divinity.
Though much of her biography covers the influence of her husband and sons in government, Julia was very active in Severus’ reign, going with him on campaigns and potentially even influencing some of his military decisions. After her husband’s death, she was also influential in the reign of her eldest son Bassianus (aka: Caracalla, who killed his younger brother for sole power over the empire). As he was often on campaign, Julia conducted much of the imperial business and hosted many gatherings with the influential men of the empire. This is where it is said much of her philosophical influence came into play. When her son died, some say she mourned the loss of her position of influence in Rome.
It is said that Julia’s “inner circle,” consisted of all the prominent Sophists of her day, who she would converse with at social gatherings she hosted. While most of the specific men are not known, one of her most notable acquaintance is Flavius Philostratus, a sophist who wrote Lives of the Sophists, (describing many others who may have been part of Julia’s circle) but who also wrote a book commissioned by Julia herself, the Life of Appolonius. While Julia has no written works, her encouragement and direction regarding the commission of this book is the closest insight we have to the philosophical views of Julia herself.
Apollonius of Tyana is said to have been a Neopythagorean who combined teachings of Pythagoras with Platonism and mysticism. The book discusses his conceptions of God and the relation between man and divinities, immortality and the soul (similar to that discussed in Plato’s Phaedo) as well as notion of personal ethics and political philosophy. Evidence suggests that Julia’s views were very much in line with Apollonius’ in his worship of the sun-god and his acceptance of statue representations of deities. He also understood God as creator, and that man alone (not animals as the Egyptians practiced) had an ability to relate to and understand God. His ideas on ethics hold similar to some notions portrayed by Plato and Aristotle in a championing of wisdom and virtues. Apollonius claimed that it is essential for persons to acquire wisdom, courage, justice and temperance, but also must practice such virtues regularly – including actively doing just actions rather than simply avoiding injustice.
Finally, his ideas on political philosophy involved individuals acting excellently for the good of the communal society, as well as insisting that a ruler can be a good monarch if he rules justly and philosophically. It is believed that Julia found this favorable, that philosophy could influence the practice of politics and ruling. While other rulers (such as Nero) banned philosophy, Julia’s position as an empress combined with her interests may have helped preserve philosophy.
I found it interesting and a little depressing that much of Julia Domna’s life was described by the men who were influential in her life. Most of her biography referred to her role as wife and then mother of the emperor and her support of these men. Additionally, she is known as one who conversed with contemporary intellectuals and philosophers, but never wrote anything herself. Instead, the only work we can relate to Julia was a book written by a male philosopher, about the life of another male philosopher that Julia supposedly had commissioned. While this is a bit disappointing, I know I have to keep in mind what was available at the time and what influence women had. Although, it is clear from the introduction that there were women who were intellectuals and teachers at various schools around this time, as well as influential in politics and among some of the male philosophers. I suppose it is more than some women had the Julia is mentioned by male figures and figures prominently in her husband’s reign as emperor. Perhaps only a shadow of Julia can be seen among the men who figured prominently in her life.
I also wonder, since there is speculation about the authenticity of the relationship between Philostratus (the author of Julia’s commissioned book and otherwise) and Julia, can we really rely on his own writings of their interactions as valid proof of what Julia was up to philosophically? Perhaps he simply wanted to give some sense of legitimacy to his writing (the way Severus indicated his pretend kinship with Marcus Aurelius to legitimate his reign as emperor). I guess there is no way to be certain absent the existence of further writings to shed light on these days. But I hope that this is an indication of Julia’s actual views.
Finally, I find it interesting that the mention of sophistry in this article is spoken of favorably as merely a form of persuasive rhetoric and an honorable lifestyle. At least as described by Plato and Aristotle, Sophistry was reviled because it was seen as the use of misleading, but eloquent arguments to circumvent truth rather than seeking truth. They were reputes as seeking money and pleasures of fame and fortune over the Good in character and understanding that philosophers like Plato and Aristotle champion over the pursuit of fame and fortune. Nevertheless, chapter seven of this book and this article indicate that this is just a misleading stereotype that did not encompass the beneficial contributions of the sophists. Regardless of the claims about sophistry, if it is the case that Julia Domna was as supportive of Philostratus’ book as is indicated, it seems she had solid and valuable views on essential philosophical questions that seem to be repeated in later ethical views as well.