Portrait of the Roman empress Julia Domna

Unidentified artist
3 min
Unidentified artist, «Portrait of the Roman empress Julia Domna», 194 — c. 209 AD (head), wig modern
Photo: Ina Wesenberg/Nasjonalmuseet


Head in marble: 194 – c. 209 AD

Wig in onyx: probably before 1900



This is Empress Julia Domna. She looks calm, like she's in complete control. But her smooth marble-like face is an illusion. Julia Domna lived in a time of violent struggles over power, war, and murder. A world where image meant everything. 


Domna was different from many of the earlier Roman empresses. Unlike them, she didn’t come from Italy, but from Emesa in present-day Syria. In 187, she married an equally unconventional emperor: Septimus Severus, the first African emperor of the Roman Empire. 


Together they ruled a kingdom that stretched from Scotland in the west to Iraq in the east. But the kingdom was unstable. And holding on to power required enormous work. 


Part of this work included image building. In portraits like the one we see here, Julia Domna had to appear as a classic Roman wife and mother. A woman who lived her life withdrawn from the power play around the imperial throne. 


In reality, Julia Domna was one of the most powerful empresses ever. While her husband traveled around with the army to keep order in the kingdom, it was she who ruled in their place. The challenge for Domna was to be able to rule without breaking with the traditional female role. To show the world that she was aware that she was only a woman, even though she held the power of the world's greatest empire. 


It is a difficult balancing act, then and now. 


And a Roman empress's reputation was a fragile thing. In the years after Julia Domna’s death, many stories were spread about what kind of woman she really was. Sick with power, a schemer, a bad mother who turned her sons against each other. Who was she really? 


We cannot know for sure. But here - face to face almost 2,000 years after she died - we can at least try to imagine who Julia Domna really was.