The younger sister of Julia Domna, Julia Maesa played an equally important part in the politics of the Roman Empire, actively influencing the ascension of her grandsons the emperors Elagabalus and Alexander Severus.
Ethnically Syrian, Julia Maesa, like her sister, was considered a Roman citizen due to her family’s immense wealth. She married Syrian nobleman Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus and had two daughters; Julia Soaemias Bassiana and Julia Avita Matmaea.
After the death of her nephew, Caracalla and her sister’s suicide, Julia Maesa returned to Syria where she began to make plans.
Her grandson, Elagabalus, was fourteen years old and Julia Maesa was willing to do anything to make sure her family was back in power. Hugely rich, she was able to orchestrate a plot to overthrow emperor Macrinus and put Elagabalus in his place. She and her daughter (Elagabalus’ mother) spread a rumour that the boy was actually Caracalla’s illegitimate son, and therefore rightful heir to the empire.
The plot was successful and for her efforts Julia was rewarded with the title Augusta avia Augusti (‘Augusta, grandmother of Augustus’). Unfortunately, the best laid plans often go awry and Elagabalus was not a successful emperor.
The teenager’s behaviour was erratic and scandalous. He held lavish parties, ignored the Roman gods in favour of the Syrian sun god and married a Vestal Virgin – an enormous taboo by Roman standards. Julia Maesa took swift action against her uncontrollable grandson and had him and his mother assassinated.
Now Julia promoted her second grandson, Alexander Severus, who was somewhat less of a disaster than his cousin – he managed to escape assassination until he was 26.
Julia Maesa died sometime in 226. Like her sister Domna before her, she was deified.
Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce E. Salisbury
A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women – Marjorie Lightman, Benjamin Lightman