BMCR 2020.07.27

Julia Augusta: images of Rome’s first empress on the coins of the Roman Empire

Tracene Harvey, Julia Augusta: images of Rome's first empress on the coins of the Roman Empire. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. 264 p.. ISBN 9781472478689 $112.00.

Livia Drusilla of the distinguished gens Claudia was the mother of Tiberius and Drusus the Elder and paternal grandmother of Claudius. She was formally adopted into the gens Julia in 14 CE upon the death and deification of Augustus, her second husband, whom she married in 38 BCE. The first “first lady” of the Roman Empire, Livia has long been the object of study by historians and art historians, especially with the growing interest in recent decades of gender studies. The most important discussions of Livia’s portraiture began with the 1962 monograph by Walter Gross,[1] followed in the ‘90s by studies of Livia’s iconography by Rolf Winkes,[2] Elizabeth Bartman,[3] and Susan Wood.[4] Also noteworthy is the 2016 monograph by Lovissa Brännstedt.[5] Harvey’s new book, which is the revised version of her 2011 doctoral dissertation at the University of Alberta,[6] builds on these earlier studies and focuses on the numismatic portraits of Livia but also treats images of her in all media. It is an important addition to the scholarly literature on Livia and on Roman women in general.

After a short introductory chapter (pp. 1–17) summarizing the historical context and briefly surveying the literature on Roman women on coins as well as setting goals for the rest of the book, Chapter 1 (pp. 18–56) treats the representations of women on Hellenistic and Roman Republican coins. Harvey follows others in suggesting that the first image of a living woman on a Roman coin is a denarius of 43 BCE struck by Mark Antony at Lugdunum in Gaul bearing on the obverse the head of his wife Fulvia in the guise of winged Victory, a hypothesis made more credible because Antony, unlike Octavian, later placed portraits of the other women in his life (Octavia and then Cleopatra) on his coinage.

In Chapter 2 (pp. 57–106), “To be or not to be Livia,” Harvey attempts to establish the criteria that need to be met to identify an unlabeled numismatic image of a Roman woman as Livia. Hairstyle is the most reliable determinant, followed by facial features, and least convincingly, the similarity of the poses, dress, and attributes of full-length images on the coin reverses to securely identifiable statues of the empress. The chapter opens with the statement that the earliest known numismatic images of Livia are not from Rome but from the civic mints of the eastern provinces, where there was a long tradition of portraying Hellenistic queens. The differences between the images on the coins of Rome that Harvey believes portray Livia (see infra on this important point) and those on provincial coins are described and analyzed in Chapter 3 (pp. 107–155). Harvey’s discussion of the provincial issues is a major contribution to the study of Roman numismatics as well as Roman gender studies.

Chapter 4 (pp. 156–198) seeks to “affirm Livia’s power and gender roles through the coins,” and in the brief Conclusion (pp. 199–202), Harvey argues that the representation of Livia on coins “laid the foundation for the manner in which future female imperial family members would be portrayed” (p. 199). Appendix A (pp. 202–227) is a valuable catalogue of all the numismatic representations of women that Harvey considers portrayals of Livia. Appendix B (pp. 228–229) consists of excellent drawings by Carrie Allen of the various coiffures reproduced on Livia’s coins. Appendix C (pp. 230–235) compiles the relevant epigraphical data.

Harvey deserves praise for her comprehensive catalogue and meticulous discussion of the material she has collected, especially the all-too-often overlooked coins issued by individual provincial cities. There is, nonetheless, a problem with Harvey’s treatise that she does not adequately acknowledge. Based on the provincial issues, she argues that the coins portraying Livia “played a significant role in the promotion of Livia as the predominant female in the Roman imperial family” (p. xii) and “in the visual communication of the public persona of Livia” (p. 2). It is difficult to sustain that argument when there is no labeled portrait of Livia on the coinage produced by the imperial mint in Rome under either her husband Augustus or her son Tiberius. The most likely portrait of Livia on a Tiberian coin struck in Rome is a dupondius (a relatively unimportant and more rarely issued denomination compared to the aureus, denarius, and sestertius) bearing the head of Salus Augusta, which probably is an idealized depiction of the emperor’s mother. But, as other scholars have asserted, and I concur, the Tiberian bronze and silver issues depicting a seated female figure on the reverse with varying attributes probably represent goddesses and personifications (Pietas, Pax, Vesta), not Livia or another woman.

In my judgment, it is especially noteworthy that Livia never appears on her husband’s official coins, whereas his disgraced daughter Julia does—on a denarius of 13 BCE in which Julia’s head adorns the reverse in her capacity as mother of the emperor’s grandsons and, since 17 BCE, his adopted sons, Gaius and Lucius Caesar, whose portrait heads flank their mother’s. Earlier, during the Second Triumvirate, albeit on the coins of Mark Antony, Augustus’s sister, Octavia, appears in what is, unlike the case of Fulvia, a certain portrait, succeeded by Cleopatra on Antony’s coins struck in the West with Latin legends and in the East with Greek legends. In short, under Augustus, Livia has no “public persona” whatsoever on the official coinage controlled by the emperor and the Senate, and she is unnamed, if she appears at all, on Tiberian coins. The dichotomy between the promotion of Livia on coins that circulate only locally in the eastern provinces and her absence on the coins issued by Augustus, Tiberius, and the Roman Senate that were distributed empire-wide is striking and needs to be addressed. The first empress to be unambiguously portrayed on the official Roman imperial coinage is Claudius’s fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, who even appears on the obverse of some Claudian issues as well as on the obverse of those of her son Nero after he succeeded his stepfather as emperor. Perhaps Harvey would consider undertaking a similarly comprehensive study of the numismatic representations of the younger Agrippina. They, not the elusive numismatic portrayals of Livia, are the ones that really laid the foundation for the depiction of the women of the imperial household on Roman coins.


[1] W. Gross, Iulia Augusta: Untersuchungen zur Grundlegung einer Livia-Ikonographie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1962).

[2] R. Winkes, Livia, Octavia, Iulia: Porträts und Darstellungen (Providence: Archaeologia Transatlantica, 1995).

[3] E. Bartman, Portraits of Livia: Imaging the Imperial Women in Augustan Rome (Cambridge and New York: Cambrdige University Press, 1999).

[4] S. Wood, Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 BC–AD 68 (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

[5] L. Brännstedt, Femina Princeps: Livia’s Position in the Roman State (Lund: Lund University Press, 2016).

[6] T. Harvey, The Visual Representation of Livia on the Coins of the Roman Empire (ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2011).