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Julia Domna by Ellie Carrier, English Literature Student at the University of York

We recently welcomed English Literature students from the University of York to the Yorkshire Museum for a tour of our Roman galleries. Following the visit, Ellie Carrier wrote this blog exploring how ancient literature can change our understanding of objects.

In the 21st century, the fashion industry is influenced by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Gigi Hadid and Zendaya. The impact of these individuals on trends is incredibly significant, and while in some cases these are multifaceted individuals with outside interests and talents, they have nothing on their Roman counterpart Julia Domna.

Julia Domna was a Roman empress who came to York between 208-211 CE with her husband Septimeus Severus after fleeing Scotland in light of growing political tensions. With them and their status, they brought wealth and notoriety to the city of York, which extends into present day. Julia Domna leaves behind her a vast legacy, as well as some very interesting items inspired by her image. One of these objects is a face urn believed to have been created in her image.

The very existence of the urn speaks of Julia Domna’s influence on Roman society and communicates her significance to a modern observer through its survival. Often we see the faces of men, whether that be emperors, philosophers or gods, given permanence and praise on artefacts such as these, so it is incredibly important that we also have an example of a mortal woman who has been granted the same honour.

One might question how archaeologists can identify Julia Domna as the muse for this urn. The answer to this question lies in an understanding of fashion trends. Just like many celebrities today have iconic ‘looks’ that make them recognisable, Domna was known for wearing her hair in a low bun as is depicted by the elegant and precise carvings on the urn. She popularised this hairstyle within Roman society, and thus is notorious for this iconic look. Along with the fact the urn was found in York, where Domna resided, this gives historians enough evidence to determine that she is indeed the intended depiction of this art.

This type of urn would have been produced between 200 and 300 AD during the Roman period, which aligns with the time Domna spent in York. This allows us to estimate that it was likely made around 210 AD during her period of residence. Made from ceramic, it would have first been shaped on a clay wheel and then a sgraffito technique (scratching patterns into clay) is likely to have been used to create the resemblance to Domna. It then would have been glazed, and likely sold commercially within the city, as York was one of of the few bestowed charter markets in the country at the time.

The magnetic pull of this object derives not from its physical creation, the intricacy of craftsmanship or the materials it is made from. Julia Domna is the most powerful force impacting the intriguing nature of this urn, and her life is one that can be viewed as a feminist achievement due to her accomplishments and influence. Not only was she a fashion icon, but she was a patron of philosophy. She gave the encouragement Philostratus, a writer at the time specialising in Greecian works within a Roman landscape, needed to write his work The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. In short, Domna’s influence is an undeniable reason why her face ended up on pots such as these, and should be appreciated and admired within modern day society. Truly an icon in her own time, Julia Domna would surely make the cover of Vogue and influence millions if she were alive and thriving today.

Further Reading:

“Face Urn | York Museums Trust”. Www.Yorkmuseumstrust.Org.Uk, 2023, https://www.yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/collections/search/item/?id=1383&search_query=c2Vh cmNoX3RleHQ9anVsaWErZG9tbmE%3D Accessed 20 Mar 2023.

“History of York Market” https://www.visityork.org/history-of-york-market Accessed 23rd June 2023

“Julia Domna | Roman emperor | Britannica”. Www.Britannica.Com, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julia-Domna Accessed 20 Mar 2023.