Julia Domna was born in Emesa (modern day Homs) in Syria. She was the youngest daughter of the high-priest of Ba'al Gaius Julius Bassianus and sister to Julia Maesa, and she had two nieces: Julia Mamaea, mother of Severus Alexander, and Julia Soaemias, mother of Elagabalus. Her ancestors were Priest Kings of the famous temple of Elagabalus. The family had enormous wealth and was promoted to Roman senatorial aristocracy. Before her marriage, Julia inherited the estate of her paternal great-uncle Julius Agrippa, a former leading Centurion.
In the late 180s, Julia married future emperor the Libyan Roman general Septimius Severus, and together they had two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus in 188 and Publius Septimius Geta in 189.
After the Roman emperor Commodus was murdered without an heir in 192 CE, so many contenders rushed for the throne, including Septimius Severus, Julia's husband. An elder senator, Pertinax, was appointed by the praetorian guard emperor of Rome. But when Pertinax would not meet the guard's demands, he was murdered, too. His son-in-law Iulianus was called to Rome. Iulianus was appointed emperor, but Septimius Severus, coming from the north into Rome, overthrew Iulianus and had him executed. Septimius claimed the title of emperor in 193. Co-ruling Rome with Clodius Albinus, Septimius declared his sons AVGVSTVS, and defeated Albinus and his British legions. Septimius remained at war with an eastern rival to the throne, Niger, until he defeated Niger's forces in 201 CE, establishing himself, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, and so Julia Domna became Empress consort.
Unlike most consorts, Julia Domna remarkably accompanied her husband on his campaigns and stayed in camp and not at home. . During this time, honorary titles were granted to Julia Domna reminiscent of titles given to Faustina the Younger, including MATER CASTORVM, or mother of the camp , MATER AVGVSTVS, mother of Augustus, and MATER PATRIAE, or mother of the fatherland..
One of her biggest achievements in her tenure is supporting Philosophy and helping it grow, as Julia Domna used her power and authority to protect philosophers and she helped philosophy to flourish in Rome after emperors such as Nero banishing Philosophy and presecuting it, and she also was a patron of learning and surrounded herself with philosophers, writers and artists. The empress was also involved in many building projects, most notably the aedes Vestae after the fire of Commodus in 192 CE destroyed areas of the temple and the home, or Atrium, of the Vestal Virgins. Based on numismatic evidence, historical authors, and a laconic inscription found in situ, most scholars agree that Julia Domna funded restorations to the site during Septimius Severus's reign.
Julia Domna was respected and viewed positively for most of her tenure, as indicators and evidence include the coins minted with her portrait, mentioning her with several honorary titles and also simply as "Julia Augusta" , as Julia is said to have exceeded all other Roman empresses in titles and honours.
Her good reputation between the people didn't prevent the Empress from being subjects of gossip, accusations and intrigues, as Julia was often involved in intrigues and had plenty of political enemies, who accused her of treason and adultery. There was a report that she was having a romantic affair with the legendary bandit leader Bulla Felix, her husband's nemesis, whilst he was away in Britain. None of these accusations were proven, but she was linked to Bulla Felix's capture in Liguria. Despite this, Severus continued to favour his wife and insisted on her company in the campaign against the Britons after Bulla Felix's capture, that started in 208. When Severus died in 211 in Eboracum (York), Julia became the mediator between their two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were to rule as joint emperors, according to their father's wishes expressed in his will. The two young men were never fond of each other and quarrelled frequently. Geta was murdered by Caracalla's soldiers in the same year.
Caracalla was now sole emperor, but his relations with his mother were difficult, as attested by several sources, probably because of his involvement in Geta's murder. Nevertheless, Julia accompanied Caracalla in his campaign against the Parthian empire in 217.
During this trip, Caracalla was assassinated and succeeded (briefly) by Macrinus. Julia chose to commit suicide after hearing about the rebellion, perhaps a decision hastened by the fact that she was suffering from breast cancer. Her body was brought to Rome and placed in the Sepulcrum C. et L. Caesaris (perhaps a separate chamber in the Mausoleum of Augustus). Later, however, both her bones and those of Geta were transferred by her sister Julia Maesa to the Mausoleum of Hadrian.
After her death, Julia Domna and her sister, Julia Maesa were deified and worshipped in Emesa.
Julia Domna is also remembered due to the biography of Appollonius of Tyana, as it was at the behest of Julia that Philostratus wrote his now famous Life of Apollonius of Tyana., as if it were not for Julia, there would have been very little surviving information about the philosopher. Julia is thought to have died before Philostratus could finish his work of eight volumes.
In Syria she is fondly remembered as a strong willed empress and a patron of learning and the arts, and Syrians view the fact that a Syrian woman rose to the Roman empire's throne as a part of Syrian nationalism.