Livia Drusilla was born on January 30th 58 BC. She married Octavian on 17th January 38 BC, three days after the birth of her second child, Drusus.
She was granted a statue in 35 BC, but would appear to achieve prominence in the regime only much later.
Rome was a very patriarchal society. Women were not allowed into political office. Although women could socialise with men and may have had considerable influence, the Republican public sphere was male.
One sign of this is the almost complete absence of statues of mortal women from Rome. There were likely some statues of Roman women put up by communities in the empire, which we know of mainly because the second-century BC Roman moralist Cato thought such statues were a terrible idea.
Livia was the first mortal woman to be depicted with any frequency in Roman art. Most female and male portrait sculpture worked with standard body types to which a head was later added. Those heads could later become detached. There are 88 identified sculptural representations of Livia, most of which are heads.
This basanite head of Livia from the Louvre is a typical form. She has narrow mouth, clear, but not high cheek bones. Her hair is drawn tightly into a flat ‘nodus’ on the top of her head and then descends in loose curls down the side of her head. This is the first Roman woman that would be recognised from her sculpted form.
There are many hundreds of statues of Roman women from across the empire. Almost all are later than the Livia heads.
Statues of Livia were erected all across the empire. She was often associated with the male members of the family. Statue groupings might include Augustus and Tiberius, perhaps other members of the imperial family prominent in the period (Agrippa, Gaius, Lucius, Germanicus), but also Livia and also Julia.
The question is not how Livia is portrayed in art, but why is she there at all?
Livia achieved increasing prominence as the reign progressed. The Ara Pacis was dedicated on January 30th, 9 BC, her birthday.
She likely appears in the parade of the family on the outside of the monument and it has been suggested that she was the model for the goddess of fertility (Ceres/Tellus/Italia/Pax) also depicted.
The goddess is certainly a fashionable Augustan lady.
Livia’s increasing public role paralleled the rise of her sons. When Tiberius had celebrated his victories over the Pannonians and given a public banquet for the men, Julia and Livia had held a parallel event for the women. With the death of Drusus in 9 BC, Livia became the focus of public mourning. Statues and other honours were voted for her (Dio, 55.2).
In 7 BC, a major portico was dedicated in Rome in her name, the Porticus Liviae. It was one of the larger and more luxurious buildings in the city. Strabo’s Geography 5.3.8 claims that Livia together with Octavia, Agrippa and Augustus himself was one of the major contributors to the beauty of the city and describes the Porticus as one of its wonders. It contained works of art.
It may also have contained a Temple to Concord, opened on June 11th (though the year is not certain) (Ovid, Fasti 6. 637-48). The day was associated with Fortuna and the Mother Goddess. As with Tiberius and Drusus, the emphasis on Concord pointed to familial harmony.
Livia became increasingly prominent after Augustus’s death. She became Julia Augusta (Dio, 56.46). She appeared on coins with her son and received lavish honours when she died in AD 29 (Dio, 58.2; Tacitus, Annales 5.1). The senators called her mother of the country, a title which paralleled that of Augustus.
Livia’s prominence in Roman public life was without precedence. Her depictions and role attest to the development of an imperial family. This family were jointly responsible for the state and jointly ruled. She could be seen as representative of her sons and her husband and was certainly honoured in consequence of the achievements of her sons. But this does not account entirely for her prominence. She was also a mater patriae (mother of the nation) symbolically if not in title. She came to represent the role of the good woman in the Roman state. But that state was also being depicted as a form of family. She was the mother of an imperial family which could be identified with the state. She was thus not just the mother of Tiberius and Germanicus, but of all Romans.
In the Roman family, the father was the primary authority. But the mother was also influential and expected to be treated with respect. She was a person of power. In understanding the Roman state through this familial logical, the qualifications for rule shifted. This was not a complete change in political ideology, but a gradual change in focus. Qualifications for rule had centred on masculine status, on public standing as ascertained through election, on achievements, and on the history of one’s family. In the Augustan period, it depended on membership of the family.
Consequently, Livia was the first of the imperial women. Her power paved the way for the prominence of Agrippina under Tiberius and then the wives and mothers of the various Julio-Claudian emperors.
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