Livia Drusilla (58 BCE to 29 CE), was the wife of Emperor Cesar Augustus and the Empress of Rome from 27 BCE to 14 CE. A member of a prominent and wealthy Roman family, she possessed property that she brought to the marriage. Livia’s luxurious country villa, thought to be part of her dowery, was located six miles from Rome in Prima Porta (First Door), on the heights above the Tiber River that flowed to Rome. Country residences were used for relaxing, growing plants, flowers, and herbs. Livia was unique among women of her time, as Augustus gave her the privilege of having her own property and managing her own money. She managed copper mines in Gaul, papyrus marshes in Egypt, and several palm groves in Judea. She was Domina, the master and owner of the property. Livia and Augustus were married for 51 years and her son Tiberius succeeded Augustus as Emperor. In 42 CE, her son the Emperor Claudius deified her, and she became Augusta.
Nearby residents knew the villa by the name Villa Ad Gallinas Albas (The White Hen). Legend records that an eagle flew over the villa garden where Livia was sitting. The eagle carried a white hen and a laurel branch that dropped from its claws into Livia’s lap. It was considered to be an excellent omen. Livia planted the laurel branch; it prospered and became a grove of laurel trees on the grounds. Laurel was considered a symbol of good fortune, peace, victory, re-birth, and prosperity, and the leaves were thought to have both physical and spiritual cleansing qualities. Laurel leaves were used to make the Imperial crown. The trees are either male or female and have yellow flowers and berries; the berries can be used in food or as a garnish, the oil can be extracted for soap, the scent being pleasant was thought to inspire creative thoughts. Laurel trees can grow to 60 feet in height and live more than 100 years, thus representing longevity and immortality.
Dining in Rome was a significant social and political event. Livia’s dining room is entered through an arched doorway. The four walls are painted as a perpetual garden for the pleasure and comfort of her family and guests. The dining room is 40 feet long and 20 feet wide, and had a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The plaster walls covered with buon fresco; water-based paint applied to wet plaster. The paint permeates into several layers of the plaster for longevity. Experts state that at least 69 types of birds would have been found in the area. Twenty-four species of plants and birds have been identified in the fresco.
A painted path and low wicker fence surround the garden. Behind the wicker fence is a narrow green lawn where pheasants, partridges, doves and other birds walk about. A decoratively carved white wall separates the lawn area from abundant orchards, shrubs, flowers and birds. Iris, violets, and ferns are spaced evenly against the white wall. At measured intervals in the white wall are niches where pine, laurel, oak, and spruce trees van be seen. At the left a pine tree with an acanthus plant grows around the trunk. On the corner of the wicker wall sits perched a redstart/black-eared wheatear bird. Behind the wall a curved quince tree bears golden, ripe fruit. Behind the white wall white and yellow daisies grow.
The next tree is a pomegranate with several red-orange fruits; two branches support full fruit, and beneath them are half-opened pomegranates (see detail). To the left of the pomegranate is a jay bird, and in the sky above a golden oriole/sparrow. A blackbird flies above a branch of the pomegranate tree.
Beneath the blackbird is another golden oriole, and perched on the white wall is a partridge/pheasant. At the far right, a small black-eared wheatear bird appears next to a palm tree. A rose bush is in bloom behind the white wall.
A swallow soars above a laurel tree, and two rock dove/wood pigeons are nestled on two branches of the tree. Several laurel trees are included in the garden because they were so significant for Livia and Augustus. The two white doves symbolize peace, and their significance is increased by their placement in the laurel tree.
A golden oriole/warbler/chaffinch bird can be seen at the right. Ferns, flowers, and golden quince fruit can be seen on the tree at the left. A small sparrow sits on the branches of a palm tree. Roman artists during this period were able to achieve a three-dimensional effect because they had some understanding of the concept of atmospheric/aerial perspective: objects in the foreground are in full color and highly detailed. The farther away the object, the details are less distinct and colors fade. The viewer sees a deep, lush, and abundant garden. Although the variety of trees and flowers depicted on the fresco do not flower and bloom at the same time and in the same season, Livia’s dining room fresco allows her guests the pleasure of a perpetual garden where all things bloom at once.
An oak tree is centered on this section of the wall. Oak trees have several important symbols from all cultures in lands where they grow because of their noble size and height, strength, and longevity. Some oak trees are known to have lived1000 years. Oak trees were the sacred tree to Zeus, the supreme god of the Greeks. The small size of the acorn, from which the oak springs, is a sign of good luck and a portent of great things to come. The oak leaf cluster continues as a symbol of great military strength. The birds depicted on the fresco fly free or are perched on walls and tree branches, with exception of one bird. On the white wall to the left of the oak tree a bird is caged. Scholars have identified some of the plants and birds, but no one has found concrete evidence to explain the one caged bird. A cluster of white and red roses grow at the right (see detail). Other plants identified include cypress and spruce trees, chamomile, strawberries, viburnum, poppies, and chrysanthemums. Other birds depicted include jays, song thrushes, nightingales and magpies.
The entire organization of the garden also was symbolic. The wicker wall, green lawn and white wall are composed in an orderly fashion around the room, but behind the white wall, there is disorder. Augustus and Livia’s reign brought about 200 years of peace known as the Pax Romana. Augustus rid the seas of pirates and founded the Flaminian Rome, the extensive system of roadways that lead to Rome. He found Rome a city built of brick, and he left it a city built of marble. On the marble structures Augustus built to celebrate his reign, the symbolic trees and flowers from Livia’s garden formed garlands and other decorations. One notable structure was the Ara Pacis, the Alar of Peace. The garden fresco would remind guests of Emperor Augustus’s reign and the importance and significance of his Empress, Livia.
The ruins of the Villa were rediscovered in 1598, but it was not recognized as the Villa of Livia until April 20, 1863, when a marble statue of Augustus was excavated. The “Augustus of Prima Porta” is a Roman marble copy of the original Roman bronze statue made in 20 BCE to celebrate one of Augustus’ many victories. As the excavation continued, the frescoed dining room was uncovered and restored. Its magnificence can be appreciated at the National Museum of Rome.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.