Mothers, Murderers & Mistresses: Empresses Of Ancient Rome (2013) s01e03 Episode Script

Part Three

The official rulers of the ancient Roman Empire were all men.
I think that has overshadowed the fascinating stories of the women nearest to those men - wives, mothers, sisters and lovers.
Their proximity to the Emperor gave them enormous power.
For the first hundred years of imperial Rome, these women were aristocrats from the great established families .
characters such as the scheming Livia, the murderous Agrippina and the scandalous Messalina.
But later, extraordinary personalities would emerge from outside the capital, from the margins of Roman society and the far-flung outposts of empire, remarkable women who would help shape Roman history as the Empire was transformed.
Among them were freed slaves, a woman from the East who was celebrated all over the Empire but saw her son murdered in her arms, ruthless sisters ready to kill one another to put their children on the imperial throne and a standard bearer for a dramatic religious revolution which would set global history on an entirely new path.
These were the outsiders who turned the Roman world on its head.
This is Antonia, daughter of Mark Antony, niece of Rome's first emperor, Augustus, and mother of the Emperor Claudius.
In short, a lynchpin of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which dominated Rome in the first century AD until its fall with the suicide of Nero in AD 68.
By the end of the following year, after a bewildering succession of short-lived emperors, the last man standing was Titus Flavius Vespasianus.
After the chaos, Vespasian was a practical, no-nonsense man, a stable, and therefore very different, kind of ruler.
So different that the woman sharing the life of the new emperor was a freed slave, someone who had once been owned by Antonia.
This freed slave, who was to be a stalwart of Vespasian's rule, was called Caenis.
The historian Cassius Dio wrote that she was an extraordinary woman.
He adds that she was an invaluable secretary to her mistress, Antonia, and was highly trusted.
Never more so than in the dangerous days of Rome's second emperor, Tiberius, whose reign was marked by paranoia and purges.
Antonia entrusted Caenis with secret messages to be committed to her exceptional memory.
And her loyalty was repaid.
At some point before or after Antonia's death in AD 37, Caenis was granted her freedom.
For the Romans, slavery wasn't necessarily a permanent state.
For those few who were fortunate enough to earn the respect, trust, affection, even love, of powerful masters and mistresses, the prospect of freedom and even of substantial personal standing was very real.
Caenis was proof of how, in Rome's surprisingly mobile society, a slave's fortunes could be transformed.
It's impossible to say anything about Caenis' life between the death of Antonia and the sudden rise to power of Vespasian more than 30 years later, save that at some point, she became his companion.
The relationship was interrupted when Vespasian married a woman of his own rank.
But Vespasian's wife died before he became emperor.
The biographer Suetonius writes that after her death, Vespasian took up again with his former mistress, Caenis, and that even when he was emperor, she had the position almost of lawful wife.
Writer Lindsey Davis has enjoyed international success with the Falco series, mystery stories set in late first century Rome.
But her first literary venture into the period was actually a novel about the long romance between Caenis and Vespasian.
We know really very little about Caenis, don't we? What is it that makes her so fascinating for you? The fact that she and Vespasian obviously were lovers when they were very young.
Because of her social rank, she's a freed slave or even, perhaps, when he first knew her, an actual slave, he was not allowed legally to marry her.
But clearly, there was true love going on there because after he has been properly married and he has three children - so it's quite a long marriage - he goes back to Caenis.
And quite obviously, there was genuine affection between them.
And presumably, he respected her for her mind as well.
Caenis was a canny businesswoman, adept at raising finances that Vespasian desperately needed to refill the imperial coffers.
The Emperor was busily rebuilding Rome after the mayhem of Nero's final years.
Projects such as an expensive new amphitheatre would transform the city skyline.
According to the historian Cassius Dio, Vespasian allowed his beloved consort to milk the imperial system.
Caenis, the ex-slave, became wealthy and powerful in her own right, a political player at the highest levels, providing, Dio claimed, that the Emperor got his cut.
For this reason, Caenis had the greatest influence and she accrued untold wealth, so that it was even thought that Vespasian made money through Caenis as his agent.
For she received a great deal from many sources, selling governorships to some, to others, procuratorships, generalships and priesthoods, and in some cases, even the Emperor's decisions.
She also had her own villa, and to me, this is one of the interesting things about imperial-freed women, that that was one of the few places where a woman could, in fact, do well for herself, obtain her own home, have a certain amount of money, presumably, when she finally had her freedom.
Most other women didn't have that, couldn't have that.
And when you think how historians in the Roman period loved to make out women as being terrible, scandal-prone creatures, the fact that Caenis is treated as someone you should actually respect is quite interesting.
That's very telling, isn't it? Mm.
Caenis died in AD 74.
Vespasian followed her five years later.
Now, another exceptional woman came onto the scene.
But this time, the constraints and traditions of Roman society ensured the story took a tragic turn.
Vespasian's son, Titus, also aspired to share his rule with an outsider, a foreign queen called Berenice, born far from Rome.
The case of the Jewish queen Berenice illuminates Roman attitudes to race, identity and religion.
It's a significant demonstration of the limits of imperial power.
Vespasian left Titus in charge of a military campaign to subdue Jewish rebels in Judea.
This is the Arch of Titus, built to honour his decisive victory.
At the end of a long and savage war, in AD 70, Titus' legions sacked Jerusalem.
Here, they are shown carrying off the treasures of the Great Temple.
In the midst of all this, an unlikely love affair had begun.
During the bitter fighting, Titus had formed an important personal relationship with a Jewish ally of Rome, the client queen Berenice, a woman at least ten years his senior.
Her family had long-standing links with Rome's emperors and with Vespasian.
Titus returned to Rome in AD 71.
A few years later, Berenice followed.
Controversially, Titus brought her to live with him in his father's imperial palace.
A foreign queen was now at the heart of the ruling family.
The Jewish faith prohibited personal likenesses, so we don't have any visual records of Berenice.
Nonetheless, she's fascinated artists for millennia.
The romance between Titus and his Jewish queen has inspired plays, novels, ballets and operas.
One reason for that is that their relationship came to an abrupt and unhappy end.
Titus may have been infatuated with Berenice, but his feelings were not shared by the people of Rome.
From the time she arrived, there were public protests.
The regime's response to its critics was decisive.
One philosopher who spoke out against the relationship was beheaded.
There seems to have been quite extraordinary, open hostility to the relationship between Titus and Berenice in Rome.
Why do you think that was? For him to be having a liaison with a really quite blatantly Jewish queen was an extraordinary contravention of all the prejudices that the regime had been trying to encourage.
After all, there'd been a triumph over the Jews through the streets of Rome.
It does seem quite strange, doesn't it? So she's a queen and she's Jewish, and in the eyes of Titus' fellow senators, she just didn't look quite like one of them.
Titus was the Emperor's son but remained subject to the rules of Roman social convention.
He was still a member of the Roman aristocracy and was expected to find a wife from among its ranks.
Women may have been pawns and players in a game of matrimonial power politics, but it was a game played solely within traditional Roman high society.
Disapproval of Berenice in Rome was prompted by more than her Jewish heritage.
The population fretted about the imperial succession.
Berenice could not fulfil the most important function of a Roman imperial woman.
When she arrived in Rome, Berenice was around 46 years old.
The chances of her having a son looked extremely remote.
Without an heir, the Empire might be plunged into another destructive civil war.
An ancient source records that Titus had offered to marry Berenice.
But when he became emperor in AD 79, he was forced to make a heart-breaking decision.
Titus accepted that public opinion, whether of the aristocracy or of the Roman masses, would not tolerate his relationship with Berenice continuing now that he was emperor.
And so, in the words of the biographer Suetonius, "He at once sent Queen Berenice away from Rome, "invitus invitam, against his will and against hers.
" The production of a male heir was so important in Roman dynastic politics.
It's a very new regime.
It had come out of nowhere, out of a civil war in which huge numbers of Roman citizens had died, and it was trying to establish its legitimacy.
And Berenice did not help.
No, she didn't at all.
By the closing years of the first century, change was in the air.
The Great Emperor Trajan, who acceded to the throne in AD 98, was from Spain.
His wife, Plotina, came from Gaul, and she was instrumental in ensuring that another senator from Spain, Hadrian, succeeded her husband as emperor.
Power was passing to a new breed of rulers, culturally Roman, but with roots far away from the imperial capital.
The provincials were on the march with women in the vanguard.
60 years after Hadrian, at the close of the second century, this process moved on decisively.
The eclipse of the great aristocratic families who dominated Rome for hundreds of years was confirmed by the arrival of a new empress.
Her name was Julia Domna, and she was from Syria, on the eastern edge of the Roman world.
Her husband, Septimius Severus, who fought his way to the top, hailed from the province of Africa.
Power was now in the hands of newcomers from distant corners of the Roman Empire.
On Rome's Palatine Hill stand these remains of the great palace built by Septimius Severus and Julia Domna.
In a city many miles from their birth places, the couple were determined to found a dynasty to rule the Roman Empire for centuries to come.
In their prime, they seemed invincible.
Monuments in Rome record Septimius Severus' military victories in far-flung provinces like Britain.
But it was Julia Domna who was the real pioneer.
Her public profile and her role in government set her apart from all her predecessors.
Julia Domna did not stay on the sidelines like Caenis or suffer public scorn like Berenice.
Domna became a celebrated figure among the Empire's populace, even here, in York, more than 1,000 miles from Rome.
From AD 208, York was Septimius' base as he tried to secure Britain's northern frontier .
the same problem that had led his predecessor, Hadrian, to build his famous wall nearly 90 years earlier.
This one's my favourite, actually.
'In the Yorkshire Museum, 'we can see the impression Domna made on the locals.
' Natalie, here we have this amazing pot, in the shape of a human head.
What is it that makes people identify it as Julia Domna herself? I think if you look at the pot next to wall paintings and frescoes, you do get a sense that it echoes how she looked.
I mean, the hair, particularly.
If you look at the way the hair is, she has this part down the centre and then her hair is pulled back into this tidy little neat bun at the nape of the neck.
Very typical of how you see Julia Domna portrayed, particularly on coins.
It's a very distinctive hairstyle, isn't it? Oh definitely, yes.
It's not really in the style of official art.
No, I don't think so.
I think it's much more likely that somebody has perhaps seen an image of Julia Domna on a coin, which circulate throughout the Empire, and has perhaps thought, "I really like that image.
"I'd like my very own pot made with a face of hers "that I can put on my mantelpiece.
" How did this woman become such a popular icon throughout the Empire? It was a long and improbable journey.
Domna's story began in the Syrian city of Emesa, modern-day Homs.
Her father had wealth and status as priest of the religion based in the city, the cult of the sun god, Elagabal.
Its worship was just one of many innovations her family would bring to Rome.
Domna and her husband had first met in Syria around AD 180.
At the time, Septimius Severus was a Roman general, thought to be in his mid 30s.
Julia Domna was just a girl of six or seven.
When his first wife died seven years later, Septimius cast around for a new bride.
In a tale that's probably the invention of gossipy writers trying to bolster his imperial credibility, we're told he consulted the horoscopes of some candidates.
That of Julia Domna revealed she was destined to marry a king.
Whatever the truth of that, in AD 187, aged 13 or 14, she travelled west to Gaul to marry her 42-year-old husband.
By AD 192, already the mother of two sons, Domna was with her husband and his legions on the Empire's Northern Frontier.
When news came that the Emperor Commodus had been murdered, Septimius made his bid for power.
With his army at his back, he headed for Rome.
After five years and battle on two continents, Septimius finally established himself as Rome's sole ruler.
Having fought his way to power, he now sought to justify and legitimise his reign and to hold out the prospect of a stable and secure succession, avoiding the possibility of more civil wars.
And in this battle for hearts and minds, his wife was a key weapon.
This regime of outsiders deliberately harked back to the glories of Rome's past.
And Julia Domna was at the centre of this campaign.
Do you think it's right to see Julia Domna as almost being recast as a symbol of tradition for this really rather innovative dynasty? I think that's right.
She plays the role of being the matron, of being at the steady centre of the dynasty, looking after the arts and being the supportive wife and all of those things which Roman matrons are supposed to do.
So you have this sort of bizarre society in Rome where people who come from all over the Empire, and pretending they don't.
Severus' sister allegedly couldn't speak proper Latin or maybe spoke Latin with a dreadful provincial accent.
She wasn't even allowed to come to Rome when he was Emperor.
Too embarrassing.
Really let the side down.
Domna was promoted as the model of traditional Roman motherhood.
After all, she had produced two sons who could succeed her husband.
The chances of another civil war seemed happily remote.
Coins hailed the Empress and her boys Caracalla and Geta as Felicitas Saeculi - "the joy of the age.
" We can see Julia Domna as something very new, in a way, but in the context of the Severan regime, she's also used as very much a symbol of tradition, isn't she? She is and I think Severus has to use her like that.
She is part of his back to basics campaign.
He's a military usurper, he's come to Rome after a period of destabilising civil war and looking back to good old nuclear imperial families with mother and father and heir and a spare, ready to go.
He promises stability, continuity.
So she is used, yes, as a symbol of a return to traditional values, to counterbalance that idea, that there's something a bit different and a bit foreign about this family arriving in Rome.
As part of this campaign, Julia Domna embraced Rome's long-established religious cults.
Though her father had been a priest of an eastern god, Domna oversaw the restoration of the house of the Vestal Virgins.
This cult was one of the few Roman institutions where women had an established role.
The priestesses of the goddess Vesta cultivated a sacred flame that was not allowed to go out.
If it did, Rome might fall.
In this Roman museum, a fascinating piece of evidence shows just how effective these strategies were in endearing Domna to the Roman establishment.
This beautiful and very precious doll - too precious to be taken out of her cabinet - is almost certainly a representation of Julia Domna.
She's fully jointed, made of ivory and she's also got this incredible jewellery on.
She's got a lovely gold necklace and it's also got little gold bangles and little gold ankle bracelets as well, so it's really very precious indeed.
It was found in the grave, not of a young girl, as such dolls normally are, but of a 66-year-old Vestal Virgin called Cossinia.
Cossinia was buried at Tivoli, not far from Rome.
Julia Domna's image was absolutely everywhere, it seems, and this is a wonderful instance of it.
Julia Domna went from strength to strength.
This ceremonial arch near the banks of the Tiber, erected in AD 204, depicts Domna and her husband engaged in the solemn business of a religious sacrifice.
But the key point is that the arch was not an official, government construction.
It was commissioned by local businessmen.
And while it may show them currying favour, it also reveals them buying into the idea that the Emperor and Empress were guardians of Rome's ancient traditions.
Julia Domna's status in Roman society was truly exalted - but her position was also precarious.
She had made influential enemies.
One of them was uncomfortably close to home A contemporary source tells us that beneath the public harmony and honours which included the prestigious title of Augusta, Domna's private life was made a misery by the actions of her husband's power-hungry friend, kinsman and favoured advisor, Fulvius Plautianus The historian Cassius Dio recorded how Plautianus tried to undermine Domna.
Plautianus had such control over the Emperor, in so many ways, that he often treated even the Augusta in a disgraceful manner, for he cordially loathed her and would always abuse her violently to Severus.
Plautianus used to conduct investigations into her conduct, gathering evidence against her by submitting women of the nobility to torture.
Domna did not buckle under this onslaught.
She was made of sterner stuff than that.
Instead, she immersed herself in intellectual pursuits.
Retreating from persecution, she began to study philosophy, as well as rhetoric, both traditionally male preserves.
She also explored other subjects, such as geometry with the informal circle of intellectuals which gathered around her.
Some of Rome's great thinkers are represented here in the Musei Capitolini's Hall of Philosophers.
Domna developed her own relationships with some of the period's sharpest minds.
Accounts of the period stress Julia Domna's interest in a wide range of intellectual activities - philosophy, rhetoric, medicine.
How unusual was that for the time? Well, I think her interests in itself were not unprecedented.
But Julia Donma's interests went farther, I think.
They were on a higher scale, and possibly also on a higher level.
She had this whole group of intellectuals around her, and, in this sense, I have no earlier examples of women who did this in the Roman Empire.
It's very interesting, isn't it? Philostratus, the literary author, boasts about his friendly relationship with, with Julia Domna, doesn't he? He tells us that he wrote his Life of Apollonius of Tiana at her request, and I think he was proud of it, of being a sort of court philosopher.
Of course, she was a very powerful woman so she must have attracted a lot of scholars who tried to get, well, maybe tried their luck.
Plautianus did not succeed in poisoning the Emperor's mind against the Empress.
Domna remained an important part of her husband's life, accompanying Septimius on his many journeys across Rome's vast Empire.
And so, at the height of her fame and influence, Julia Domna found herself in York, where the locals had made the pot in her honour.
What do you think this pot tells us about Julia Domna's popularity? She is hugely popular.
People have seen Julia Domna's image on coins or in other media and she's got a celebrity status - I mean, you know, coins are like the OK! Magazine of the day.
They've seen her, whether they want to be associated with her or they just like the way she looks, I think it's much more a reflection of her popularity and people wanting to have a piece of her.
She has the aura of imperial power about her Absolutely.
so she's very important.
It's really very substantial, this pot, isn't it? Is it heavy? It's not actually heavy at all.
It's very well made, the clay is quite thin, so it's not very heavy.
Would you like to have a hold? Oh, goodness, can I? Thank you very much.
No, she's not heavy, is she? She's really lovely.
Thank you.
Now, she was made, almost certainly, between 208 and 211, when Julia Domna and Septimius Severus were in York.
So she's almost exactly 1,800 years old.
I must say she's looking very good for her age.
But it was here in York that the years of triumph ended.
Events were about to throw this hard-won dynasty into turmoil, and set Domna on a path to personal tragedy.
In February, AD 211, in this northern outpost of the Roman world, the African Emperor Septimius Severus died.
He named his two sons Caracalla and Geta as co-heirs.
With the leadership of the Roman world at stake, this was a recipe for open hostility and Domna was caught in the middle of her warring sons.
For a little while, their mother managed to contain this dangerous sibling rivalry.
But once back in Rome, she could no longer control 23-year-old Caracalla.
He had an obsessive belief that he should rule alone.
He decided that Geta, his junior by just a year, needed to be removed from the equation.
Caracalla was set on murdering his younger brother.
But while he had a powerful motive and didn't lack means, he was rather short of opportunity.
Geta was suspicious, and guards protected him from potential assassins.
Cassius Dio tells us how Caracalla solved the problem of access to his brother by convincing Domna that he wanted to discuss a reconciliation.
So Geta was persuaded to meet his brother, but when they were inside, a group of centurions rushed in and struck Geta down.
At the sight of the soldiers he had run to his mother, hung about her neck and clung to her bosom and breasts, lamenting and crying, "Mother who bore me, mother who bore me, help! "I am being murdered!" And so Domna, deceived in this way, saw her son dying in this most impious way in her arms, .
for she was all covered .
with his blood.
But the bloodthirsty Caracalla was not done yet.
He bullied the Senate into for ever condemning Geta's memory.
His brother's image was chiselled out of depictions of the imperial family across the Empire.
Caracalla's cruelty had bitter consequences for his mother.
Domna had seen her younger son murdered in her arms.
And now she was denied the opportunity to mourn him.
On the contrary, Domna was forced to be joyful and laugh as though at some great good fortune, so closely were all her words, gestures, and changes of colour scrutinised.
So she alone, the Augusta, wife of the Emperor and mother of the Emperors, was not permitted to weep, even in private, over so great a loss.
Less than a year after his father's death, Caracalla now had sole rule throughout the Roman world.
At this point, Domna's life took another unexpected turn.
Given her circumstances, she might have retired into private life, or been murdered by her son, the Emperor.
Instead, her involvement in the administration of the Roman Empire actually grew.
Later on, we've got evidence that she's in charge of imperial correspondence - extremely unusual for a woman, we don't know of anyone else like that.
I think she was the first and the last.
I mean, there was no other.
So this is very, very unusual, and Dio says it's only the routine business that she was doing, but routine business can, of course, be very important.
Absolutely, and letter writing is often seen as one of the key activities that emperors undertake, so looking after the letters is very important.
Yes, yes.
The correspondence contained reports and requests from all over the Empire.
Domna was deciding which petitioners should be answered.
She was, in effect, controlling access to the Emperor.
Given her son's murderous tendencies, Domna was surely wise not to turn down the job.
Caracalla had begun his rule with bloodshed.
In the summer of AD 217, he finally got his comeuppance.
On campaign in the East, the ruler of the Roman world was assassinated as he relieved himself by the side of the road.
Julia Domna had no reason to love Caracalla - after all, he had butchered her younger son before her eyes.
So her reaction to news of his murder might seem curious.
Domna was so affected that she dealt herself a violent blow and tried to starve herself to death.
In this way she mourned, now that he was dead, the same man she had hated while he lived.
Dio's account makes the depths of Domna's distress painfully clear.
Though what's really fascinating, because it tells us so much about her place in the world, is the reason Dio gives for her distraught reaction.
It wasn't that she wished her son were still alive, he tells us, but that she was frustrated at having to return to private life.
Later in AD 217, Julia Domna received news that Macrinus, one of her son Caracalla's bodyguards at the time of his murder, had become Emperor.
With no prospect of a return to power or influence, Domna committed suicide shortly afterwards.
Some years after, her remains were interred here at the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome.
It is said that the ashes of Domna's younger son, Geta, murdered by his brother, were placed next to her.
Today, she remains a contradictory figure.
Her husband's regime stressed - or invented - its connections to Rome's past.
But whether as a patron of an intellectual circle, an administrator or fashion role model, Domna, admired throughout the Empire, broke entirely new ground - and her impact did not die with her.
With the demise of his sons, Septimius Severus' direct bloodline had been brought to a bloody end.
But the dynasty continued.
It was Domna's family, not her husband's, who shaped the history of the Empire over the next two decades.
And most remarkably of all, the family members who did this were all women.
The key player would be Julia Domna's elder sister, Julia Maesa.
Maesa believed her family could be restored to the imperial throne in the person of her teenage grandson, Elagabalus, from Syria, like herself.
Julia Maesa hatched a plot to oust Emperor Macrinus.
Maesa successfully wooed the Syrian legions, who fondly remembered their generous paymasters, Septimius and his son Caracalla.
A woman from the East had raised an army.
And, even more remarkably, it defeated and executed Macrinus in AD 218.
According to the historian Cassius Dio, Julia Maesa leapt from her chariot in the midst of the battle, inspiring her troops to victory by her bravery.
The way was now clear for Maesa to enter Rome with her grandson, Elagabalus, as Emperor.
Maesa had achieved her ambition.
The Syrians were back at the summit of the Roman world.
But her power broking marked an important change in the nature of the Roman autocracy.
Elagabalus, the most powerful person in the Empire, was just 14 years old.
There had been emperors who were unsuitable, unstable or even insane.
But the Empire had never been ruled by a child.
A hundred years earlier, in Rome's golden age, emperors had been selected by their predecessors on the basis of their personal qualities and experience.
This system had helped ensure an era of peace and stability.
Now, thanks to the influence of Maesa, the emperor didn't even have to be an adult.
It appears that Rome was not even in the hands of a particularly gifted teenager.
In manipulating her family back into power, Maesa had saddled the Roman world with an Emperor who, as the third-century historian Herodian put it, "was in every way an empty-headed young idiot.
" Elagabulus squandered money, engaged in orgiastic rituals and was even rumoured to have prostituted himself inside the imperial palace.
His mother, Julia Soaemias, struggled to keep her delinquent teenage son on the straight and narrow.
Meanwhile, his grandmother, Maesa, and his mother, Soaemias, did their best to run the Empire.
It was an unprecedented instance of female power, borne out by the fact the two of them attended the Senate - the only women ever recorded to have done so.
Though Soaemias exercised a restraining influence on her son Elagabalus, he continued to alienate Roman society.
There really is a limit to what these imperial women can do, isn't there? There is a limit, because in the end, an emperor can say, "Ignore my mother, I'm the Emperor.
" Yeah.
So what we see is a family, in which the most experienced and perhaps the most dominant members are females looking at their power going down the chute.
Unlike his more diplomatic relative Domna, Elagabulus did not bother toeing the Roman religious line in public.
On this site, In the heart of the capital, he built a temple to the Syrian sun god.
Even worse, one of the Emperor's three hasty marriages was to a Vestal Virgin, who traditionally took a vow of chastity.
Rome was outraged by this blasphemous behaviour.
They've got to play the role.
And this is what Elagabalus is patently not doing, he's not playing the role of Roman Emperor, and so he's actually writing himself out of a job.
He's performing the role of a deviant, and if you perform the role of a deviant, eventually people say you can't be Emperor.
And he's probably lucky that his relatives said it before other people did.
To address rising hostility to the regime, Soaemias called on help from yet another woman of the family.
She did a deal with her sister, Julia Mamaea, who had a son of her own.
The boy, Alexander, was even younger than his cousin Elagabalus.
But Alexander was, at least, untainted by the Emperor's excesses.
In AD 221, Elagabulus, encouraged by his mother Soaemias and his grandmother Julia Maesa, adopted Alexander as his heir.
There was some logic to this move by Soaemias.
She was trying to shore up her unpopular son, Elagabalus, by appointing a more acceptable colleague or successor.
Unfortunately, this tactic completely backfired.
All she had done was to create an obvious replacement emperor.
The two sisters were now clearly divided into two opposing camps, with Soaemias behind Elagabalus, and Mamaea backing Alexander.
Mamaea was the shrewder sister.
She built support for her son Alexander by bribing the Praetorians, the Emperor's bodyguard.
It would tilt the balance in Mamaea's favour when the feud came to a bloody head in AD 221.
Elagabalus led an attempt to kill Alexander, but was himself overwhelmed by the Praetorians and assassinated.
His mother Soaemias did not escape the bloodshed.
Soaemias, embracing her son and holding him tight, perished with him.
Their heads were cut off and their bodies, stripped naked, were dragged all over the city.
The mother's corpse was then dumped, somewhere or other.
Alexander Severus became Emperor aged 13, even younger than his predecessor had been.
His mother and grandmother would pull the strings.
The writer Herodian says that Alexander was allowed the title of Emperorbut the control of affairs was in the hands of his women.
But his mother, Mamaea, soon made a momentous mistake.
On his deathbed, the founder of the dynasty, Septimius Severus, had advised his heirs to be generous to the army and ignore everyone else.
It was a rather grim acknowledgement of the realities of third-century Roman politics, but a reality nevertheless.
And now, Mamaea suffered for not recognising it.
Once her son was Emperor, Mamaea ignored Septimius's advice.
She became mean and penny-pinching.
Over the next decade, dissent and anger within the army grew.
In AD 235, legions on the Northern Frontier staged a mutiny.
Alexander and Mamaea arrived with an army to stamp it out.
They failed.
Herodian tells us the rebels urged Alexander's soldiers to desert "the tight-fisted woman and the timid youth under his mother's thumb.
" It is said that soldiers eventually found the Emperor in a tent, clinging to his mother.
Alexander and Julia Mamaea were both murdered.
Alexander, Herodian tells us, was celebrated for his good deeds and benevolence.
His reign might have been famously successful if his mother's tight-fisted avarice hadn't brought disgrace upon him.
The influence of the women from Syria had finally come to an end.
Almost a century later, a very different personality would again place Roman womanhood centre stage.
She would help transform the Empire by exerting a great influence on this man, Emperor Constantine the Great.
He would use his supreme power to initiate a religious revolution.
The remarkable result would be a Christian Roman Empire.
And a crucial figure in the Empire's journey from its long pagan traditions to its Christian future was a woman who became one of the most celebrated saints of the early Church - Constantine's mother, Helena.
Helena's early life remains a mystery, shrouded in speculation.
We know little or nothing about her origins, but, arguably, in later life she changed the course of history.
It was believed that Helena played a role in converting her emperor son to Christianity and that she discovered the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified.
In the church we're sitting in, there's a wonderful image of Helena.
How important was she as a figure in the late antique and medieval Christian world? Incredibly important.
There are so many different stories told about her in so many languages from different periods.
She's very useful, I think, because so little is known about her.
She was obscure even in her own day.
She then became a figure of a sort of ideal holy woman and somehow modelled a little on Mary, as well.
And the stories that are told about her take different shapes and different contexts.
So, Ambrose, who was Bishop of Milan in the fourth century, talks interestingly about Helena's background.
He calls her a "stabularia," that she was a stable keeper, and says that she was "raised from dung to royalty.
" Hostile commentators, like pagan writers, used this to argue that she was actually a very dubious woman, and she was of low birth and possibly a prostitute.
Our best guess is that the future Saint hailed from Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.
Whatever her origins, as a young woman she met a young, ambitious, officer in the Roman army.
His name was Constantius Chlorus.
Around AD 275, the couple had a son.
They named him Constantine.
It's not clear whether Helena and Constantine's father Constantius Chlorus were ever married.
What we do know is that Constantius abandoned Helena.
His motive was political ambition in a changing Roman world.
Constantius' rise was the result of dramatic changes to the Roman Empire since the fall of Julia Domna's dynasty.
In the late third century, there was a radical reorganization.
The Empire was split in two - East and West.
Each had a senior ruler, known as The Augustus, and a junior partner and successor titled Caesar.
By AD 293, Constantius was Caesar in the western half of the empire.
In order to marry the daughter of his senior colleague, the Augustus, he cast Helena aside.
Helena then falls off the radar for 20 years.
Though it's very possible that by the time she was put aside by Constantius, she was already a Christian.
'By AD 300, Christianity was gaining ground.
Historians believe that between 5% and 10% of the Empire's population had converted to the new faith.
Helena was one of those converts, but it's not known how much contact she had with her son.
However, Constantine remained close to his father.
In AD 305, he was here at the military base in York, as Constantius led a campaign against the Picts on the ever-troublesome Northern Frontier.
A year later, Constantius died suddenly.
When Constantius died here in York in AD 306, his troops acclaimed Constantine the senior ruler - the Augustus - of the West.
He responded by gradually defeating his rivals and asserting his claim to the western half of the Empire.
Then, in AD 324, Constantine took control of the entire Roman world.
During Constantine's long rise to power, his support for Christianity grew.
Significantly, Helena was part of his life during these years.
The Hall of Constantine, in Rome's Vatican Palace, features spectacular Renaissance images of the Emperor's developing faith, his vision of the Cross before a crucial battle for control of the West in AD 312, Constantine's decisive victory at that battle, near the Milvian Bridge in Rome.
Here, his soldiers are shown displaying Christian symbols.
And, finally, Constantine's baptism as a Christian.
Overseeing all these history-changing events is his mother, Helena.
It's impossible to say how much influence Helena had over such hugely significant decisions, or in the growth of Christianity during the reign of Constantine.
But we do know she was deeply respected by her son.
Constantine gave her the title of Augusta, ranking her alongside the great imperial women of Rome's past.
Given Helena's status, her public support for the faith and that of other high-ranking women would surely have advanced the Christian cause.
In broad terms, how important were women from the upper reaches of Roman society in promoting Christianity in Helena's time, would you say? I think what was important was the role that the image of women played in popular perceptions of Christianity.
So, symbolically, they're really very important.
That's right, in terms of their sort of literary profile and images of them, that they are almost as important as men.
Makes a change.
It could be that Helena played a part in Constantine's decision, in AD 313, to declare that Christianity would be officially tolerated.
In one fell swoop, centuries of imperial persecution were brought to an end.
One direct consequence of the growing influence of Christian ideas on imperial policy was this - women became more independent.
From the time of Augustus, Roman law had penalised refusal to marry and even before that had limited female property rights.
Under Constantine, these measures were set aside because Christianity celebrated female celibacy.
Now, women could choose not to marry and could control their own wealth.
Helena was about to demonstrate the possibilities of this new female independence.
Though now almost 80, she left Rome and set off for Jerusalem on one of the first great Christian pilgrimages.
Describing Helena's journey through the Eastern provinces, the Christian writer Eusebius praised her innumerable gifts to the unclothed and unsupported poor.
Others, she set free from prisons and from mines where they laboured in harsh conditions.
The concept of "good works" of that kind would have been alien to all the imperial women who preceded her.
Even before she arrived here in Jerusalem, Helena was embodying a new age.
Helena's visit would become the stuff of legend and leave an enduring mark on Jerusalem.
This is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site of pilgrimage for Christians from all over the world.
Inside is a chapel dedicated to Helena.
She is said to have made an astonishing discovery here that led to the construction of this church.
First, Helena found the inscription placed at the head of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
With it were three crosses.
Helena now faced the problem of identifying the sacred relic.
An invalid woman was invited to touch each cross in turn.
After placing her hands on the last one, she was miraculously cured.
We will never know for certain if Helena's discovery was really the True Cross.
What matters is that early Christians believed it was.
As a character in one of John Ford's westerns has it, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
" Helena's powerful legend gained a foothold throughout the Christian world and she and the True Cross were bound together from this point on.
Helena's discovery gave her enormous prestige for centuries to come.
One of the interesting ways in which she was reused in the later Middle Ages was in Britain, where she was held to be a British princess, that she was both the daughter of Old King Cole, and a legendary ancestor of Arthur.
Even today, Helena looks down on the High Street in Colchester.
According to the enduring British legend, she was born in this Essex town.
And that gave Britons a historic connection to the Roman Empire.
The fact that she was also a Christian legitimised, if you like, the imperial Roman connection.
That's really important, isn't it? Helena did not live to see the faith she championed become the official religion of the Roman Empire.
She passed away in AD 330, with her son at her side.
Helena's remains were buried in this vast funeral casket in the Vatican Museum.
On this site, a church, The Basilica of the Holy Cross, was built to house the relics which Helena is said to have brought back to Rome.
It is one of the legacies of an extraordinary woman who earned the great title Augusta.
Not far away, there are reminders of other women who shared this distinction.
The house occupied by Livia, the first great imperial woman of Rome.
The palace where Agrippina schemed to make her son Nero emperor.
An image of an empress originally from Syria sacrificing to Rome's ancient gods.
Short distances.
But they span four centuries and many different worlds, culturally and politically.
All those worlds nevertheless bear witness to the impact of the remarkable women of ancient Rome.
Their ambitions, fears, passions, triumphs and tragedies still have the power to fascinate, thrill and occasionally shock us.
But, crucially, their stories take us to the heart of the times they inhabited, the history they shaped, and the societies they left behind them.