BMCR 2000.01.15

Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 B.C.-A.D. 68. Mnemosyne Supplementum 194

, Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 B.C.-A.D. 68. Mnemosyne Supplementum 194. Leiden: Brill, 1999. 370, 146 pl. $147.25.

Susan Wood has established a solid reputation as one of the pre-eminent authorities on Julio-Claudian iconography through a series of highly regarded articles on the women of the imperial house.1 This excellent book represents a general treatment of the subject and will be warmly welcomed by both classical scholars and art historians alike. The field has recently become a very crowded one. In the last four years we have seen important major publications by Rolf Winkes, Elizabeth Bartman and Brian Rose.2 This lively activity is impressive but can at times seem bewildering, since the non-specialist tends to see the iconographers as either wizards or charlatans, who identify their subjects by a process that might well be inspired but often seems arbitrary. Wood brings a special quality to the task, combining her keen scholarship with a recognition of the need to spell out carefully her methodology. She does not shrink from revealing how large a part personal judgement at times plays, and can reassuringly admit that on occasion she has had to change her mind. Not all of her arguments are going to convince everyone — such is the nature of the discipline — but both students and scholars will appreciate having laid out for them, in a clear and systematic fashion, the criteria on which her thinking is based.

The structure of the book is straightforward. After an introductory chapter, the imperial women are treated in more or less chronological fashion, grouped together in five chapters, beginning with Octavia and Julia the Elder. Chapter Two is devoted to Livia, the next to Antonia Minor, followed by Vipsania, the wife of Tiberius, and Livilla, his daughter in law. Chapter Five covers the family of Germanicus: Agrippina the Elder and her daughters Drusilla and Livilla II. Chapter Six covers the wives of Claudius and Nero, with emphasis on Messalina and Agrippina the Younger. A short concluding chapter follows, followed by stemmata, bibliography and indices. The book is lavishly illustrated.

Within each chapter there is a standard pattern. The subject is introduced by a brief historical essay. These essays are little gems in themselves, well-researched and sensibly balanced. They are not the prime focus of the book but can be confidently and enthusiastically recommended to students taking courses on Roman women. An account of coin depictions is followed by the main part of each chapter — the criteria for attributing the images — and a description of the significant examples from the corpus, both larger sculptural pieces and smaller items such as cameos. Wood appreciates the importance of sculpture as a historical artifact, and provides more than a mere study of its aesthetic appeal. She places the images within their historical context, and she shows how they reflect the shifting ideological programmes of the reigning emperors.

Wood has a refreshingly pragmatic approach to her subject, and treats it without jargon or abstruse sociological speculation. Her primary aim is modest, yet enormously challenging, since the sculptures rarely come from documented archaeological contexts. She declares unambiguously that the first stage in the study of visual references must be iconography, whereby the historical figures depicted are identified, allowing us to arrange the pieces in a chronological order. The next task is typology. The principles of typology are generally accepted now — it is recognized that in order to set up a public portrait of an imperial figure a patron would have needed to obtain a copy of an officially distributed portrait type. The many surviving sculptural works follow a few original types. The general principle in the first and second centuries is that the same basic facial structure of the women is preserved in all the portrait types, but details of hair could be varied when a new type was introduced.

While the existence of portrait types is established beyond reasonable doubt, the degree to which the prototypes can be reconstructed on the basis of surviving replicas remains problematic. When the first type was made, the sitter could exercise some control over the work. But it is after the original is replicated that the problems arise. The copyists would change the original, sometimes inadvertently but often deliberately. As Wood observes, it is generally the case that the portraits will present the subject in a favourable manner. They seldom showed the effect of advancing age, even in the case of elderly women like Antonia who died at seventy-three, or Livia who died in her eighties.

A few examples will illustrate the richness of Wood’s offerings. In the first chapter we gain a good insight into how to approach the problem. Octavia is depicted on coins that tell us much about her political significance but throw little light on her appearance, to a large extent because of the process of assimilation, by which a woman’s face would be subtly altered to correspond to the features of her husband. On the coins of Antony the images of Octavia (and Cleopatra also) seem to have been adjusted to reflect Antony’s, perhaps to suggest marital harmony. Thus Octavia’s coins provide little more than her coiffure, in the form of the nodus (a style where the hair at the forehead is combed back, in a top-knot). Not a single surviving inscription attests Octavia’s presence in a sculptural group and identification rests essentially on context and historical probability, and Wood refreshing concedes that many of the identifications are based on little more than ‘wishful thinking’ (p.59). Many pieces once assigned to Octavia are now assigned to Livia. Wood takes us through the process of how Octavia has been identified. A bust from Velletri resembles one from Smyrna — the two locations are far apart, which suggests an important imperial woman. The coiffure suites Octavia and the facial features correspond well enough. The clincher is that Velletri is the home town of the Octavii, which strongly supports identification with a female member of that family.

Family resemblance is an important factor. Wood takes up the issue of three controversial heads that have been attributed to Messalina, by herself among others (pp. 276-7). She frankly concedes that she has changed her mind on these items, and now believes, tentatively, that only two of them, in the Louvre and in Dresden, in fact represent Messalina. They wear the turret crown, a sign of imperial status, and in one case carry a male child. Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero, might seem to qualify, but the features are not hers. The third, in the Vatican, bears some resemblance to the other two, but the hair style is later. Wood suggests that this last probably represents not Messalina but her daughter (Octavia).

The most widely accepted portraits of Julia (the Elder) follow a type represented by two pieces, one from Beziers, the other probably from Caere (pp.70-72). The heads are broad and square, with wide full-lipped mouths. The features are similar to those of Agrippa, whose head appears in the Beziers group. Thus it might be thought that Julia’s features were assimilated to her husband’s, as happened in the case of Octavia and Livia. But Wood makes the good point that we would not expect this of the emperor’s daughter. Since she played such a crucial role in Augustus’ bloodline it seems unlikely that the copyists would have minimized Julia’s resemblances to her father in favour of Agrippa, thereby distancing her from the likenesses of her sons Gaius and Lucius, whose images in turn were modelled closely on that of Augustus. Wood makes a case for the identification of the Biziers type as belonging to Vipsania, the wife of Tiberius, and mother of his son Drusus and, of course, the daughter of Agrippa, whose head she resembles.

By far the largest chapter is devoted to Livia. And little wonder. We know from Dio that statues were first voted for her in 35 BC.3 She lived for more than sixty years after that, and given that she was venerated and even consecrated after her death the corpus of statues must have been enormous. Generally, an important criterion for identifying portraits is their similarity to the images on coins. We have no coin portraits from the mint of Rome that specifically identify Livia. Consequently, portrait groups are important in her case. A very valuable group comes from Arsinoe in Egypt, consisting of three marble busts, two of which can be securely identified with Augustus and Tiberius, while the third is of a woman with nodus hairstyle who resembles Tiberius. She is clearly a person of importance, since the image is echoed in numerous other sculpted heads. Accordingly, there can be no doubt that she must be Livia. A large group of the earliest heads of Livia employ the same nodus style and Wood accepts the arguments of Winkes and others who identify several prototypes, and place them in a general chronological sequence. Particularly interesting in this context is the process by which her head is oval at the outset but is later broadened to assimilate with that of Augustus.

One of the most controversial pieces discussed is the so-called ‘Juno Ludovisi’ head, now in Rome (pp. 133-5). The hair is parted in the middle, falling down in thick soft waves and surmounted by a high diadem with lotus and palmette decoration. It is generally acknowledged that it represents a mortal woman, since she wears a beaded infula with hanging fillets on each side. The scale of the head and the diadem suggests a member of the imperial house. The infula is taken to suggest a priestess of the imperial cult. Of the three candidates, Livia, Antonia and Agrippina the Younger, the favourite has traditionally been Antonia, since her coins seem to provide the closest parallel. But Wood accepts the opinion of Winkes, who notes that the style of the hair matches more closely that of Livia. Wood notes also that its execution is closer to Livia’s. On Antonia’s heads, the hair is pulled back, exposing the ears completely, and there is no use of the drill. On the Juno the hair waves hang more fully around the face and partly cover the ears, and deep channels are drilled out. There are close parallels for the coiffure among the securely established portraits of Livia, both in sculpture and on gems. Moreover a securely identified head from Leptis Magna displays an almost identical arrangement of the infula and high diadem.

I have two minor quibbles. The study of Roman provincial coins has now been made immeasurably easier with the publication of RPC.4 This work appeared in 1992, after research on Wood’s book had begun but well before its publication date. References to the provincial coins should have been updated to take account of it. My second quibble is also numismatic. Many readers will recognize the standard acronyms for coin catalogues. But others who could benefit from Wood’s work will not, and they will be frustrated, when trying to track down unfamiliar (to them) numismatic abbreviations, to be told that they will have to look them up in a style sheet published in AJA. These, however, are footling issues, and the triviality of the criticism is a good gauge of how highly I regard this book. I cannot praise it enough.


1. Inter alia, ‘Memoriae Agrippinae: Agrippina the Elder in Julio-Claudian Art and Propaganda’, AJA 5 (1988), 409-26; ‘Messalina, wife of Claudius: Propaganda Successes and Failures of his reign’, JRA 5 (1992), 219-34; ‘Diva Drusilla Panthea and the Sisters of Caligula’, AJA 99 (1995), 457-82.

2. E. Bartman, Portraits of Livia: Imagining the Imperial Woman in Augustan Rome (Cambridge, 1999); B. Rose, Dynastic Commemoration and Imperial Portraiture in the Julio-Claudian Period (Cambridge, 1997); R. Winkes, Livia, Octavia, Julia (Louvain and Providence, 1995).

3. Dio 49.38.1.

4. A.M. Burnett, M. Amandry, P. Ripollès, Roman Provincial Coinage (London, 1992).