Livia: Rome’s First Empress, Force to Be Reckoned With

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Location of Porticus of Livia in Ancient Rome / Wikimedia Commons


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By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

“Financing schools has become a problem about equal,” wrote The New York Times on June 20, 1959, “to having an elephant in the living room.  It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.”  So began the earliest known use of a phrase that would find its way into the lexicon of popular idiomatic expressions.  Such an “elephant” was prevalent in second and first century BCE Rome, a time just following the peak of the Republic and moving into its initial golden age (Pax Romana) and eventual demise as it gave way to the imperial system beginning 27 years before the dawn of the Common Era.  The virtues, deeds, contributions, and military victories of Augustus, Agrippa, Octavian, Marcellus, and other men would be lauded in art and architecture as well as writing and appointments.  Kept in their shadows were the actions and contributions of aristocratic and imperial women who equally contributed to the political and social environment of Rome.  These included the wife of the Augusts himself, Livia.  Both Livia and the sister of Augustus, Octavia, were granted sacrosanctity.  This made them free of assault and trespass and gave them a holy status.  Livia, being named mater patriae (mother of her country) as well as princeps femina (the first female citizen along with Augustus as princeps as the first male citizen) went on to take part in political events and contribute to the new social ambience Rome developed in the Augustan age.

In the Roman tradition of austerity, especially within the construct of the moral restructuring of the society under Augustan reforms, women of Rome were expected to maintain a happy existence in those shadows.  Though not seen simply as vessels for purposes of procreation and chained to the front door of their homes as their earlier Greek counterparts, political participation and any social interaction beyond entertaining guests and shopping in the markets would be considered a taboo.  But with her sacrosanct status and wealth, Livia was able to operate with other women as a feminist of the day both privately and publicly.  Her home with Augustus on the Palatine contains frescoes in the tablinium in which she conducted her own affairs not only in regard to the land she owned and any other financial interests in which she was vested but also in her input in political matters.  But those elite Romans who had access to her in such matters would not be the only citizens who would benefit from the results of her patronage of art and architecture.  “There was no more public type of architecture,” wrote Kleiner, “in the age of Augustus than porticus architecture.”  Most porticoes, such that of Livia in Rome, were open to the public for artistic appreciation as well as a visual impression of the glory of Rome.  She was recognized later in life as well on the first sestertius to feature a carpentum, a ceremonial cart in which she was granted permission to ride along with the honor or lex inlia theatralis – special seating in Roman theaters reserved for senators.  The sestertius represents a day of supplicato (thanksgiving) named for her recovery after a long illness in her later years (Diane Favro, The Urban Image of Augustan Rome, 245).

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Coin with Livia / Wikimedia Commons

Livia and other women who by means of status and wealth were able to contribute to Roman culture were the proverbial elephants in the living room.  Their contributions were not recognized in writing such as the self-serving Res Gestae of Augustus, and the tradition of keeping women as secondary citizens continued.  But thanks to the tradition of porticoes being named after their builders, as well as their political and social participation being noted in the writings of other historians of the time, the legacy of Livia and other women in Rome’s visual culture stands on its own.  In spite of the best efforts of the masculine double-standard of the time, later including even her own son (Tiberius) attempting to withhold recognition and titles, that which was given to Rome by the likes of Livia was, to borrow from the Times, “…so big you just can’t ignore it.”

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