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The narrative function of Julia Domna in Cassius Dio's Roman history

Andrew Scott

Villanova University

Of the extant literary sources, Cassius Dio's Roman history provides the fullest portrait of Julia Domna (despite its epitomized nature) and remains the earliest extant account of the empress' actions and role in the court of Septimius Severus.  Analyses of the figure of Julia Domna, combining the literary evidence with the vast repository of visual media (numismatic, epigraphic, sculptural, and monumental) related to the empress, have portrayed her as a powerful empress who wielded a significant amount of influence (e.g. Williams 1902, Ghedini 1984, Levick 2007).  Recent studies, however, have begun to revise this view, both in terms of Julia's actual power (Langford 2013) and her specific role in Cassius Dio's history (Mallan 2013).

Building from these more recent studies, the goal of this paper is to better understand the portrayal of Julia Domna in Cassius Dio's Roman history.  While she appears only a handful of times in Dio's history (perhaps as a result of the epitomized nature of Dio's text), Julia Domna is consistently presented as both foreign and power-hungry.  This depiction appears to be a product both of Dio's own anxieties about female power and eastern despotism, perhaps informed by his experiences under the Severans, as well as a method for Dio to link the two halves of the Severan household and provide narrative continuity to a fractured dynasty.

This paper begins from a reading of Dio's obituary of Julia, which is the author's longest statement on her character and motivations.  After briefly considering Dio's equation of Julia with powerful female regents, directly in the case of Semiramis and Nitocris (79[78].24.3) and through intratextual reference to the death scene of Cleopatra (51.11-13), I move to an analysis of Julia as a rival of Plautianus (76[75].15.6-7) and her Syrian craftiness (πανουργία, 78[77].6.1a[Exc. Val.]; 78[77].10.2[Xiph.]).  This striving for power and Syrian cunning, at least in Dio's depiction, then serves as a link between the two halves of the Severan dynasty, as Julia Domna's background and ambitions effectively serve as predecessors to the Syrian house of Severus, including Elagabalus and the seemingly powerful Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias.

The contemporary portion of Dio's history has generally been considered a collection of anecdotes and observations, lacking significant analysis or organization (e.g. Millar 1964: 119-122, 171-173), and examinations of Julia Domna's depiction in Dio have been executed along the lines of whether or not Dio thought positively or negatively of her (reviewed by Mallan 2013: 735n3).  In reality, Dio was not writing his history serially as each event occurred, and his portrait of Julia Domna was most likely shaped by his observation of the subsequent reigns of Elagabalus and Alexander Severus, which featured other similar female figures.  Therefore, Dio's image of Julia as an influential or powerful empress needs to be understood within the context of this portion of his history and as part of his overall narrative strategy.

As a final consideration, these observations tie in more generally with other arguments about Dio's portraits of various characters throughout his history.  As Pelling (2009: 515) has noted, character motivation is Dio's primary method of interpretation.  This claim is crucial to a general understanding of Julia Domna in Dio's text, as each of Julia Domna's appearances in the history is laden with Dio's judgment of her reasons for action.  This motivation, specifically an aiming at imperial power, functions as a narrative strategy in Dio's text, and may reveal more of Dio's historiographic method and personal biases than historical reality.

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Episodes, Portraits, and Literary Unity in Cassius Dio

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