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A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT HEAD OF THE EMPRESS LIVIA
A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT HEAD OF THE EMPRESS LIVIA
A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT HEAD OF THE EMPRESS LIVIA
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THE PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN GENTLEMAN
A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT HEAD OF THE EMPRESS LIVIA

JULIO-CLAUDIAN, CIRCA 1ST CENTURY A.D.

Details
A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT HEAD OF THE EMPRESS LIVIA
JULIO-CLAUDIAN, CIRCA 1ST CENTURY A.D.
13 3/8 in. (34 cm.) high
Provenance
with Guy Ladrière, Paris.
Acquired by the current owner from the above, 1999.

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Lot Essay

“Livia, — as a mother, a curse to the realm; as a stepmother, a curse to the house of the Caesars” writes the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus in the 1st book of his Annals of the history of the Empire. This acerbic description of Rome’s first Empress is emblematic of both contemporary and later attitudes towards Livia, who has proven to be one of Roman history’s most controversial figures. The image of the machinating political wife, who will stop at nothing (including murder) to assure her husband’s (and thus her own) ascendance into political hegemony, originates with Livia. Or, at least that is the image of Livia put forth by Roman historians like Tacitus and Cassius Dio. As such, characters ranging from Lady MacBeth to Claire Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards find their precedent in Tacitus’ Livia, this so-called curse to the realm.

It is necessary to understand a more nuanced picture of Rome’s first Empress than this. To do so, it is helpful to start with her biography: born Livia Drusilla in 58 B.C. to the patrician gens Claudia, Livia met Augustus (then called Octavian) in 38 B.C. when she was heavily pregnant with the second child by her current husband (her elder child being the future Emperor, Tiberius). Augustus, also married at the time, divorced his wife Scribonia to wed Livia in 39 B.C., waiving the traditional interlude period. Thus, their union began with a slight tinge of scandal. However, their 51 year marriage seemed to have been a devoted one, with Livia remaining faithful to her husband until his death in 14 A.D.

During Augustus’ lifetime, the question of succession dominated the Imperial couples’ concerns. Augustus adopted three heirs, each connected to him by his only daughter Julia, and each tragically predeceased the Emperor. This led to Augustus’ adoption of Livia’s son, Tiberius, in 4 A.D and guaranteed Livia’s place in the dynastic succession (Caligula, Claudius and Nero were all her descendants). This scenario is the one that most informs Livia’s villainous image, with Cassius Dio intimating that Livia went as far as to poison Marcellus, the first of these heirs. Both Tacitus and Cassius Dio discuss rumors that she even gave the elderly Augustus poisoned figs so as to usher in the reign of Tiberius.

But it is important to remember this manipulative and murderous conception of Livia originates from the writings of a set of historians that were themselves disenfranchised from the creation of the Imperial system. The incredible upheaval that followed Augustus’ defeat of Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and the subsequent ascendance of the Principate marks perhaps the most significant shift in Roman political history. While the Republican era was categorized by political activity transpiring in the public sphere (albeit limited to mainly wealthy male participants), the existence of a single emperor meant that government affairs were no longer observable events, and those closest to the Emperor wielded considerable influence. As such, this novel scenario was ripe for speculation as to the involvement of the Empress. Additionally it effectively reduced the political clout and agency of the senatorial class, to which both Tacitus and Cassius Dio belonged thus giving them ample reason to resent those who benefited from the new order.

The irony is that while Livia is perhaps the most extensively written about woman from this time period, extricating objective information about her biography is frustratingly complex. The visual record offers an alternative path for examination. D.E.E. Kleiner writes in I, Claudia that “portraits of Livia were meant to depict her as the ideal Roman woman—the one whose virtuous behavior and fertility exemplified the tenets of moral and marriage legislation, and who served as a paradigm for all other Roman women” (p. 37). Indeed, portraits of Livia are highly classicized with idealizing features, based on sculptures of Greek goddesses from the 5th century B.C. Kleiner notes this classicizing style promotes the Augustan agenda by associating the regime with the golden age of Periclean Athens. In addition to her idealized features, Livia is also shown with a simple nodus hairstyle, a roll of hair over her forehead with a coiled braid or chignon resting at the nape of her neck. This austere coiffure, as well as the overall lack of other forms of ornamentation (jewelry, diadems etc.) stands in stark contrast to the portraiture of Ptolemaic queens such as her contemporary, Cleopatra VII. In this way, Livia’s portrait embodies the Augustan feminine virtues of modesty and chastity, also providing an interesting contrast to Tacitus’ “curse to the realm.”

A systematic study of Livia’s portraiture has been undertaken by E. Bartman in her book, Portraits of Livia, Imaging the Imperial Woman in Augustan Rome. Bartman identifies four distinctive portrait types of the Empress that correspond to different points in time. The most prolific example is called the “Faiyum type,” an official portrait developed in the 20s B.C. (when Livia was in her 30s), named after an example found in the Faiyum region of Egypt, which establishes the basic physiognomic features of the Empress, including a slightly arched forehead, strong nose with a bump on the bridge, small mouth with curving lips and a sturdy chin. It also displays the aforementioned nodus hairstyle. The portrait presented here does not belong to the Faiyum group, but rather likely is a posthumous image of Livia, created after her deification as “Livia Augusta” by her grandson Claudius in 41 A.D. Bartman writes that deification “posed a challenge to sculptors who had to endow [Livia] with an independent personality within the common identity and attributes of a diva…A favored solution was to give Livia an unabashedly Olympian appearance” (op. cit. pp. 126-127). Certainly, the perfectly ovular face and luscious wavy hair in the present example evoke more of the divine than the human. For similar examples of Livia depicted as a goddess, see the over-lifesized head now in Copenhagen (op. cit., fig. 100) and one in the collection of Holkham Hall (E. Angelicoussis, The Holkham Hall Collection of Classical Sculptures, pp. 107-110, no. 17, pl. 36).

As such, while our textual sources speak to Machivellian machinations, the visual record tells more of a woman whose imagery helped promote her husband’s specific political agenda and in the process created a model of female portraiture in the new Imperial age. From evil temptress to Olympian goddess, Livia’s various recorded personas span the gamut, and while we as students of history may never know much about the woman herself, it is clear that she remains one of the most fascinating figures of Roman history—female or otherwise.

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