There’s a modern trend regarding popular female singers. Even if they aren’t opera stars, the ones who feel the love of millions are often called divas. An Italian term meaning “prima donna” (literally, first or lead singer), diva is closely related to the words divine and divinity.
Several thousand years, however, if you wanted to become a real diva—a goddess worshipped and loved by everyone—you generally had to be dead. Still worth it, most gals would argue, as the apotheosis of a woman did not happen all that often.
In the first century B.C., one extraordinary woman, queenly in manner, razor-sharp in intellect, and expert in manipulation, managed to gain apotheosis—goddesshood—in her lifetime. Her name? Livia. Like many modern celebrities, she was known by one name. She was the wife of Rome’s first emperor, Octavian Augustus, and saw him out of his long life.
One especially memorable scene in the classic I, Claudius series on BBC television years ago featured Roman empress Livia as an old woman, pleading with her slimy young grandson Caligula, “I want to be a goddess—promise me that when I die, you’ll make me a goddess!”
Caligula responded as you might expect, with spite: “You’re a disgusting, smelly, wicked harridan! Why would I do that? You murderous old bag, you belong with Hades!”
In spite of Caligula’s scoffing, Livia got her wish. And she didn’t have to die to get it. She had the most splendid luck; by A.D. 14, she’d become a goddess with cults in cities around the empire: on Lesbos, on the island of Cyprus, in the city of Pergamum in Asia Minor, even in Athens. Not only was she worshipped there, coins were issued from various mints with the words Thea Livia—Goddess Livia—on them, with her profile. What could be more heavenly? When she died a decade later, in A.D. 29, she also received apotheosis from Emperor Claudius and the Roman senate. Modern diva-hood just can’t measure up to that.
Livia was the first but not the last lady of Rome to be deified.
When Julia Drusilla, the favorite sister of Caligula, died at age twenty-two, he deified her, adding panthea, or “all goddess,” to her title, and mourning in highly dramatic fashion. Was it love? Or guilt? Probably both, since Caligula was thought to have molested all three of his sisters from childhood.
Another Julia, this one a Flavia, the daughter of Emperor Titus, was married to one man and ostentatiously sleeping with another—that sick puppy known as Emperor Domitian. Julia, dead at twenty-three, may have expired from an abortion forced on her by the emperor. Domitian had her deified; later, for his treatment of Julia and other crimes and cruelties, he was murdered.
The wildest quartet of diva-loving Julias hailed from Roman Syria. After they hit Rome around 218 A.D., the city was never the same. Julia Domna and Julia Maesa were sisters from a family of wealth and importance in Syria; the former married Septimius Severus and became empress. When Julia Domna’s “bad apple” son Caracalla murdered the other apple, lovable son Geta—in her arms, no less—Julia had to suck it up. To survive, she became co-regent and handled Caracalla’s paperwork, including all that hate mail about brotherly slaughter. When he in turn was assassinated while taking off his pants, she took it hard—following him in death within a few weeks.
Her sister Julia Maesa had grand plans to restore the luster of the dynasty—and who better to do it than her darling fourteen-year-old grandson Elagabalus? After paying a grotesque sum to bribe the Roman legions, she and her daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, left Syria and headed for Rome with the teen in tow. At first he was no trouble, too busy with his flowery gowns and his jeweled shoes and touching up his eyepaint. They entered Rome to cheering crowds that soon were scratching their heads at this goofy kid, running in front of a four-horse chariot pulling a large black stone, symbol of the Syrian sun god.
Soaemias, his mother, soon tired of her son’s bizarre activities: getting up at dawn to sacrifice a herd of cattle to the sun god. His insistence on marrying one of the vestal virgins—what a stink that raised! His nightly outings, too, sometimes in drag, sometimes playing a whore. She and her mom Julia Maesa tried to reason with him, but it was hopeless. She never knew if he was dating a girl or a fellow or an orangutan, for that matter. Once Elagabalus fell for a Carian slave and played the female—even encouraged the fellow to abuse him physically.
Luckily, Julian Soaemias and her mom had gotten some nice honors in Rome; they were given honorific Augusta titles. They even got invited to attend meetings of the Roman senate. Until they’d sat in the Senate once, they didn’t realize how dull this governing business was. Just for giggles, she and her mom put together a Senate of Women, but stuffy Romans looked crosseyed at it as well.
Before long Romans from senators to plebeians were completely steamed at the antics, sexual and otherwise, of the teenage Elagabalus. The Julias, mother and daughter, agreed he was troubled, but they were sure he’d grow out of it. Just in case, they forced Elagabalus to “adopt” his twelve-year-old cousin, Severus Alexander, and name him the heir.
During his reign as emperor, this transvestite teen demanded sexual reassignment surgery. Unfortunately his medicos lacked vagina-building skills.
A good thing too, because within two years Elagabalus and his mother Julia Soaemias were brutally rubbed out by irate Roman soldiers. Young Alexander, with his mother Julia Mamaea and his grandmother Julia Maesa as co-regents, wasn’t nearly as outrageous as the late unlamented Julia Soaemias and her son. Romans breathed a grateful collective sigh of relief. Thus in A.D. 223, when Maesa the matriarch died, she was given diva goddess status. She joined her older sister Julia Domna, who’d been made a goddess by Elagabalus—the one almost normal “deed” he’d accomplished in his short reign.
Now the last Julia standing, Julia Mamaea set out to restore order and moderation to the regime. Since acting as regent for young Severus Alexander took no time at all, she had ample opportunity to dream up and then assume the most grandiose titles ever given to a Roman woman. She began with “mother of the emperor, the army, the senate, and the homeland” but finally settled on the pithy and less cumbersome “mother of the whole human race.” (It sounds even better in Latin: mater universi generic humani.)
Keeping in mind the fates of her Julia kinfolk, Mamaea picked some wise advisers, amassed an indecent amount of wealth, kept a tight leash on son Alexander’s sex life, and—wisest move of all—without fanfare of any sort, sent Elagabalus’s detested sungod and his shiny black stone back to Syria. Nevertheless, she and son Alexander were not fated to live long and prosper; assassination by soldiers also awaited them in 235.