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Julia Domna: Syrian Empress (Women of the Ancient World) [Hardcover]

Barbara Levick
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

11 May 2007 Women of the Ancient World

This book covers Julia’s life, and charts her travels throughout the Empire from Aswan to York during a period of profound upheaval, and seeks the truth about this woman who inspired such extreme and contrasting views, exposing the instability of our sources about her, and characterizing a sympathetic, courageous, intelligent, and important woman.

This book contains a fresh re-assessment of the one of the most significant figures of her time and questions:

• Was Julia more powerful than earlier empresses?
• Did she really promote despotism?
• How seriously is her literary circle to be taken?

As part of a dynasty which used force and violence to preserve its rule, she was distrusted by its subjects; as a Syrian, she was the object of prejudice; as a woman with power, she was resented. On the other hand, Domna was the centre of a literary circle considered highly significant by nineteenth-century admirers.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge (11 May 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415331439
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415331432
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 16 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 6,704,248 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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About the Author

University of Oxford, UK

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Julia Domna: Syrian Empress 14 Jan 2013
By Keen Reader TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Barbara Levick tackles, in this book, a review of the reputation enjoyed (or suffered) by Julia Domna, second wife to the Emperor L. Septimius Severus, and mother of the Emperors Caracalla and Geta. Julia Domna, and indeed her sisters, seem to have been remarkable women in any age. Born in c. AD 173 and dying in AD 217, she outlived her husband and both sons, yet her legacy endured long after their deaths.

Severus himself was a remarkable man, and has been written of by A R Birley (whose biography of Severus I have on order from Amazon - thanks Amazon!). His work has been referenced throughout this biography of Julia Domna, but Levick has carefully separated out Julia Domna's life to present her as a person in her own right - a rare thing to be able to do on behalf of a woman who died nearly two thousand years ago. The fact that Julia Domna was not only a woman, but Syrian, meant that the dice were always going to be loaded against her in the judgment stakes. But this book seeks to redress the attitude, and offer a balanced view of the woman, the Empress and the mother.

While a very informative and interesting book, it does at times seem a bit of a stretch to write the book to cover Julia's life, as a biography. Necessarily, sources mention her, if at all, as an adjunct to Severus, Caracalla or Geta, and it is in context with these men's lives that she is seen. Her actions, motives, and likely feelings are often referred to along with those of earlier important Roman women (Livia, Agrippina the Younger etc) and even her struggle with Plautianus over the succession is referenced against the machinations of Sejanus in the reign of Tiberius.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Author has Fluent grasp of both politics and culture during Severans 23 Nov 2013
By brainout - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This review covers the Kindle edition. The Kindle format is MUCH more annoying to use now, than it used to be. Much harder to navigate. That highlight thing is a nuisance, when you just want to mark out text. Its fullscreen is a nightmare, with HUGE GRAY bar in the way, so you're better off not using fullscreen, or you just size the window yourself. Worse, it won't stop synching, even when you turn the option off. It won't show page numbers except arbitrarily, so you can't quote the pages accurately unless you copy a citation. VERY ANNOYING, KINDLE!!

Further, the map and coin pictures in the book are unreadable, in Kindle. God forbid you should complain about these things in the Kindle Forum; the trolls come out and lambast you as if it were YOUR fault Kindle for PC's program, is now so badly designed. I will have to rethink how many more books I'll buy, using Kindle format.

However, if you'll need to search the book often, there's no better alternative.

The book, is fabulous. Well-written, well-researched, and Barbara Levick has a keen eye to historical parallels. So when she describes an event during the Severan period, she's got enough fluent grasp of the 'big picture' to compare the parallels with respect to prior and later Roman emperors and their times. Most importantly, instead of just drily relating events and facts as too many Roman historians are wont to do, she folds in the relevant norms, standards, cultural ideas. That matters, for what you need to know about Roman history is WHY. We already have overkill on WHAT.

The other big plus of this book, is that she also has a keen recognition of cultural wordplay. So much is misinterpreted in Bible and Roman history, due to ignorance of the rhetorical style, the wit, the laconic deftness, of that age. Being able to interpret the epigraphy -- which necessarily specializes in that laconic wit -- thus yields fresh insights. She exploits those insights, with skill.

So if you're tired of the typical Roman history review of recited events and movements, recited comparisons with other scholars, you'll want to buy this book. Read its introduction to see the author's theses.

EDIT: just finished reading the whole book, and I re-rated it down to 3.5 stars. 1 star down, is due to the maps being unreadable (can't zoom them or flip them out into a window or photo viewer you can zoom). Roman historians have a command of the material, and for them to cite locations is as natural as for the layman to recite the alphabet. So if you don't know the locations, you quickly lose track of what the writer means, and tune out. So maps are necessary. Each book supplies its own maps, as the places referenced won't necessarily be the same as a generic map you find in a textbook or on the internet. So this is a serious failing, in the Kindle edition, to have maps with print way too small to read.

The remaining half-point down, is due to the author's not proving her theses. Then again, the theses might not be hers, but rather others', since the theses are standard historian positions for the period: the mystique of the immediate Severan family, the mystique of Domna's own family, and the 'orientalization' of Roman Religion allegedly taking place DUE TO the Severans.

Levick more or less affirms that the Severan mystique was cultivated (invented), giving benefit of the doubt to Domna's being part of the Royal Emesenes, yet shows there is no real proof for that. There is doubtful proof of the priesthood connection, in prior generations, with 'Bassianus' being key; but in Rome, that was a family name, not necessarily the priestly connotation it would have in the language of Domna's home town.

The family itself, whether truly part of Domna's lineage or not, did have a certain influence. Levick traces that influence and its history.

Thirdly, the 'orientalization' she means to refute, in the process clarifying that rather the cult of Sol was not an issue until Elagabalus, and even then, it was reviled by many. However, the Eastern cults did grow and multiply during the time, but apart from Severan influence (though sometimes, with their sponsorship).

Her main goal was to refute Dio and those others who ascribed to Domna a behind-the-scenes 'control' of government. Levick builds her arguments as counterpoints against Dio (and those later historians who side with him), essentially. She finds nothing to justify Dio's accusation of Domna wielding undue power, a verboten idea in a Roman society long chafing, at how Cleopatra made Anthony a lapdog.

She also builds her arguments around the coins, inscriptions, and other epigraphic evidence of the period, in effect concluding that Domna was a thoroughly Roman matron, along with her elder sister Maesa. The latter's daughters are another matter; apparently they did try to wield power, as regents for their respective sons. Even so, Levick seems to account them as having little influence or effect, whether short- or long-term. This is at variance with typical scholarship, which she accounts as due to prejudice (against 'oriental' and against women).

I found her counter arguments weak, viz., that since the epigraphic evidence doesn't show a Domna manipulating things behind the scenes, it must not be true. Okay, then how does she account for Dio's hostility? To just chalk it up to Dio being prejudiced against non-Romans, against women? Dio isn't universally hostile to all the Imperator wives. So why single out Domna?

See: when history accounts someone as 'controversial', there's a reason. Perhaps the person was more competent than the detractors would like; perhaps less so. Perhaps the person had a charismatic personality, which by nature polarizes the 'audience' around whom that person exists. Rightly or wrongly accused, Domna wasn't like other Imperial wives in some way. Levick praises the woman a lot, but the epigraphic evidence Levick presents, doesn't support that praise, either. Pity.

I was hoping she'd answer the question: how was it, that a rich child like Domna, would be brokered off in marriage, to a mid-level Roman like Severus, especially if the child was 13-19 years old? That's not Syrian practice at all, especially if they were Arab and rich. And if royal, NO WAY would they marry her off to a commoner, especially a lower-level one like Severus. However, Birley's book at Location 1071 in Kindle -- I don't know the page number, it's at the very end of Chapter 4, and stupid Kindle won't stop synching since I'm online to write this review) -- Birley believes Severus when age 25, entered the Senate via quaestorship. His book is 'Septimius Severus: The African Emperor (Roman Imperial Biographies)'. It's here in Amazon, and I'm renting it.

So Severus at marriage to Domna, is middle-aged, not as wealthy as could be desired; but if a Senator, maybe a worthy catch, in the minds of Domna's family. Especially, if they didn't like her.

Granted, he found her by means of a horoscope, and he'd want a rich wife who's young, as he had ambitions. But at the time there was nothing special about Severus that would justify the union. He had a mid-level position, was much older than she so ostensibly had little prospects for upward movement, and he was VERY far away. So was she a troublesome woman no one would marry? Was someone in the family jealous of her, so the match was meant as a punishment or a way to get rid of her? Those questions remain unanswered.

Now, maybe you won't want to read what else I'll write, so you can stop reading now. For my interest in this book is quite specific and arcane. I'm trying to understand why Paul and Peter meter 'tag' the Severans in Bible's Ephesians 1:9 and 1Peter1:6, respectively. Bible meter is unknown to Christian and other scholars, though its tradition can be easily discerned from Psalm 90 forward, if you just count the syllables and notice how passages like Psalm 90, syntactically 'break' in units of SEVEN (=promise, in Hebrew). The style is very specifc and sophisticated. So far I can discern 30 style characteristics, see my BibleHebMeterCharacs(dot)htm on brainout(dot)net .

This same rhetorical meter style is employed by the NT Greek writers, the first long instance of it being the Magnificat, on which Paul and Peter, play. Since the meter is used like a future ANNUAL calendar of history, Paul and Peter (who plays on Paul's meter) plotted out the future of CHURCH.

Which brings me to this book: their meter highlights two periods of what to us is now past, Roman history: the Severans, and Diocletian-Constantine. Paul uses Church pregnancy word 'musterion' to highlight the SECOND Severan period in Ephesians 1:9, which surprised me. In the metered timeline, Septimus Severus dies JUST BEFORE the beginning of the word 'musterion'. Which therefore means, a shift to the WOMEN. Yeah, and Church is Bride of Christ, also a 'mystery', Paul's byline in all his letters, his 'job' to communicate. Of course, that very year was when the African and Roman apostate branches in Church, began courting the Severan WOMEN, even to the extent of inventing a Peter as a bishop in Rome during the very years he wouldn't be allowed to go there (Claudius banned the Jews).

I didn't know there were strong women running the show then. (Because, I didn't study Ancient Rome much, after Domitian.) So this book is vital to understanding WHY Paul did his meter that way.

If it matters, I've been making videos on the topic for three years, see my Ephesians1REPARSED doc or htm (or Eph1DecreeSyllablesREPARSED pdf) for details. I just learned of Peter's meter two weeks prior, hence needed to buy this book to understand why they target the Severans.

For this book, like Bishop Lists by Robert Lee Williams (see my review here in Amazon and my video reviews with permissions from the publisher in Youtube or vimeo) -- this book, shares a common theme: FAKE PEDIGREE. Here, fake pedigree of the Severans.

Thus I know better why Paul and Peter satirize the period. For this was when the fake pedigree of Church was invented by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Demetrius of Alexandria (see the Bishop Lists book on that).

Yet a fake pedigree was ALSO the basis for Septimus Severus' rise to power. His own, and that of his wife. How much was fake versus how much exaggerated, is in some dispute. The author of this book goes through what evidence she can find, to separate claim from fact. Point is, that money alone wasn't enough to legitimate their rule. They cultivated what became an 'orientalized' trend in Roman politics and culture, which remained characteristic of the Empire. Levick disputes that, claiming that the Severans were thoroughly Roman. Okay, maybe they didn't sponsor it altogether, as the evidence she furnishes seems instead to indicate a grass-roots popularity of orientalized god-notions, principally the idea behind monotheism, ONE Deity To Rule Them all.

In any event, orientalization brought with it profound changes in the concept of empire, of rule. Since Diocletian grew up under this very change, and since Constantine would continue all of Diocletian's policies wholesale; since Roman Catholicism is the exact product of those ideas, this book is instrumental in understanding how that outcome, came to be.

Best of all, 1/3 of the book is devoted to bibliography, notes, glossary, so you can do further reading.
1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book 8 Feb 2010
By Ali Zgaier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It is a very interesting book on one of the most influential women in the history of Rome.
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