Livia Drusilla, standing marble sculpture as Ops, with wheat sheaf and cornucopia, 1st C BC, Louvre
Livia Drusilla, first Empress of Rome, was indisputably the most powerful woman in the Julio-Claudian Roman Empire. All Julio-Claudian emperors were her direct descendants, despite having a childless marriage to the 1st Emperor of Rome, Augustus (formerly Octavian Augustus, back when there was a triumvirate and Rome was a Republic). This marriage lasted 50 years and by all accounts was a partnership of two clever minds. Livia (58 BC – 29 AD) saw to it that her son Augustus’s step-son, inherited the throne. This, despite the fact that Augustus intended five others to inherit the throne (all of whom happened to die, some under rather suspicious conditions).
Basanite bust of Empress Livia (58 BC – 29 AD), Louvre
Because this bust is basanite (a volcanic rock), it’s believed to have been sculpted just after the Battle of Actium (2 September 31 BC), when Octavian Augustus seized Cleopatra’s kingdom (the loss of this naval battle caused Mark Anthony to commit suicide). This would have made Livia 27 years old, already an able leader just as cunning as her Egyptian counterpart, Queen Cleopatra.
With senators on both sides of her family, Livia was not only the crème of the Roman aristocratic crop, she also had financial independence from Emperor Augustus (and from her former husband, the father of her two sons) through being granted the ‘marks of status’ in 35 AD, which was rarely granted to women. Soon thereafter she was also granted the sancrosancitas, which gave her the same rights Augustus had.
Tacitus described Livia as malevolent and called her a “feminine bully” and Robert Graves had a ball depicting her shrewd ambition in I, Claudius as the epitome of a scheming matriarch poisoning anyone who crossed her, and anyone who got in the path of her son Tiberius inheriting the throne (though Graves did a great service to widening our BBC knowledge of Roman History, he might have been slightly fictitious). But no one questioned the fact of either her cunning intelligence or her absolute power. Second only to her husband. The Julio-Claudian family tree can be slightly complicated with brothers and sisters marrying (Caligula, for one), but all of the Emperors stemmed from Livia. Tiberius (14-37 AD) was her son, Caligula (37-41 AD) her grandson, Claudius (41 – 54 AD) her grandson, Nero (54-68 AD) her great-grandson.
With so many anecdotes under her belt, Livia is a perfect candidate for plenty of THATLou Themes, from Kings + Leaders to Ladies at the Louvre or seen as Ops holding wheat she could even be suitable for the Thanksgiving Food + Wine hunt. Wheat was free in Rome, which is perhaps why their bread is so delicious … 2000 years of practice with the forno certainly shows off! As for her Cornucopia, abounding with fruit, there’s another larger one found two rooms over in this Denon ground floor (Rez-de-Chausse, in French).
And if you’re ever hunting at the British Museum, keep an eye out for several elegant busts of our favorite empress there in the Roman & Greek antiquities section! Keep an eye out for a bust of Livia dressed as Ceres (the Roman goddess of the harvest) as she might just make another reappearance in our THATBrit Babes & Love Hunt.
Things in bold are sometimes references to bonus questions…