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In Love with an Empress

May 23, 2011

Some years ago, I developed a bit of a crush on a Roman empress who died in A.D. 217 (I saved a lot of money in candy and flowers). Julia Domna – the mother of the emperors Caracalla and Geta – was renowned for her intelligence and beauty and is often said to have presided over a salon that included some of the most accomplished intellectuals of her day. I gathered together as much information as I could about her life and wrote her biography. But it seemed to me that her numerous surviving portraits are far more eloquent than the surviving “historical facts,” especially as many of the latter were recorded by men who disliked her or her family.

Julia’s portraits – especially those in marble – reveal a sensitive, bright, and very agreeable woman. But her sculptures would have been much more lifelike in their original states as they were painted – with realistic coloring for her hair, irises, eyebrows, etc. Now, these were the days before PhotoShop, so the only way I knew to restore these details was draw a portrait of one of her portraits and add the details. I was amazed at how this brought her to life. As impressive and serene as the white and cream marble busts and statues are, they lack the vitality and power of engagement that the painted originals must have had.

Encouraged by the result of Julia’s portrait – which I enhanced by adding background details that evoked the Syrian place of her birth – I decided to try my hand at portraying other empresses and imperial Roman women. In the end, I did a dozen drawings – Julia Domna, Livia, Antonia, Agrippina the Elder and Younger, Domitia, Plotina, Sabina, Faustina the Elder and Younger, Julia Mamaea, and Helena. These portraits are 12 by 14 inches – too large to fit many of them on my wall, so I was at a loss about what to do with them. I tried greeting cards, but there wasn’t much interest.

Finally, I decided to write biographies of all the ladies and produce a book, augmented with pictures of relevant ancient coins, maps, family trees, etc. The result is “Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mothers and Wives of the Caesars,” published by Routledge in 2006. One reviewer states that it was the first comprehensive survey of the empresses to be published in 150 years.

Another reviewer called it a “good basic introduction” but complained that there wasn’t much new material – just my recapitulations of earlier scholarship. This is partially true of the earlier chapters, which cover the well-documented Julio-Claudian empresses (most famously presented in the “I Claudius” books and television series). The stories of these women are very well-known and, while I tried to put their lives in new perspective, I did little new research. However, there was very little written about the later women, many of whom were every bit as fascinating as the Julio-Claudians.  I feel that the major contribution of this book is bringing the later empresses – Domitia, Plotina, Sabina, the Faustinas, and the Severan Julias – to life.  That, and the drawings (high res here).

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