Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 27, 1999
Elizabeth Bartman Portraits of Livia: Imaging the Imperial Woman in Augustan Rome New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 242 pp.; 194 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (0521583942)

As a monograph on the portraits of Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus, this book reflects current scholarly interests in Augustan art and in the representation of women in the Roman Empire. Although the literature on Augustan Rome is grounded in the political contexts of the monuments, the author is to be admired for casting a wider net than is typical in the scholarship on Roman portraiture, which tends to be technical in its relentless classification of portrait types and variants based, for the most part, on hairstyles (counting the locks across the forehead, etc.). Rather than merely arranging a chronology of portrait types correlated with the subject’s biography, Bartman examines the portraits of Rome’s first lady to assess “a new visual language of female power” (p. xxi), i.e., to delineate the problem of honoring one who lacks the requisites of the public portrait, the male career of military service and political office, and whose ties to power are through marriage and family. The elevation of Augustus’s wife to such prominence was fraught with difficulties, the first of which was avoiding the lavish displays associated with Hellenistic dynasties. It is easy to forget this point, especially since the portraits are immediately recognizable (and, perhaps, too familar) with their clear contours, regular features, and standard coiffures—the image of Livia appears to have been inevitable, crafted in one stroke, an instant classic that needed only minor adjustments over the years. The book’s organization into chapters on method and themes (“Identifying Livia,” “Facial Signs/Body Language”) and on the changing function of the images (“Livia and Octavian,” “Livia and Tiberius”) gives a reader a sense of what was at stake in the development of the empress’s portrait as a political image.

Bartman proposes that Livia “was instrumental in the process” of creating portrait types (pp. xxi, 23 ), but without any sources on the production of imperial portraits and on the role of emperor and empress in this process, the question of agency is better left unanswered; Bartman’s desire to give Livia control over her image recalls the tendency in earlier scholarship to see the mark of the great man (or woman) in their representations, but other factors, not all of them in her direct control, may have been at work (recent historical studies on the provinces find a conspicuous lack of central authority in some matters of importance). Unlike the production of portraits, their reception is better attested: Livia’s portraits provided both a model in terms of their ideal, classicizing forms and a mirror of the society over which she held sway (e.g., first with the prim, rigidly-parted and excessively-wrapped nodus hairstyle that was also popular in the portraits of anonymous women of the lower social orders, and then with the simpler coiffure borrowed from statues of goddesses).

Bartman takes advantage of the thriving industry of Augustan scholarship (on the dynastic succession, religion and cults, and Rome and its monuments, etc.) to show how women, particularly those of the privileged orders, participated in civic life. The holding of religious offices, the honor of public statuary, and access to the highest powers, however, distinguish Livia’s exceptional status so that matters of gender cannot be extricated from those of status (given its subject, the book is predictably stronger on the prerogatives of power than on the limitations imposed by Roman attitudes toward women). The synthetic nature of the discussion on Augustan society is important for the context it gives the portraits, which are treated as works that not occasionally affect social relationships (as in the erection of portraits by provincial cities in the hopes of reaping benefits from Rome) rather than as rarefied objects of connoisseurship, as is often the case.

The first part of the book, “Patterns of Representation,” looks at the nature of the evidence in a broad sense, including the ancient literary sources on Livia, images on the reverses of coins and on gemstones, and inscribed statue bases in Rome and the provinces. There are some sensible remarks on the strengths and limitations of the methodology of portrait studies that classify the works of the highest quality as distinct official types that were then copied by artists outside of the capital, who frequently created variants of the types by altering features. As mentioned above, not much can be said with certainty about the process in which a portrait is created and copied—there are no ancient sources on imperial control, the sculptural workshops, and the means by which the types were transmitted to the far flung reaches of the Empire. Bartman refers to the subjects of imperial portraits as “sitters” (p. 13), which calls to mind the nineteenth-century studio portrait that aimed at an individual likeness or the psychological interior of the posed subject. Imposing this scenario on Roman portraits seems wrongheaded, especially given the idealized quality of the heads, their evocation of a social type that conveyed both physical vitality and moral authority, and the compelling uniformity of features represented on examples throughout the Empire (i.e., clearly Livia would not have to “sit” before a sculptor for these images to be created).

These chapters also offer some speculation on how sculptors went about copying the official types: following the model faithfully for unfamiliar features while improvising on those that they know well. Yet, given the weight of tradition in Roman art, wouldn’t it be just as likely for sculptors to get the parts right that they have done before and to gloss over (or, conversely, to bungle) sections that didn’t make sense to them? Reading intentions from sculptors’ marks is not without its difficulties, as is ascribing general practices to craftsmen of whom we know very little.

Chapter Three, “Facial Signs/Body Language,” discusses hairstyles, facial features, dress, jewelry, and even gesture. Comparisons with other female portraits underline the restraint and sobriety of Livia’s images, in which good grooming is equated with Romanitas rather than with the vagaries of feminine fashions. The references to Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and Fasti are on target here, and there is a wonderful illustration of a female bust with a wig styled in the nodus coiffure not securely in place on the head (fig. 36), as if to reveal that the highly wrought coiffure is not of the subject’s own hair and can be removed as easily as an article of clothing. The remarks on cultivation, refinement, and sophistication give a glimpse of a promising avenue of approach to feminine adornment instead of the traditional method of only using the hairstyles as dating criteria for the portraits.

The second part, “The Politics of Portraits,” offer chapters on the representations of Livia paired with her male relatives (and, occasionally, with female relatives, in such chapters as “Livia and Augustus,” “Livia and Tiberius”). Clearly Livia’s position as wife and mother of emperors defined her roles in a regime that placed the family under greater scrutiny. The attention to historical events and the accounts of the ancient sources dovetails nicely with the discussions of the portraits in these chapters, even when it appears that portrait types were not associated with advances in careers, as is typically argued. The book succeeds in demonstrating the importance of Livia’s image in the dynastic program of Augustus and his successors; in this aspect, it shares its subject with Charles Brian Rose’s Dynastic Commemoration and Imperial Portraiture in the Julio-Claudian Period (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), however, it also makes a significant contribution in its account of the female portrait in the early Empire. The thorough and well-illustrated catalogue and appendices (esp. Appendix C, “Portraits Commonly Misattributed to Livia”) will provide the basis for future studies of Livia with the inclusion of some previously unpublished and rarely published heads; the catalogue of translated inscriptions, many from bases of nonextant statues, is extremely useful in assessing the honors that Livia received from her subjects throughout the Empire.

Eve D’Ambra
Vassar College