Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.21

Annetta Alexandridis, Die Frauen des römischen Kaiserhauses. Eine Untersuchung ihrer bildlichen Darstellung von Livia bis Iulia Domna.   Mainz:  Philipp von Zabern, 2004.  Pp. xv, 432; pls. 64.  ISBN 3-8053-3304-8.  €75.80.  

Reviewed by Emily A. Hemelrijk, University of Utrecht (
Word count: 2091 words

In this book, which is a revised edition of the author's dissertation in Munich (submitted in the winter of 1996-97), Annetta Alexandridis (henceforth A.) discusses the portraits of Roman empresses from Livia to Julia Domna, the last empress of whom portraits have survived in substantial numbers. Since the manuscript was completed in 2002, books that appeared after 2000 are only occasionally included.1 A. aims to study Roman imperial self-representation from Augustus to the Severans through the images of their womenfolk (p. 4). She is especially interested in the function of women in the representation of the imperial family: how far could political or moral messages be conveyed through the portraits of the female members of the imperial family and in what respects did the representation of imperial women differ from that of non-imperial women? Is there a difference between 'official' portraits, which were created under the authority of the emperor, and those commissioned by private persons? What influence did the historical and archaeological context have on the iconography of imperial women? These are important and thought-provoking questions, which A., however, only partially succeeds in answering.

As her main evidence A. discusses portrait-statues and relief-portraits that are securely identified as imperial women and contain iconographic details that go beyond mere portraiture, coins depicting empresses (insofar as they were issued by the central government; A. excludes provincial and local issues), and cameos. Special attention is paid to the reverse of the coins of imperial women that show goddesses or personifications symbolizing female and imperial virtues with which they were associated. As regards portrait statues, A. rightly discusses not only the portrait head but also the (to some extent standardized) body type. In this she follows the recent trend initiated by the German scholars Zanker and Hölscher to study the Greek-inspired body types of Roman statues as part of the Roman 'visual language' ("Bildsprache") instead of focussing on the Greek originals that inspired them.2 Criticizing recent studies by Bartman and Wood of the portraits of Livia and the women of the Julio-Claudian family A. distances her work from the influence of 'gender studies' (pp. 3-4).3 To her mind, such studies are prone to overestimate the influence and power of imperial women and do not distinguish clearly enough between image and reality. Unfortunately, she does not argue her criticism, but only states her position in this matter. As to her own approach, A. interprets the images of imperial women as part of the representation of the imperial family as a whole and considers their dynastic role as the main factor determining their representation.

After these introductory remarks A. briefly discusses the imperial image and the media in which it was expressed (ch. 2, pp. 7-12). Touching upon the question whether imperial 'propaganda' or a specific 'mental climate' was responsible for the relative uniformity of the imperial representation in the various media, A. tends towards the latter, though allowing for some imperial influence in the introduction of iconographic details. She then briefly deals with the use of coins, cameos, statues and reliefs. The main questions are whether, and in how far, the emperor determined the form of his representation and that of his relatives and what effect these images had on the public. In general, A. seems to take a middle position; she assumes that the emperor exercised some, but not complete, control on how he and his female relatives were represented. To her mind, the coins depicting imperial women were part of the self-representation of the emperor; in general the deities and personifications on the reverse of these coins cannot be identified with the empress on the obverse since they are undistinguishable from those on the reverse of the coins of the emperor himself. However, this does not hold for all deities and personifications. As appears from Chapter 3.2, some goddesses and personifications symbolizing female virtues were reserved for the female members of the imperial family and it seems likely that the ancient public associated, or even identified, them with the empresses depicted on the obverse.

Starting with the introduction of public statues for Livia and Octavia in 35 BC, A. turns to the public image of women of the imperial family in the third chapter (pp. 13-38).4 She is especially interested in the reasons for the public honour of the women of the imperial family and in the function and reception of their images. To this end she discusses their official titles (pp. 14-18), their images on coins and especially the virtues symbolized on the reverse of these coins (pp. 18-28), the possible reason for introducing new types (pp. 28-29), their virtues according to funerary laudations and panegyric (pp. 29-31), the places where their portrait statues were erected (pp. 31-35) and the reasons for erecting them as mentioned in the inscriptions (pp. 35-37). In discussing their honorific titles A. interprets all official titles of imperial women as purely dynastic without any relation to the individual woman to whom they were given. Though this may be right for the title Augusta (though I think we should not underestimate the prestige and authority that it gave), it seems odd to dismiss out of hand any connection between the new title mater castrorum and the presence of Faustina Minor in the army camps and between the title mater castrorum et senatus et patriae and Julia Domna's undeniable political authority during the reign of her son Caracalla. In the following paragraphs A. deals with the coins of women of the imperial family in chronological order, discussing the virtues with which they were associated through the legends and the goddesses, attributes and other symbols depicted on the reverse. Despite individual variation, A. finds a more or less standard repertoire of female virtues, or as she calls it a "Tugendkanon". Foremost among them are fecunditas, castitas, pulchritudo, pietas, gravitas, comitas and modestia, virtues that are also found in the funerary laudations and consolations of imperial women. On the whole, the discussion in this chapter is a little unbalanced: the coins are discussed in great detail whereas the themes of the other paragraphs are treated only superficially and despite the fact that the places and reasons of the erection of portrait statues are briefly dealt with, the portrait statues themselves are left for the next chapter.

In Chapter Four, which--apart from the catalogue--is the longest and most important chapter of the book (pp. 39-107), A. turns to the representation of imperial women on portrait statues, reliefs, coins and cameos. The chapter is structured roughly thematically. After briefly surveying image and reality in Greek and Roman dress as represented in statues and reliefs (pp. 40-44), she discusses in more detail the meaning of several attributes and details of dress: the veiled head (A. uses the term capite coperto instead of the more common capite velato to avoid exclusively religious connotations), the wreath of corn-ears, the diadem and the stola of the matrona. Throughout, imperial images are compared to private portrait statues and the different meaning of attributes is traced in imperial images, in those of private persons and in those of goddesses. Most attributes are polyvalent and have different meanings in a different context, material or period. For instance, a veiled head may point to death, and in a portrait of an empress to her deification, but also to priesthood, sacrifice or--in general--to pietas, to marriage (the veil of the bride) and matronal modesty. A. traces the use of the stola, with its moral connotations, both in the literary sources and in material art, noticing that the decline of the stola in the late first and early second century AD went hand in hand with the increasing use of corn ears symbolizing fecunditas as an attribute of the images of both imperial and private women.

In her discussion of the representation of imperial women A. notices two general trends: over the course of the period studied the imperial images are increasingly indistinguishable from portrait statues of private individuals and the representation of female virtues is favoured over marks of socio-juridical status. In general, she regards the Flavian period as the turning point. The representation of women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty stands apart, showing a greater variety of types, which, moreover, are more often used exclusively for women of the imperial family. Apart from these two trends, she distinguishes five themes in the portraiture of imperial women (p. 58): wife and mother, priestesses and deities of fortune and salvation, Venus, Iuno and military goddesses.5 She discusses each of these themes with numerous examples in sculpture, coins and cameos. It remains unclear, however, how these five types relate to each other (which one was preferred by whom, when and why?) and how the iconographic elements discussed in detail at various places relate to the five themes. For example, A. extensively discusses the interpretation of facial traits, hair dress and ornaments (p. 65-74) when dealing with the second theme (that of priestesses and deities of fortune and salvation, which starts at p. 61 and seems to run on to p. 84). Should we assume that this discussion relates to the second theme only, or does it have a wider application? The discussion of the attributes and gestures that can be interpreted as signs of pietas (pp. 74-81) leads up to a discussion of imperial women portrayed as goddesses, or rather with the attributes of goddesses (pp. 82-92). A. deals with imperial women portrayed as Ceres (pp. 83-84), as Venus (pp. 84-88), as goddesses of fortune and abundance (pp. 88-91) and as 'military goddesses', by which she means goddesses such as Minerva, Venus Victrix and Victoria (pp. 91-92). Imperial women portrayed as Iuno are incorporated in her discussion of the imperial couple (pp. 92-98). In pp. 99-103 she discusses group portraits of the imperial family. Throughout the chapter much attention is paid to developments over time and to changes in the meaning of attributes and details of dress and stance. Though A. bases her discussion on a great number of images and makes many interesting observations, there seems to be a lack of a clear structure leading to definite conclusions.

In the concluding chapter (pp. 109-112) A. gives a brief chronological survey of the main developments in the portraiture of imperial women from Livia to Julia Domna, in which she emphasizes the mutual influence of imperial and private representation. In the course of time there are fewer formal differences between the portrait statues of imperial women and those of private status; both show a trend towards the portrayal of personal virtues and emotional attachment (for instance, in the depiction of married couples). In the catalogue (pp. 113-207) she presents in roughly chronological order 235 images (mainly portrait statues, but also reliefs, cameos and coins) that form the basis of her study. Strangely enough, in some cases A. provides photos of modern stucco copies of cameos instead of the originals, without saying so in the description (see, for instance, pl. 55.2 and 58.1 and 2).

The book contains three extensive appendices in which A. lists portraits with veiled head, and portraiture that was excluded from her catalogue (appendices 1.1 and 2, pp. 209-217), the various statue types used for imperial women (and some of the main types used for private portrait statues) ordered alphabetically (appendix 2, pp. 219-270 with tables on pp. 294-306) and the reverse types of the coins of imperial women starting with the Flavian period (appendix 3, pp. 271-286 with tables on pp. 307-378). Though the tables could have been printed more efficiently so as to cover fewer pages, these meticulous lists and tables are very useful.

Some criticisms: the book contains few printing errors, but on p. 114 she twice uses the word "Malerei" (painting) where she must have meant "Münzen" (coins). As appears from the notes, A. mainly uses studies written in German and is not fully acquainted with studies written in English, which leads to several omissions of important studies.6 Also the fact that she gives the abbreviated titles of books and no titles of articles in the notes, and does not provide a bibliography or a full list of abbreviations, is a serious drawback for the reader. Though this is a book to be consulted, rather than to be read from cover to cover, a clearer structure would have made reading it both easier and more pleasant. Yet, on the whole, this does not detract from the fact that A. has written a thorough and meticulous study that should be consulted by all students of the portraiture of Roman (imperial) women.


1.   A. was unable to profit from Boschung, D. Gens Augusta. Untersuchungen zu Aufstellung, Wirkung und Bedeutung der Statuengruppen des Julisch-Claudischen Kaiserhauses, Mainz am Rhein, Von Zabern 2002 and Barrett, Anthony A., Livia. First Lady of Imperial Rome, New Haven, Yale UP 2002.
2.   For instance, Hölscher, T. Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System, (Abh. Heidelberger Ak. Wiss. Philos.-hist. Kl. vol. 2) 1987 and Zanker, P. Klassizistische Statuen: Studien zur Veränderung des Kunstgeschmacks in der römischen Kaiserzeit, Mainz am Rhein 1974.
3.   Bartman, E. Portraits of Livia. Imaging the imperial woman in Augustan Rome, Cambridge: UP. 1999; Wood, S. E. Imperial Women. A Study in Public Images, 40 B.C.--A.D. 68, Leiden: Brill (Mnemosyne Supplementum 194) 1999.
4.   To the bibliography on this theme (see n. 112 on p. 13) should now be added Ruck, B. 'Das Denkmal der Cornelia in Rom', RM 111 (2004) 477-494 and Hemelrijk, E.A. 'Octavian and the introduction of public statues for women in Rome', Athenaeum 93.1 (2005) 309-317.
5.   However, at the end of the chapter (p. 106) she distinguishes six themes omitting that of the priestesses and adding mother and fertility goddesses as a separate category.
6.   To give a few examples: on p. 12 n. 108 she omits the important study by Dixon, S. Reading Roman Women. Sources, Genres and Real Life, London: Duckworth 2001. Her discussion on women's clothing in Ch. 4 could have profited from Croom, A.T. Roman Clothing and Fashion, Gloucestershire: Tempus 2000; and her discussion of the Augustan marriage legislation (p. 52 n. 481) from the studies by Treggiari, S. Roman Marriage. Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1991 (which, however, is mentioned in n. 952 on p. 99) and Mette-Dittmann, A. Die Ehegesetze des Augustus. Eine Untersuchung im Rahmen der Gesellschaftspolitik des Princeps, Stuttgart: Steiner (Historia Einzelschriften 67) 1991; in discussing the imperial cult, A. refers only to the outdated study by Deininger, J. Die Provinziallandtage der römischen Kaiserzeit von Augustus bis zum Ende des dritten Jahrhunderts nach Chr., München (Vestigia 6) 1965, but ignores the important series of studies (and numerous articles) on the imperial cult written by Fishwick, D. The Imperial Cult in the Latin West. Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, Leiden, vols I-III (EPRO 108 and Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 145-148) 1987-2005.

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