Research Update on Portraiture of Livia

As I’ve been researching my topic throughout the summer, I keep finding more questions than answers.  This research is laying the groundwork for my honors thesis on the portraiture of Livia, the first Roman empress, so I’ll start writing in earnest once the school year starts.  Fortunately, this timeline has given me plenty of room to explore scholarly rabbit holes and to develop a strong background in my topic.  To fully ground my main argument about the divine likenesses of Livia in art and literature, I’ve found that I need to have a grasp on topics ranging from portrait production to gender roles in ancient Rome.  It can be frustrating to spend an entire day looking at sources that probably won’t make it into my final bibliography, but I know I’ll write a better thesis if I appreciate these nuanced aspects of Roman art.

For example, as I’ve considered Livia’s divine likenesses, I became curious about not just how the art was viewed but also how it was intended to be viewed.  That is, who commissioned that art, and did they intend to present Livia as more than mortal?  This question led me to different sources on the production of Roman portraits of the late republican and early imperial eras, and I sifted through lots of information that didn’t pertain to Livia.  Still, this work was worth it because I learned about shifts between republican and imperial art, such as emperor Augustus’ new emphasis on artificially youthful and idealized portraits.  The amount of homogeneity among the portraits of the imperial family, both men and women, throughout the empire suggests control of what images were being made.  Such control undoubtedly came from Rome, and many scholars like Elizabeth Bartman think that political figures personally cultivated their own portrait, which wasn’t necessarily a physiognomic likeness but instead an image crafted to convey a certain message.  Livia, for example, may have aimed to look dignified, virtuous, and capable as the wife and mother to emperors in her portraits.  Such details suggest that any divine representations would have been carefully controlled by the state, which further suggests that the newly formed imperial family wanted to set themselves apart from politicians of the past and show that they were naturally endowed with gifts to rule.  Not all of the analysis I did on this topic can make it into my thesis, but this is one example that shows how helpful it is to conduct wide research and follow different paths.  Even if not every path is directly relevant to my thesis topic, it can still be helpful in expanding my comfort as a scholar in this field, which will indirectly translate into greater confidence while writing my thesis.

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