Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.26

Elizabeth Bartman, Portraits of Livia: Imaging the Imperial Woman in Augustan Rome.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.  Pp. 242, xxiv; 194 figs.  ISBN 0-521-58394-2.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Jas' Elsner, Courtauld Institute of Art
Word count: 519 words

The prospect of yet another book on the visual culture of the Augustan period may prompt the scholar -- let alone the poor student -- into a fit of groaning. There can surely be no field in recent art-historical scholarship (at least in antiquity) so burdened by such a spate of publications as Augustan art in the last fifteen years. Yet this understandable response would certainly do an injustice to Elizabeth Bartman's highly competent and carefully worked out discussion of the portraiture of Livia. This book combines the qualities of a catalogue raisonnée (more usually identified with German scholarship in this field, but also used in other recent American publications, notably Brian Rose's 1997 volume on Julio-Claudian portrait groups) with the insights of current feminist writing in Classics, with a careful analysis of the expressive and semiotic qualities of facial signs and body language, with a good command of the current state of historical debates in the period, and with a telling methodological inquiry into the problems of antique portraits and making secure identifications. In short, Bartman's book might be described as 'highly traditional but with a difference'; and this combination of art historical methods pioneered in the 1890's as well as the 1990's works with real success.

The book is in two parts, the first -- called 'Patterns of Representation' -- focussing on the images themselves and the second -- called 'The Politics of the Portraits' -- engaging not only political and dynastic themes but the interesting topic of how images of Livia were paired with those of her husband and her son, Tiberius, or incorporated into larger family groups, as well as the question of her posthumous representation. These two parts are divided into seven chapters (three in part I and four in part II). After this, which might be described as Bartman's substantial essay, come catalogues of the portraits (most illustrated, and some previously unpublished) and of the epigraphic sources, all translated (often giving valuable evidence of lost portraits), as well as appendices on various issues including common misattributions. The catalogues are clearly a significant contribution -- greatly extending and improving the tools available for the study of Livia (and hence of both Augustan portraiture and imperial female portraiture more generally).

Given the significance of the family in Augustan and Julio-Claudian political thinking -- not just in public visual representation (such as the famous inclusion of women and children on the Ara Pacis) but also in legislative and economic policy, the image of Livia was clearly much more important than has usually been allowed, as a visual symbol of these themes. Bartman's discussion firmly puts Livia's portraiture back into this socio-political context, something an ordinary catalogue (which concentrated on portraits exclusively rather than their lost accompaniments and general place within the rest of Augustan image-making) would fail to do. I suspect she somewhat overemphasises the significance Livia as a woman in something like her own right (a perspective arising out of modern feminist scholarship) by contrast with what may have been the more historically likely meanings of Livia as a consort, mother and guarrantor of lineage.

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