Cassius Dio on Julia Domna: A Study of the Political and Ethical Functions of Biographical Representation in Dio’s Roman History

in Mnemosyne
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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.


A Journal of Classical Studies



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E.g. Syme 1958, 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”.


E.g. Harrington 1971, 75-117; Moscovich 1983, 138, passim; Rich 1989, 86-110; Pelling 1997, 117-44; Gowing 1997 (ANRW 2.34.3), 2558-90.


Cf. Kettenhofen 1979, 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).


Millar 1964, 2, 195-203; Bering-Stachewski 1981, 6; Murison 1999, 1-2.


Millar 1964, 1-2; Brunt 1980, 483; Potter 1999, 73; Murison 1999, 2-3.


Eisman 1977, 670-1; Bering-Staschewski 1981, 65-6.


D.C. 76.16.4. Cf. Bering-Staschewski 1981, 76; Birley 1988, 165.


Levick 2007, 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. Millar 1992, 4.


Levick 2007, 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.


Levick 2007, 1.


E.g. North 1966, 259-64; Langlands 2006, 2, 31.


Birley 1971, 267; Moscovich 2004, 363.


Cf. Kettenhofen 1979, 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 Yildirim 2004, 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-Staschewski 1981, 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).


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