Search in The Coin Shop

CNG Bidding Platform


Products and Services

The Coin Shop


Julia Maesa, Powerful Severan Empress

518379. SOLD $295

Julia Maesa. Augusta, AD 218-224/5. AR Denarius (20mm, 2.86 g, 12h). Rome mint. Struck under Elagabalus, AD 218-220. Draped bust right / Pietas, veiled and draped, standing left, holding acerrum with lid open in left hand and with right hand dropping incense onto garlanded and lighted altar to left. RIC IV 263 (Elagabalus); Thirion 405; RSC 29. Lightly toned. Near EF. Struck on a broad flan. Fine style portrait.

The later Severan dynasty represents one of the few instances in Roman history when women wielded true power. This was largely engineered by Julia Maesa, the sister of Julia Domna. In AD 218, the Severan dynasty’s fortunes were at a low ebb: Septimius was long dead, Caracalla had been murdered and replaced by the dull civil servant Macrinus, and Julia Domna had been compelled to return to her Syrian hometown of Emesa, where she starved herself to death in grief. Maesa, probably Julia Domna’s younger sister, had been a fixture in the Severan Court and had married a prominent Senator, by whom she had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea. Each daughter had also married well and produced children. Maesa, determined to avenge her sister and restore the Severan-Emesan dynasty to power, seized upon her 13-year-old grandson Varius Avitus, son of Soaemias, as the means. The boy, who was the hereditary high priest of the god Elagabal, greatly resembled a young Caracalla, and Maesa had it put about to the soldiers that he was the emperor’s natural son and true successor. That, plus a liberal sprinkling of gold from Maesa’s fortune, induced the troops to revolt and proclaim Avitus (now renamed Antoninus, but widely known as Elagabalus after his god) as emperor.

Improbably, Macrinus was defeated and killed, and Elagabalus and his retinue made their way to Rome, where the people greeted their new ruler with mixed bafflement, amusement, and horror. For in addition to his Syrian birth, Elagabalus was also what would today be called transgender, an exotic dancer, and totally committed to the orgiastic rites of his cult. Though Julia Maesa ably held the reigns of government from behind the scenes, she failed in restraining her grandson’s wilder impulses and finally decided that he must be replaced to save the dynasty. She induced Elagabalus to adopt his more docile cousin Alexander, Mamaea’s son, as Caesar, then cooly arranged for the Praetorians to murder their oddball emperor along with his mother in March, AD 222. Whatever qualms Maesa felt about the deaths of her daughter and grandson she kept to herself. Maesa continued to rule as emperor in all but name under Severus Alexander, who proved an obedient figurehead, until her death in late AD 225 or early 226, after which her surviving daughter Mamaea stepped seamlessly into her role.