Julia and the Caledonian women

Julia Domna

Sculptured portrait of a Roman lady, believed to be Julia Domna.

Anyone who seeks to discover Scotland’s early history through textual sources written more than a thousand years ago soon realises that ‘fake news’ isn’t a modern phenomenon. It has always served a useful purpose for its creators, as much in the first millennium AD as in our own era of digital communication and social media. Recognising false information for what it is, rather than taking it at face value, is likewise as much of a challenge when we’re reading an ancient chronicle as when we encounter an attention-grabbing headline on the internet. In some instances, even after having dismissed something written in the remote past as fake information – such as a legend masquerading as real history – we find it so fascinating that we want it to be true. This is what happened to me many years ago when I came across what seemed, at first glance, to be a curious fact – namely that the oldest known words attributed to a woman from Scotland were spoken to a woman from Syria.

The conversation in question supposedly took place sometime in the early third century AD, around the years 209/210. Our source is the Historia Romana (‘Roman History’), a multi-volume work penned by the contemporary historian Cassius Dio. At that time, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus was on active service in northern Britain, leading a military campaign beyond the Antonine Wall – the great turf barrier stretching between the firths of Forth and Clyde. His foes were unconquered native peoples in what are now Stirlingshire and Perthshire, specifically two large groupings or ‘tribal confederations’ – the Maeatae who lived adjacent to the Wall and the Caledonians to the north of them. These two had been causing a great deal of trouble, raiding southward into lands under Roman rule and returning home laden with loot. A recent wave of attacks had been serious enough to persuade the governor of Roman Britain to appeal directly to Septimius Severus for aid. The emperor had duly taken personal charge of a major effort to bring the marauders to heel. Arriving in Britain in 208, accompanied by his wife and their two adult sons, he led his huge army northward. His troops suffered considerable losses from guerilla warfare but eventually both the Caledonians and Maeatae negotiated peace treaties with him. Dio identifies one of the key figures on the Caledonian side as Argentocoxos, presumably a senior chieftain, whose Celtic name means something like ‘Silver Leg’. However, the ensuing truce turned out to be short-lived and a new round of hostilities soon began.

Severan campaign in Scotland

Severus in Scotland, AD 208 to 210, showing three of the many forts involved in his campaign.

According to Cassius Dio, it was during the brief period of peace that a conversation took place between the wives of Argentocoxos and Septimius Severus. The name of the Caledonian lady is unrecorded – perhaps Dio himself had no record of it. He certainly had no doubt about the identity of the other woman. She was Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of Severus and one of the most famous of all Roman empresses. Julia’s image was so well-known around the Mediterranean lands in her own lifetime that it can still be seen today on various coins, paintings and sculptures. Born c. 160 in the city of Emesa (now Homs) in Syria, she sprang from a high-status Arab family who seem to have had royal ancestry. Her father was a senior priest at Emesa’s Temple of the Sun, the main cult-centre of the Middle Eastern god Elagabalus. Charismatic and well-educated, Julia was a suitable bride for Severus when, as a childless widower in his early forties, he decided that he should be married again.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus, Roman emperor from AD 193 to 211.

Dio had a particular fascination with Julia and has left us a fair amount of information about her. As a career politician who served as senator and consul he was well-placed to obtain interesting snippets of information about members of the imperial family. He had rather less interest in barbarians like Argentocoxos, even when he could be bothered to name them. Like most Romans he no doubt regarded the inhabitants of ancient Scotland as a mob of wild, uncouth savages prowling beyond the Empire’s borders. As an author he nevertheless found them useful as caricatures of the stereotypical barbarian – simple, uncorrupted folk whose primitive ways of living could be amusingly contrasted with the immorality and hypocrisy of sophisticated Roman society. Drawing on such stereotypes, he informed his readers that the Caledonians and Maeatae ‘possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring’. It hardly needs saying that such a strange custom probably never existed among the contemporary inhabitants of Perthshire and Stirlingshire, nor are they likely to have viewed adultery and marital fidelity much differently from the citizens of Rome. The idea that they practised a kind of ‘free love’ may have originated as a joke or rumour among Roman soldiers stationed near the northern frontier – or perhaps Dio simply made it up. It appears in his narrative shortly before the meeting between Julia Domna and the wife of Argentocoxos and provides the essential moral backdrop to their conversation.

Dio tells us that the empress teased her companion by saying that Caledonian women indulge in a sexual free-for-all, sharing their beds with different men while making no attempt to conceal their adultery. To a respectable aristocratic lady like Julia, such brazen promiscuity would indeed have seemed worthy of comment. We then see the wife of Argentocoxos swiftly responding with what Dio calls ‘a witty remark’ of her own:

“We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.”

As with all ancient and medieval authors, we should be wary of taking Dio at face value. Although Julia Domna was very much a real person – and indeed one of his contemporaries – this did not deter him from portraying her in a way that suited his literary purposes. Modern scholars who analyse his writings believe that the Julia he presented to his readers was, to some extent, moulded to fit his narrative. There is no doubt that she plays a special role in the Historia Romana, particularly in those sections where Dio seeks to pass judgement on the moral and political issues of his time. In this instance, his target was not the allegedly shameless promiscuity of Caledonian women but the clandestine adultery of fine Roman ladies. The consensus view among present-day historians is that he simply invented the speech quoted above. Like a modern peddler of fake news, he took a piece of made-up information about a group of foreigners and ‘spun’ it to make a specific point. His readers – the wealthy, educated elite of the Roman world – would have got the message very clearly. Some of them probably raised a wry smile; others may have felt stung by the barbed jibe attributed to an anonymous northern barbarian.

I think it would be good if we could accept the story as true. Some parts of it possibly _are_ true, even if the conversation reported by Dio never happened – or at least not in the way he describes. It is not unrealistic, for example, to imagine Julia Domna visiting the imperial frontierlands in what is now Scotland. She was certainly no stranger to dangerous war-zones. One of her honorific titles was Mater Castrorum, ‘Mother of the Army Camps’, bestowed in recognition of her willingness to accompany her husband on military campaigns. Whether she met the wives of any barbarian leaders on such occasions is debatable, although not implausible. I’m inclined to think we can consider the possibility that she not only visited Scotland 1,800 years ago but had a face-to-face encounter with the wife of a local chieftain. Musing even further, we can perhaps imagine these two high-status women – one a Syrian, the other a Caledonian – exchanging a few words, not directly but through an interpreter. Whatever they said to one another, it is more likely to have consisted of polite greetings rather than the mockery and ‘witty remarks’ placed into their mouths by Cassius Dio.

* * * * *


Julia Domna outlived not only her husband but also their sons, Caracalla and Geta. The brothers became joint emperors following the death of their father in 211 but their relationship was mutually hostile. Within months, Geta was murdered by Caracalla’s soldiers, dying in his mother’s arms. Julia detested Caracalla but relished the power and influence she acquired during his reign and chose to maintain a public image of maternal loyalty. The complicated relationship between mother and son even prompted rumours of incest, but Cassius Dio makes no mention of this and modern historians dismiss it as malicious gossip emanating from the imperial court. Caracalla turned out to be an unpopular emperor and his assassination in 217 came as no surprise, but his death deprived his mother of political status. Julia, by then in her fifties, suddenly found herself at risk of being exiled from Rome and ending her days in obscurity. This bleak prospect filled her with dread, especially as she had begun to nurture ambitions of ruling the Empire herself. She died soon afterwards, allegedly starving herself to death but – according to Dio – finally succumbing to the breast cancer that had afflicted her for many years.

Julia Domna

The emperor Caracalla with his mother Julia Domna.

* * * * *

Notes & references

Julia’s second name or ‘cognomen’ Domna derives from an ancient Arabic word meaning Black. It distinguished her from her elder sister Julia Maesa, a woman of ruthless ambition whose own story is no less remarkable.

– – – – –

The conversation between Julia Domna and the Caledonian lady is reported in Book 77, section 16, of Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana.

For this blogpost I used the Loeb Classical Library edition, available online at Lacus Curtius.

Substantial portions of the original text of the Historia Romana have not survived, the lost material being known from an abridged version written by the Byzantine scholar John Xiphilinus in the eleventh century.

– – – – –

Some journal articles I have found useful:

Riccardo Bertolazzi, ‘The depictions of Livia and Julia Domna by Cassius Dio: some observations’ Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae vol. 55 (2015), 413-32

Andrew Scott, ‘Cassius Dio’s Julia Domna: character development and narrative function’ Transactions of the American Philological Association vol. 147 (2017), 413-33

Christopher T. Mallan, ‘Cassius Dio on Julia Domna’ Mnemosyne vol. 66 (2013), 734-60

Caillan Davenport, ‘Sexual habits of Caracalla: rumour, gossip and historiography’ Histos vol. 11 (2017), 75-100

Julia Domna

Julia Domna and Septimius Severus with their sons Geta and Caracalla (Geta’s face has been deliberately erased).

* * * * * * *

10 comments on “Julia and the Caledonian women

  1. Bob Hay says:

    I could well imagine the two women having a conversation Tim. Probably blethering about the bargains in the local market.

  2. ritaroberts says:

    Now you know how women like to gossip. Great post Tim Thanks for sharing.

  3. Tiege McCian says:

    Forgive me for commenting on an old post, but the subject matter is too fascinating to pass up. Also, as always, your research and writing talents are enviable.

    It’s probably correct that Dio’s anecdote is more or less an invention, but your suggestion that it may be founded on something genuine is very exciting! Please give me the indulgence of adding my two cents.

    As you point out, Dio probably had little to no actual interaction with Scottish “barbarians” and he probably didn’t care to, preferring to use the stereotype as a foil in his writings. I think for that reason the remarks made by Argentocoxos’ wife, as Dio tells it, concerning the romantic behavior of Caledonian women fulfilling “the demands of nature” are interesting. This sentiment that nature represents the ultimate good and should be the basis of societal law and custom is echoed several centuries later in multiple Old Irish tracts.

    The Senchas Már contains a passage supposedly describing the governing system in Ireland before Christianization, stating that laws prevailed in Erin “through the law of nature”, pp. 15-17.


    Another example can be found in Professor John Carey’s collection of essays, A Single Ray of the Sun, pp. 37-38, in a quotation of a text on pagan visions and the supernatural characters of lore:
    It was a divine visitation which came… not a devilish visitation. It was an angel which used to come to their [the pagans] assistance, for they were faithful to the truth of nature.

    That said, you must certainly be correct that Dio’s description of Caledonian “free love” is fantastical and ahistorical. Perhaps word got back to Dio that Scottish society was similarly structured according to “nature” and he extrapolated the anecdote from there.

    Whatever the case, it is satisfying that Dio’s tale provides evidence that early Christian depictions of ancient Celtic civilization has some foundation in fact?

    • Tim says:

      Thank you for adding this information, Tiege. I think you make an interesting point about Nature and its ‘laws’ being seen as a kind of idealised model for ancient societies to adopt into their own customs. Nature’s laws probably offered a simplicity and purity that Dio and the later Irish writers could contrast with the complexities and prejudices of their own legal systems.

      You are right about the ideas behind Dio’s depiction of the Caledonians continuing into early Christian times, an example being Bede’s remarks on the alleged use of matrilineal royal succession among the Picts c.700 AD. Bede uses an anecdote about marriage and gender to make the Picts seem different from everyone else, just as Dio did with the Caledonians.

      • Tiege McCian says:

        Your reference to Bede is excellent, and I have to admit I haven’t familiarized myself with his writings- ack so much to read and so little time to do it in!

        But I think there is a slight misunderstanding. My fault, I have a tendency to be unclear in my writing. What my comment was intended to do was to provide something in the way of a small bit of evidence that your suggestion has merit when you write:

        “I think it would be good if we could accept the story as true. Some parts of it possibly _are_ true, even if the conversation reported by Dio never happened – or at least not in the way he describes.”

        I think the Irish tracts further your cause. Hah you must think I’m as crazy as the critics to your Merlin book think of you. But the Irish quotes I provided are not a contrast of the pagan and Christian law. I’m sorry I cut them down, I was trying to save time, once again my fault, here is a fuller quotation of the Senchas Már:

        “It was then Dubhthach was ordered to exhibit the judgments and all the poetry of Erin, and every law which prevailed among the men of Erin, through the law of nature, and the law of the seers, and in the judgments of the island of Erin, and in the poets.”

        It continues on the same page (17):

        “Now the judgments of true nature which the Holy Ghost had spoken through the mouths of the Brehons and just poets of the men of Erin, from the first occupation of the island, down to the reception of the faith, were all exhibited by Dubhtach to Patrick.”

        It goes on with more about how these old laws, when not clashing with the ‘Word of God’, was confirmed, for:

        “The law of nature had been quite right, except the faith, and it’s obligations and the harmony of the church and the people.”

        As we see, the text does not contrast the pagan with the Christian, but in fact, shockingly compares the the ‘old ways’ in a favorable and equitable way with Christianity!

        I don’t have Professor Carey’s book on hand at this particular moment, but the quote he provides also shows unbelievable reconciliation with pagan tradition, also drawing equivalence between the encounters of the native supernatural with Christian doctrine through the ‘laws of nature’. The Professor himself, I can recall in paraphrase, calls it an “audacious” defense of the ‘old ways’.

        I must say it is hard to know if early Christian scribes in Ireland would pluck Dio’s anecdote about British culture, ascribe it to their own Irish heritage in a thoroughly different context, and then (partially) defend it. But I suggest that that possibility is more remote than the possibility that some vague but accurate memory that before Christianization society was structured around what was thought of as ‘laws of nature’.

        Thanks so much for your time, and for providing your blog as an outlet for rousing discussion!

        • Tim says:

          Thanks again. On a side note, and veering away from Dio somewhat, it’s interesting to wonder how much genuine folk-memory from pre-Christian times has been preserved in early medieval Celtic literature (as opposed to being constructed by monastic authors and presented as authentic). The various rituals associated with Halloween are a case in point and become a topic of lively debate on social media every year.

          • Tiege McCian says:

            Really interesting subject! I’ve weighed in on the Halloween topic, but I’m a bozo. At the risk of being irritating, I’d say this discussion requires someone with a doctorate… in Scotland…

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