Of the individuals who appear in the closing books of Cassius Dio’s Roman History, there is perhaps none more beguiling than Julia Domna. Dio’s account of the life of Domna is the fullest surviving from antiquity. Yet, Dio’s portrayal of Domna is not a miscellany of facts about the empress, and thus should not be treated as such. Rather, it is a contrived literary portrayal that fulfilled important moralizing functions within the Severan narrative of the Roman History. This article provides an analysis of Dio’s portrayal of Domna. It suggests that Dio shaped his portrayal of Domna to serve two purposes within the text: firstly, to act as a foil to his portrayals of C. Fulvius Plautianus and Caracalla; and, secondly, to explore through the figure of Domna political and ethical themes relevant to Dio’s appraisal of the Severan period.
E.g. Syme1958, 273: (on Dio’s portrayal of Tiberius) “It lacks bite, intensity, and colour: it is antithetic but not epigrammatical, tortuous without profundity, and portentously abstract”, or Millar 1964, 55: (on Dio’s portrayal of Cicero) “Dio’s handling of Cicero is a failure, perhaps the most complete failure of his History”.
Cf. Kettenhofen1979, 10-11. The use of two opposing characterisations as ethical and political foils to one another seems to be one of Dio’s favourite narrative devices, and I thank the anonymous reviewers for indicating several instances where Dio employs this method of presentation. Simons’ recent study has observed several instances of this method with respect to Dio’s narrative of the Roman Republic, such as the contrasting characterisations of Scipio Aemilianus and M. Manilius (2009, 249) and Scipio Africanus and Roman people (2009, 240).
Levick2007, 71. For the same trend in certain passages in Tacitus’ Germania, see Furneaux 1894, 7; Syme 1958, 1.126. Dorey (1969, 14) identifies the trend as a commonplace of 1st century rhetoric.
E.g. D.C. 69.6.3, 79.15.4. Cf. Millar1992, 4.
Levick2007, 24. See also Bowersock (1969, 108) for a similar reading of this passage. Murison (1999, 11) suggests that Dio’s pejorative descriptions of Caracalla’s ‘Syrian’ characteristics may have been a post-Severan addition/revision to his text.
E.g. North1966, 259-64; Langlands 2006, 2, 31.
Birley1971, 267; Moscovich 2004, 363.
Cf. Kettenhofen1979, 12: “Hier scheint bei Dio ein Stück literarischer Allgemeinbildung einsichtig zu werden, die im Falle von politisch einflußreichen Frauen die Exempla von Semiramis, Kleopatra, Nitokris heranzog.”
See Yildirim2004, 42-4. For Dio’s connections with the elite Greek culture in Asia Minor (especially in Bithynia), see Ameling (1984, 123 [n. 4], 135, passim).
D.C. 77.15.4-5; cf. Bering-Staschewski1981, 78(and n. 444). As another possible parallel between the two sons, Dio suggests that both Caracalla and Commodus had played roles in the deaths of their fathers (cf. D.C. 71.33.42, 76.15.2).