Update on the Portraiture of Livia

Historical Challenges:

As I’ve been studying the portraiture of Imperial Rome’s first empress, I’ve encountered several common difficulties presented to a scholar of the distant past.  Because the artifacts I’m studying are two-thousand years old, they have a long history of being damaged, altered, misattributed, or generally misunderstood.  This unreliability makes it difficult for me to make my argument that Livia was represented as divine, because I don’t want to base my assertions on partial truths.  For example, some statues of Livia in which she is wearing a diadem, which is often a symbol of divinity or at least a comparison to an established Roman god, show signs of having been modified after the statues’ original dedication so that the diadem was added later.  Livia was formally deified roughly twelve years after her death by the fourth Roman emperor, Claudius, in 41 CE, so establishing a pre-41 CE date of divine representation is crucial to my argument that she was seen as more than mortal during her own lifetime and just after her death.

Another challenge is that the contexts or accompanying inscriptions for statues are often lost, which could have provided a wealth of information.  If one knew, for instance, that a statue of Livia was placed in a temple or placed above an inscription calling her the name of a goddess or simply “diva” (divine), then that would suggest she was venerated like a goddess.  Unfortunately, due to early and poorly recorded archaeological exploration of Rome, many statues do not survive with such contextualizing information.

In order to overcome the challenges presented by the obscuring effect of time, I have broadened my scope beyond just statues.  Some statues of Livia do provide sufficient information to make an argument about her divinity, but many other statues of her seem to suggest no special status beyond that of empress.  This is to be expected, as Livia’s depictions would have evolved over the course of her lifetime, and not every occasion for a statue would have warranted a divine depiction.  Thus, to extend my argument, I am also examining gems, monuments, coins, and other physical items that speak to Livia’s representation.  For example, there is a coin from 22 CE in which Livia’s portrait is accompanied by the inscription “Salus Augusta,” with Salus being a Roman goddess and Augusta being a link to her husband Augustus, who died and was formally deified in 14 CE.  This artifact demonstrates that an image of Livia that likened her to divine figures was circulating throughout the empire on something as common as a coin.  I am also considering literary descriptions of Livia from the early imperial period, as these can help flesh out public opinion of her.  Of course, ancient authors do not adhere to the same objective scholarly standards that modern academics do, so everything they write must be considered biased to some degree.  This bias is yet another example of the historical challenges presented by this line of research, but with a broad survey and an open mind, I’m confident that I can make my argument without compromising any facts.

Comments

  1. oliviavandewoude says:

    Hello Lillian,

    I admire that you were able to recognize the limitations of the statues of Livia that you have been studying, which are 2,000+ years old and have been, in your words, “damaged, altered, misattributed, or generally misunderstood.” It seems that expanding your evidence beyond statues, to other physical items like coins, was a wise decision. I commend you for this flexibility in your research, and for seeking out a variety of evidence for your claim that Livia was perceived as divine both during her lifetime, as well as after she died.

    Given your observation that coins reflected Livia’s divine image, with inscriptions like “Salus Augusta” that linked Livia to the goddess Salus, I was curious to know about your thoughts on the cameos of Livia. Is there a trend of representing Livia’s divinity in cameos? Or in other Roman jewelry from the same time? Upon completing some quick research, I came across “Cameo with Livia holding a bust of Augustus,” depicting Livia as Venus Genetrix, but I could not determine if she was popularly rendered a goddess was in jewelry at the time.

    Thank you for sharing your fascinating findings, and best of luck with the rest of your project.

    Best, Olivia Vande Woude

  2. oliviavandewoude says:

    Hello Lillian,

    I admire that you were able to recognize the limitations of the statues of Livia that you have been studying, which are 2,000+ years old and have been, in your words, “damaged, altered, misattributed, or generally misunderstood.” It seems that expanding your evidence beyond statues, to other physical items like coins, was a wise decision. I commend you for being flexible in your research, and for seeking out a variety of evidence for your claim that Livia was perceived as divine both during her lifetime, as well as after she died.

    Given your observation that coins reflected Livia’s divine image, with inscriptions like “Salus Augusta” that linked Livia to the goddess Salus, I was curious to know about your thoughts on the cameos of Livia. Is there a trend of representing Livia’s divinity in cameos? Or in other Roman jewelry from the same time? Upon completing some quick research, I came across “Cameo with Livia holding a bust of Augustus,” depicting Livia as Venus Genetrix, but I could not determine if she was popularly rendered a goddess specifically in jewelry at the time.

    Thank you for sharing your fascinating findings, and best of luck with the rest of your project.

    Best, Olivia Vande Woude

  3. It must be frustrating to have so many of the artifacts you are studying be incomplete of show signs of modification. I hope broadening your scope allows you to draw some conclusions.
    Would you only need one artifact to confirm that Livia was considered divine before and/or shortly after her death? Or are you hoping to find several such examples in case one was a fluke or was somehow modified without scholars noticing, etc?

  4. Having incomplete artifacts has to be really frustrating. Having to broaden your scope can be really difficult. It can add a lot of unexpected research time that you may or may not have time to complete. I found one of the hardest things about summer research was trying o estimate how much is possible to get done during a certain time span.

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