‘When I saw her, I stopped in my tracks’, says Alexandra Olsman, Antiquities specialist at Christie’s in New York, of this portrait bust of the Roman Empress Livia (58 BC-29 AD). ‘It’s pretty much exactly what you want from a marble portrait head.’
While portrait heads of Livia exist, they’re rare. The Antiquities team took it in with the idea that it might be a representation of Livia. When Olsman was finally able to view it, the specialist recalls, ‘there was something about it, especially the shape of the upper face, that made me think it could be Livia. But we needed to do more research. When it came to New York, that’s when we really hit the books and found some compelling parallels between this portrait bust and depictions of the Empress from the time of her grandson, the Emperor Claudius.’
‘Livia was the first Empress of Rome,’ explains Olsman, ‘but more than that, she was one of the most controversial and intriguing characters in all of Roman history.’ Her 51-year relationship with the future Emperor Augustus began with a tinge of scandal. Born Livia Drusilla in 58 BC, she met Augustus (then called Octavian) in 38 BC, while heavily pregnant with her second child by her first husband.
Augustus divorced his then-wife Scribonia, marrying Livia one year later. Livia was by Augustus’s side in 14 BC when he created the Principate — generally regarded as the most significant political shift in Roman history — and stayed with him until his death in 14 AD.
Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio wrote extensively about Livia, depicting her as scheming, ruthless and aggressive — someone who would stop at nothing to consolidate her husband’s power. ‘They intimate that she poisoned Augustus’s heirs, or had them killed, so that she could put her own son, Tiberius, on the throne,’ Olsman says. ‘Whether or not it’s true, that’s what happened. Augustus had at least three heirs who died under mysterious circumstances.’
Augustus adopted Tiberius in 4 AD, assuring Livia’s place in the dynastic succession: Caligula, Claudius and Nero were all her descendants.
Livia’s various recorded personas ran the gamut from evil temptress to Olympian goddess, and representations of the Empress likewise shifted during and after her lifetime. Her official portrait in sculpture, developed in the 20s BC, denotes a slightly arched forehead, strong nose, small mouth and sturdy chin. Her hair is styled in a nodus — a roll of hair over the forehead, with a coiled braid at the nape of her neck. The relative austerity of this likeness embodied the Augustan feminine virtues of modesty and chastity.
The portrait bust being offered in New York is probably posthumous, created after Livia’s deification as Livia Augusta by her grandson Claudius in 41 AD. Here, notes Olsman, ‘her features are more idealised. Her hair in particular is a luscious wavy mass that recalls Olympian goddesses sculpted in the 5th century BC.’
In ancient Rome, Olsman stresses, art was often used as a political messaging system, of which this is a very good example. In deifying Livia — and by extension, himself — Claudius both rehabilitated his grandmother’s legacy and shored up his own legitimacy.
The Roman marble portrait bust of Livia will be offered in the Antiquities sale on 25 October at Christie’s in New York, as part of the Fall Classics season.