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Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art
©1997 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski
Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
This portrait of Livia, wife of Augustus, belongs to the tradition of Roman Republican portraiture and illustrates the classicizing style that triumphed during the reign of Augustus. This official portrait served the propaganda of the essentially monarchist regime installed during the late first century BC under cover of a restoration of the Republic (59-27 BC). Judging by the material - basanite - it dates from Octavian's victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC.
The wife of Augustus
This basanite head is a portrait of Livia (born circa 57 BC, died in AD 29), comparable to her effigies on coins and hardstone cameos (such as the one in The Hague). Livia, a member of the Roman nobility, played a major role in the foundation of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Her children from a first marriage to a member of the Claudian family were adopted by Octavian Augustus, whom she married in 38 BC before he became emperor.
Reference to Republican portraiture
This work is a fine example of the propaganda of the new regime, which claimed to be a mere restoration of the Republic rather than a monarchy. In reality, almost all power (political, military, and religious) was now in the hands of one man: Augustus. Livia's hairstyle is one that was highly fashionable from the mid-first century BC: a roll of hair ("nodus," in Latin) over her forehead, with a little bun at the nape of the neck and a short central braid (hidden by a veil in this portrait). The austere features link this face to traditional Republican portraiture, which served to vaunt the merits of the ruling class. The work also illustrates the classicizing style that triumphed during the reign of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14): official portraits were idealized in reference to fifth-century BC Athenian classicism, thereby expressing Augustus' desire to affirm the restoration of a "golden age."
Basanite is an extremely hard material that gives an almost metallic sheen to this head, so that it resembles bronze portraits from the same period. However, the hieratic quality, the strictly frontal presentation, and the refinement of the material also recall the royal art of Hellenistic Egypt. This has been interpreted as a deliberate reference to Octavian's seizure of the kingdom of Cleopatra VII after his victory over Mark Anthony and the Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Actium. This portrait probably dates to the period just after that battle, circa 30 BC, when Livia was 27 years old.
BibliographyE. Bartman, Portraits of Livia. Imaging the Imperial Woman in Augustan Rome, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 185-186, n 86, fig. 12, 177.
R. Belli-Pasqua, Sculture di eta romana in basalto, 1995, p. 70-71, n 7, pl. 6-7.
R. Winkes, Livia, Octavia, Julia. Porträts und Darstellungen, Louvain-la-Neuve and Providence, 1995, p. 206, n 215.
K. de Kersauson, Catalogue des portraits romains, I, Paris, 1986, p. 98-99, n 43.
J. Charbonneaux, "Un portrait présumé de Marcellus", Monuments et Mémoires. Fondation Piot, 51, 1960, p. 54-65.
V. Poulsen, Les Portraits Romains, I. République et dynastie Julienne, Publications de la Glyptothèque Ny-Carlsberg n 7, 1960, p. 66, n 34.
Circa 31 BC
Basanite, sculpture in the round
H. 32 cm
Former Roger, Hope and Fould Collections. Purchased 1860.
Inventaire NIII 1035 (n° usuel Ma 1233)
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