2000 Years of Roman History, Part Two: Garden Party
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Roman political views vacillate equally between complaining and throwing their hands up as a lost cause. Manefestazioni and scioperi (demonstrations and strikes) occur regularly, loudly, mostly peacefully, then nothing changes in the system, and then it all re-occurs in a cycle. I asked a Roman taxi driver from Southern Italy what he thought about a well-known Italian politician and former prime minister who was making a highly publicized book tour in Italy touting change and making life better.
At this point we were driving by the Palazzo Venezia, where Mussolini gave dramatic speeches to throngs of Fascist supporters in the 1920s and 1930s. The driver gestured towards the balcony where Mussolini would appear and with a down-turned mouth he said, “Molte parole! Tutti hanno molte parole!” “Many words! They all have many words!”
Burn-out would be a good way to describe Italian views on politics. I can understand why when the two longest stable governments were during the Roman Empire and the Fascist government under Mussolini.
Palazzo Venezia, Rome.
Rome’s political storia, its history and story, is everywhere. The Roman Empire is omnipresent with triumphal arches, the Pantheon, Colosseum, Forum, ruins of baths, and even Roman columns re-cycled in later buildings. It’s hard to ignore the empire’s cultural supremacy and difficult to grasp the physicality of the Roman empire and the length of domination.
The Roman world in its prime extended from Syria, north Africa, Greece, to Britain, and Northern Europe. Two periods define the Roman era politically and artistically: the Republic from approximately 509-31 BCE and the Empire 27 BCE-337 CE. Broadly speaking, the Republic had more of a power balance between the Senate and Caesar, which changed with Julius Caesar’s assassination. The Empire minimized the Senate’s role and placed more power in the Emperor, essentially becoming a monarchy. Augustus was the first Emperor of Rome and Livia was the first lady.
The Empire’s First Lady
Augustus used his expanded powers to conquer new lands, provide public works like baths, aqueducts, roads, and sewers. Eighty-two temples were built or re-constructed during his forty-one-year reign (27 BCE-14 CE). Augustus and Livia ruled at the beginning of the height of the Roman Empire. Art during the Empire was always political. Nothing was created without a rationale to present the Emperor, Empress, or Empire in the best light as strong, dominant, and culturally superior. Aristocratic homes were not a place to find solace and retreat from busy lives, they were for entertainment and displaying a lavish lifestyle, largely based on Greek and Etruscan cultures.
Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, Via Labicana Augustus, after 12 BCE, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Augustus is depicted with a veiled head signifying his status as high priest. Roman Catholic popes use the same title of Pontifex Maximus to denote the head of the church. Like Livia, he was depicted in a youthful state. Hundreds of his portraits were made and erected throughout the empire.
Livia was an interesting woman. Roman women did not lead very public lives and were always indebted to their husbands for everything in a patriarchal society, and as such we have sketchy documentation about Livia. She was neither a docile wallflower nor a revengeful queen who poisoned enemies. She carefully maneuvered somewhere in between, judiciously walking a fine line between influencing Augustus behind the scenes and presenting herself publicly as the perfect role model for Roman women.
Although Livia was represented as the perfect wife and mother, the family dynamic was unusual to say the least. Born in 58/59 BCE to a wealthy family, Livia married Tiberius Nero and had her first son, Tiberius, at age 15 or 16. When Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in 44 BCE one of the men who stepped in to fill the leadership gap was Augustus, whose given name was Octavian, and later changed his name when he became Emperor.
During this time period, while still married to Tiberius Nero, Livia met Augustus, who was also married, and they fell in love. She was six months pregnant with her second son, Drusus, whose father was Tiberius Nero, when she divorced and married Augustus. Livia and Augustus never had any children of their own. In spite of this unusual beginning to their married life, they seem to have complemented each other in their powerful roles.
Portrait of Livia, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Her portraits are known by two types of hairstyle. This style, called the nodus, has the front and sides rolled back and gathered into separate buns, datable from about 38 BCE-14 CE. The other style has the hair parted down the middle. She was always represented as youthful.
As Augustus’ wife, Livia received extravagant gifts of property and was surrounded by influencers, friends, and foes. She owned much land in conquered territories, commercial enterprises, and homes. One of the villas she owned was most likely an estate from her father, now known as Prima Porta, about six miles outside of Rome. There is one particularly important and stunning artistic achievement salvaged from the ruined villa, now housed in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome: the garden frescoes.
Villa of Livia Garden Frescoes
The frescoes originally surrounded the walls of a large dining room located in a subterranean part of the villa, and are nothing short of delightful. There are twenty-four identifiable species of trees, shrubs and plants, plus swallows, orioles, blackbirds, and other birds. Atmospheric perspective is utilized by making objects in the foreground more sharply in focus and the background softer and fuzzier, a technique re-discovered and employed later by Renaissance artists. All the plants and trees are in the height of bloom as if spring, summer, and fall are all happening simultaneously.
Villa of Livia frescoes, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. About 20 BCE. The detached frescoes, rescued from the villa ruins in the 1950s are now housed in a museum close by the train station. The room has wonderful diffused lighting resembling that of an overcast day.
Romans loved their manicured gardens and gardens were an important feature of aristocratic villas and homes. The style of this fresco is categorized as the “second” style of Roman wall painting, heavily influenced (as was all Roman culture) by Greek art. However, Romans put their own imprint on art. Creating a landscape wall painting with a pleasing view is characteristic of this time period with other examples found in Pompeii. It is the first surviving continuous painted landscape.
Villa of Livia frescoes, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. About 20 BCE.
This remarkable dining room must have been pleasing on hot summer nights. There are three spatial levels represented. A low wicker fence extends around the perimeter in the foreground followed by a short grassy area with trees and shrubs planted in a measured organized manner in the middle ground. A short stone wall has a lighter color contrast to the deep greens and also separates the background, which appears to be disordered and wilder, from the ordered fore and middle ground. The fore and middle ground are carefully spaced out with trees and shrubs arranged in balance around the boundaries.
Villa of Livia frescoes, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. About 20 BCE.
Four spruce, one pine, and one oak are represented in the foreground, but the most common woody plant throughout is the laurel. It is no accident that the laurel is predominant in the frescoes as the leaf was used as a triumphant imperial crown, of which guests dining in the Empress’ room would be well aware. The laurel symbol appears on the Empire’s coins, altars, emblems, and other objects.
Besides depicting a peaceful relaxing scene, the frescoes underscore Augustan themes. Visitors would have recognized certain elements from legend and other visual programs. The Romans were keen on omens and portents and took them very seriously. A well-known auspicious story existed of an eagle dropping a white hen holding a laurel branch onto Livia’s lap on the day of her marriage to Augustus. She planted the laurel at the villa and it thrived as did the hen. The prominence of laurel trees in the garden painting would have supported this legend and underscored the importance of their marriage. Augustus used laurel branches from the villa for his triumphs. Legend has it that when Nero was alive, Livia’s great-great grandson, the laurels and hens withered and died, a portent of bad things to come.
Themes of peace, victory, re-birth, prosperity, and fruitfulness are plentiful in the frescoes. Under Augustus’ rule, abundance, peace, and harmony would prevail. These themes are also found in Augustan imperial art, such as the Ara Pacis (Peace Altar), also in Rome. The garden room of Livia is no exception in that it was created with specific goals to remind guests of her husband’s proud reign, as well as her important role as first lady.
Three details of the Villa of Livia frescoes, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. About 20 BCE.
Livia died fifteen years after Augustus died, at the very old age of 86 in 29 CE. She remained revered and publicly popular . She was awarded divine status by her grandson Claudius in 42 (after Caligula’s assassination in 41). Her public persona was powerful, indeed, as her name was used in Roman marriage oaths for over one hundred years following her death. However, Augustus’ political and family heirs - Claudius, Caligula, and Nero - were infamous as spoiled dictators, mean spirited, and entitled.
Barrett, Anthony A. Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome. Yale University Press, 2002.
Caneva, Giulia. “Ipotesi sul significato simbolico del gardino dipinto della Villa di Livia (Prima Porta, Roma).” Bulletino della Commissione Archeologica Comunale di Roma, vol. 100. 1999, pp. 63-80.
Kellum, Barbara A. “The Construction of Landscape in Augustan Rome: The Garden Room at the Villa ad Gallinas.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 76, no. 2, 1994, pp. 211-224.
Ling, Roger. Roman Painting. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
Zanker, Paul. Roman Art. Translated by Henry Heitmann-Gordon. Getty Publications, 2010.