Religion, Patronage and Cultural Identity at the Court of Julia Domna

Adam Kemezis

University of Michigan

The reigns of Rome's Severan emperors (AD 193-238) were remarkable for the political and cultural influence of a series of women from Syria. The first of these was Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus (193-211) and mother of Caracalla (211-17). The most famous instance of her cultural activity is the story told in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, (1.3.1) in which she is said to have commissioned that work, based on some recently discovered writings about the first-century-AD Pythagorean sage. This story is almost certainly fictional (see Bowie 1978; Francis 1998), but it does stem from a real connection between the Severan family and the cult of Apollonius, for which there is independent evidence in Cassius Dio (, cf. also Philostratus and Dio differ considerably on the details: the former sees Apollonius as a positive figure associated with Julia, the latter despises him and associates him with Caracalla.

The discrepancy, I will argue, is related to the cultural ambiguity of both Apollonius and Julia. In the non-Philostratean tradition, Apollonius seems to have been a marginal figure active in eastern Asia Minor, away from the heart of Greco-Roman culture (see Dzielska 1986): Philostratus makes him a friend of emperors and central figure in the Greek culture of his era. Similarly, Julia came from the Semitic-speaking fringe of the Roman East, and her family's ancestral religious cult would eventually come into conflict with more traditional piety. Nonetheless, in Philostratus' portrait, she is the patroness of a work devoted to establishing the purely Hellenic pedigree of its hero. Philostratus gives us important insights into how Greco-Roman society perceived a ruling dynasty that combined Punic and Syrian ancestry with a long tradition of participation in the Roman power structure.


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