Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.09

Julie Langford, Maternal Megalomania: Julia Domna and the Imperial Politics of Motherhood.   Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.  Pp. xi, 203.  ISBN 9781421408477.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Adam Kemezis, University of Alberta (


Far more than most wives or mothers of Roman rulers, Julia Domna seems to deserve the title of "empress." Literary sources for the reigns of her husband Septimius Severus (193-211) and sons Caracalla (211-17) and Geta (211) give her remarkable prominence, and some of her coins and inscriptions feature an extraordinary series of official titles proclaiming her the mother of the army, the Senate, and the patria itself. It is this visibility, as a political phenomenon, that is the subject of a provocative and original new study by Julie Langford. This is emphatically not a biography along the lines of Barbara Levick's 2007 study, and Langford has relatively little to say about Julia's actual experiences or role in court politics. 1 Rather, she explores how Julia's public persona, especially in its maternal aspects, functions within the larger realm of political ideology under Septimius Severus and his sons. This volume thus takes a place alongside important books that have recently appeared on Severus' self-presentation in the religious sphere and in the architectural landscapes of Rome and Africa.2 Langford's conclusions are daring and, while sometimes resting on speculative arguments that are unlikely to be accepted by everyone, mark out significant new territory in the study of the political culture of the High Empire.

Langford's argument, stated negatively, is that our evidence for Julia does not support the claim that her real political power or influence was any greater than any other imperial woman's during the Principate (3-6). Rather, it indicates that a range of (male) political players from emperors through historians and dedicators of inscriptions, found her a uniquely useful vehicle for expressing their various ideological agendas. Langford's approach to Roman political ideology draws heavily on Cliff Ando's work in its emphasis on communication and negotiation between ruler and ruled (7-13).3 In particular, she emphasizes the differentiated audiences for imperial propaganda and makes detailed arguments as to the apparent responses of the various constitutencies. In her introduction (14-22), Langford sketches a chronological progression in Julia's image, based on literary, epigraphic and numismatic sources: In 193-95, during the initial stages of the civil wars that brought her husband to power, Julia is all but invisible, in Langford's view because Severus was playing up the idea of adoptive succession by Clodius Albinus rather than dynastic succession by his and Julia's sons. From Severus' break with Albinus in 195 to his death in 211, this is reversed and Julia is used, as one might expect, to signal continuity with the future in the form of her sons, but also with the Antonine past. This prominence reaches a brief peak in 211, when the Senate in particular embraces Julia as a guarantor of harmony between her two sons. After Caracalla's murder of Geta, however, her public profile becomes and remains considerably lower even though (if we are to believe Cassius Dio) this was when her actual political influence was at its greatest. The three core chapters of the book trace this progression not diachronically, but rather according to three principal constituencies (army, city populace of Rome, Senate) with which Severus had to negotiate the ideology of his new regime.

The chapter on the army is built around interpreting the title of mater castrorum ("mother of the camp") that was used both by Marcus Aurelius' consort Faustina and more extensively by Julia. Langford's main contention is that the title was not actually directed at the army, since it is not commonly found either on military dedications or on coinage minted in militarized areas (23-4). Instead, it was aimed (in Faustina's case as well as Julia's) at the civilian population, to underscore (reassuringly or threateningly as the case might be) the army's devotion to the imperial domus and the principle of hereditary succession (31-8). The army itself, Langford argues mainly from literary evidence, used Julia as a focus for discontent during her husband's lifetime, only to adopt a more positive view of her as a symbol of unity during the period of uncertainty after his death (41-7).4

The second chapter deals with the urban populace of Rome, and argues on the basis of coin distributions that they were the primary target of the "maternal" aspects of Julia's propaganda (50-3). In Langford's view, Severus presented Julia in a maternal and matronly guise as a way of establishing continuity with his Antonine predecessors, and with the traditional idiom of the principate more generally, to offset questions about his own Romanness that his African background might raise (69-75). The message seems to Langford overly strident, however, in view of the newly aggressive identification of Julia with the deities on her coins, and her jarringly frontal presentation in some instances. As with the army, however, Langford doubts how well the message went over. Inscriptions from Rome are very inconsistent in how fully they use Julia's maternal titles, which she takes as a sign of indifferent reception by the people and perhaps half-hearted dissemination of the message in official quarters (79-82).

The Senate is considered third and last among audiences for Julia's image. Langford, relying heavily on a reading of Pliny's Panegyricus, sees senators as reflexively hostile to female influence at court and to biological succession (87-93). Severus' various tactics for managing the Senate had relatively little room for Julia, and her absence from the senatorially decreed Arch of Severus in the Roman Forum is seen as evidence of the order's discomfort with her prominence in other media, and with Severus' entire dynastic narrative (101-3). As with the army, however, this changes dramatically in 211 with Severus' death and Julia's being named mater senatus et patriae. For Langford, the title represents a genuine initiative of the Senate, which reluctantly invoked Julia's maternal persona as the most powerful available symbol of the unity they hoped to maintain between her mutually antagonistic sons (111-2).

The book ends with a conclusion stressing once again Julia's actual powerlessness and unknowability even amid the visibility of her public image. There are three appendices: the first lists the coin hoards that form the data set for the book's numismatic arguments; the second is a series of tables listing the frequency of Julia's coin types in hoards from different regions of the empire; the third is an argument as to why the award of the mater senatus et patriae titles should be dated to 211 rather than a few years earlier.5

There are thus many aspects of Julia that this book does not claim to address, such as her ethnic identity, cultural patronage and actual political role. Maternal Megalomania stays within the realm of political appearances, and returns always to the question of Julia's image as a mother and member of an imperial dynasty. But if in a short book one only gets to ask one question about Julia, Langford makes a good case that she has asked the right one. Most politically aware Romans encountered Julia in the first instance not as a Syrian, a friend of philosophers or a court infighter but as the mother of their future emperor and the wife of the current one, probably in that order. We instinctively acknowledge that motherhood is an idea with immense symbolic power that political image-makers must have been (and still are) anxious to harness. But how does one do that in an explicitly masculine political culture, where women cannot rule in their own right and can, if prominent in the wrong ways, call into question the masculinity of their husbands and sons? Julia Domna is perhaps the best case study available on this point, and has never before been explored this thoroughly or with due attention to modern ideas of the discursive construction of gender.

Having asked new questions, Langford gets new answers, which she states in positive and unequivocal terms. In many cases they either go against conventional wisdom or make claims that more cautious scholars would view as unprovable. Often this is a strength. Her presentation of Julia as signifying conventional Roman womanhood and continuity with the Antonines is counter-intuitive, but it does explain much of the evidence better than do readings that insist on her "outsider" status as a Syrian. It might well be that Julia, who unlike her husband did not have to reveal her provincial accent in orations or publicly maintain a network of connections and clients from home, could be presented as the more conventionally Roman wing of the imperial domus. Similarly, Langford's stress on differentiated audiences for imperial propaganda adds important dimensions to her presentation and makes such gestures as the mater castrorum title more comprehensible.

There are points where the book's intuitively attractive conclusions are not fully borne out by the detail-level argumentation. Not all will agree that Cassius Dio's anecdote (76.[75].10.2) about a praetorian officer's sardonic quotation of Virgil can be read as evidence for the general disposition of the army, or that such stage-managed expressions as the Forum Arch inscription and the mater senatus title give us much insight into any genuine collective sense of the Senate. But whoever's voice we are hearing, Langford is right that it means something when in 211 that speaker found it possible and useful to insert Julia into a senatorial discursive space where ten years earlier there had been no room for her. There are also cases in which Langford cites quantitative or technical data to support a given conclusion, but does not give a sufficiently full or clear explanation of how it does so, notably in her arguments that the mater castrorum title is not directed at military audiences (23-4) and that the "maternal" coins of Julia went mainly to Italy (50-3). The book also has its share of typographical and other minor errors, though these remain at the level of a distraction rather than an impediment to the overall argument.6

The book, which is based on Langford's Indiana doctoral thesis, is inexpensive and well presented, with twenty good-quality illustrations, mostly of coins. The style is accessible, engaging and well suited to the material. Our understanding of Severan Rome has increased greatly in the last ten years, and Maternal Megalomania does much to continue the process. Many of Langford's conclusions and arguments will be controversial, but she argues from a thorough knowledge of the sources and sets an agenda pointing in new directions that should be considered by all scholars of this era, and of imperial political culture generally.


1.   Barbara Levick, Julia Domna: Syrian Empress (London and New York, 2007).
2.   Notably Achim Lichtenberger, Severus Pius Augustus: Studien zur sakralen Repr√§sentation und Rezeption der Herrschaft des Septimius Severus und seiner Familie (Leiden 2011); Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period (Cambridge, 2012); Susann Lusnia, Creating Severan Rome: The Architecture and Self-Image of Septimius Severus (Brussels, 2011) and Orietta Cordovana, Segni e imagine del potere tra antico e tardoantico: I Severi e la provincia Africa proconsularis (Catania, 2007). Langford was able to consult some of these works but not others.
3.   Clifford Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley, 2000).
4.   Langford has made this argument more fully in a 2008 article, "Speaking out of Turn(us): Subverting Severan Constructions of Ethnicity, Masculinity and Felicitas" (CW 39:125-50).
5.   The first appendix is based on the work of Rowan (see n. 2).
6.   Notably, on p. 28 the translation of a long Tacitus quotation omits the important clause nec adversus externos studia militum quaeri and the Latin in the endnote has non qui verit for non quiverit. N.8 on p. 179, in discussing Dessau's reading of an inscription, appears to lack a key verb ("explained"?) and the summary of Dessau's position is confused in general. The restorations of an inscription on p. 103 have some duplicated letters, and that scourge of Severan historians "Julius Didianus" appears on p. 100.

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