Livia, Empress of Rome

Livia.jpg

Two weeks ago, I sat in Livia’s dining room.

Not her actual dining room, but within the four painted plaster walls that lined her dining room two thousand years ago and now are located at the Museo Palazzo Massimo in Rome.  And as I sat there surrounded by those four walls, I wondered what those walls had heard, what they had seen.  I wondered about the woman who called upon the Imperial painters to create a dining space that gave the illusion to her guests that they were eating al fresco.  I was mesmerized by the paintings; drawn to this woman whose taste was so much like my own.  Who was she?  What was she like?  What did she and her women friends discuss in this room?  Their children?  Their men?  Their joys and their sorrows?

Livia's dining room.jpg

And so I decided to write about Livia, one of the most famous women in Roman history.  Wife to Augustus, first emperor of Rome, mother to the emperor Tiberius, grandmother to emperor Claudius, and great-grandmother to emperor Caligula.

When she married Augustus (at the time, Octavian), she already had a son (Tiberius), and in the fifty-one years of marriage to Augustus, she had no other children.  Her role, however, was that of counsel to her husband, and she gave him wise political advice and support throughout his reign as emperor.  This was wildly unusual for the times, as women were considered to be outside the sphere of politics for much of the span of Roman history.  For this alone, we should admire Livia.

Livia lived humbly, despite her status as empress.  She was the role model for the Roman “matrona” or matron.  She wore very little jewelry or makeup, often made her own clothing and that of her husband.  Augustus even gave Livia the (then) outlandish right to govern her own finances and dedicated a public statue to her.

When Augustus died in AD 14, he bequeathed one-third of his estate to Livia, and he also adopted her into the Julian family dynasty, giving her the honorific title of Augusta.  All of these things meant that Livia was able to maintain her power after her husband’s death, and as the mother of the new emperor, Tiberius, she still maintained a position of importance in the empire in any case.

There are tales from ancient sources that tell of tensions between Livia and her son Tiberius during his years as emperor.  It is even said that Tiberius’ retirement to the island of Capri was an attempt to get away from his mother.  At Livia’s death in AD 29, Tiberius refused to return to Rome and vetoed all the honorifics the Senate wished to bestow upon Livia.  However, thirteen years later, during the reign of Livia’s grandson Claudius, all of her honors were restored and her deification was completed.

Women spoke her name during their sacred oaths, her statue was erected beside her husband’s at the Temple of Augustus, and races were held in her honor.  Her ashes remained beside her husband’s in his temple until the Sack of Rome in AD 410, when they, like his, were scattered.

Livia's dining room 2.jpg

Painted wall from Livia’s dining room, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy.  Author’s photo.

 

Read More: Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia by Matthew Dennison.

Anyte of Tegea

Anyte.jpeg

Anyte of Tegea lived in the beginning of the third century BC in southern Greece.  She was listed by first-century literary critic Antipater of Thessalonica as one of the Nine Earthly Muses – an honor she shared with Sappho and Telesilla of Argos.  Antipater also gave her what was quite possibly the greatest of all compliments of the day, calling her the “female Homer.”  More of her work has survived to this day than works by any other female Greek poet.

Anyte was one of the first Hellenistic poets to write in praise of country life, emphasizing the natural world in her work. She was best known for her epitaphs, especially those for young women and animals.

Several of the epitaphs she wrote are tailored to young women who died unwed.  In Hellenistic Greece, marriage was considered the most important even in a young woman’s life, so dying unwed was considered a great tragedy:

“I mourn for the maiden Antibia, to whose

father’s house many suitors came, drawn by

Report of her beauty and wisdom.  But

deadly Fate

Whirled away the hopes of all of them.”

Anyte’s description of the deceased young woman’s wisdom shows the importance Hellenistic families placed on the education of their daughters.

In addition, her epitaphs for pets were very popular, and she was sought after to write them for families who had lost beloved pets.

Here is one of Anyte’s epitaphs for a pet dog:

“You died, Maira, near your many-rooted home at Locri, swiftest of noise-loving hounds; A spotted-throated viper darted his cruel venom into your light-moving limbs.”

While other poets were focusing on the gods or on war, Anyte was writing about the natural world and its relationship to humankind.  Here she writes of the relationship between the sea and sailors from the perspective of a statue of Aphrodite:

(on a temple of Aphrodite looking out to sea): 

“This is the site of the Cyprian, since it is agreeable to her 
   to look ever from the mainland upon the bright sea 
that she may make the voyage good for sailors. Around her the sea 
   trembles looking upon her polished image.”

 Today, we are used to poets who have written about the natural world.  What would the panoply of  Western poetry be like, after all, without Robert Frost, William Wordsworth, or John Keats?  And it was Anyte who began that long Western tradition of writing about nature and wild things.  She was a woman who broke away from the traditional standards of poetry and went her own way, forging a new tradition that thousands of poets followed afterward.  Frost, Wordsworth, and Keats all owe a little bit of something to Anyte, for she truly was a Muse.

 

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World

Stoa.org