Special Episode – The Ara Pacis and Livia’s Villa with Dr Victoria Austen

Understanding ancient monuments requires a careful eye as well as detective work to delve into the representations and their layers of meaning. In this interview we are joined by Dr Victoria Austen to consider the representation of foliage on the Ara Pacis Augustae and the Garden Room of Livia’s villa. Both these structures hold a special place for scholars interested in the Augustan period and studying them together reveals fruitful connections for considering the messages Augustus sought to convey about his rule.

Special Episode – The Ara Pacis and Livia’s Villa with Dr Victoria Austen

Dr Victoria Austen holds a MA and PhD from King’s College London. She has lectured in the Classics at the University of Winnipeg and is currently the Robert A. Oden, Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Humanities and Classics at Carleton College, Minnesota. Her research interests span the Latin literature of the Late Republic and Early Empire; ancient Roman gardens and landscapes; race and ethnicity in the ancient world; the reception of classical myth; and the integration of digital humanities into the classroom. Austen’s monograph Analysing the Boundaries of the Roman Garden: (Re)Framing the Hortus is forthcoming in 2023 as part of the Bloomsbury Ancient Environments Series.

The Ara Pacis Augustae

The Altar of Augustan Peace is considered one of the outstanding monuments from the reign of Augustus. It’s packed with images and is most famous for its processional friezes and the friezes that depict various deities. But when you encounter the Ara Pacis, you’re at eye level with the acanthus friezes – highly stylised displays of foliage and small animals. It is these acanthus friezes that we consider with Dr Austen.

The acanthus friezes of the Ara Pacis dominate the lower register of the exterior.
They were originally highly saturated and striking in colour

One of the acanthus friezes up close. The foliage grows out from an acanthus base and as the tendrils progress they seem to change into different plants. At the top of the frieze you might even spot two swans on either side of the main stem. Thanks to Dr Victoria Austen for this photo.

One of the acanthus friezes up close. The foliage grows out from an acanthus base and as the tendrils progress they seem to change into different plants. At the top of the frieze you might even spot two swans on either side of the main stem.
Thanks to Dr Victoria Austen for this photo.

The Garden Room of Livia’s Villa

A more private setting than the Ara Pacis, Livia’s villa is nonetheless an important example for considering the ways in which garden imagery was utilised during the Augustan regime. Dr Austen takes us on a tour of the Garden Room delving into the imagery and how understanding this room can help us better appreciate the Ara Pacis as well.

Painted Garden, removed from the triclinium (dining room) in the Villa of Livia Drusilla, Prima Porta, fresco, 30-20 B.C.E. Plant species represented include: umbrella pine, oak, red fir, quince, pomegranate, myrtle, oleander, date palm, strawberry, laurel, viburnum, holm oak, boxwood, cypress, ivy, acanthus, rose, poppy, chrysanthemum, chamomile, fern, violet, and iris.

The Garden Room of Livia’s Villa can still be visited today – we highly recommend the experience!
The fresco is housed by the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.
Photo credit to Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from the Garden frieze showing the low fences that suggest a demarcated garden area with a wilderness in the background. Notice the continued sense of cultivation throughout. Photo courtesy of Dr Victoria Austen.

Detail from the Garden frieze showing the low fences that suggest a demarcated garden area with a wilderness in the background. Notice the continued sense of cultivation throughout.
Photo courtesy of Dr Victoria Austen.

Different trees are a focal point in the Garden frescoes and here we see an oak surrounded by birdlife. Photo courtesy of Dr Victoria Austen.

Different trees are a focal point in the Garden frescoes and here we see an oak surrounded by birdlife.
Photo courtesy of Dr Victoria Austen.

Looking to learn more about Livia after this episode? We have just the thing for you – a whole episode dedicated to exploring her life and representation.

Sound Credits

Thanks to BBC Sounds, Fesliyan Studios, Orange Free Sounds and Sound Bible for sound effects, and the gifted Bettina Joy de Guzman for our theme music.

Automated Transcript

Generated by Otter AILet’s see how the AI copes with the Latin and tricky Australian accent this time round!

Dr Rad 0:16
Welcome to The Partial Historians,

Dr G 0:20
we explore all the details of ancient Rome.

Dr Rad 0:23
Everything from the political scandals, the love affairs, the battles waged, and when citizens turn against each other. I’m Dr. Rad.

Dr G 0:34
And I’m Dr. G. We consider Rome as the Romans saw it by reading different authors from the ancient past and comparing their stories.

Dr Rad 0:43
Join us as we trace the journey of Rome from the founding of the city.

Dr G 1:09
Hello, and welcome to a brand new special episode of The Partial Historians. I am Dr. G. And with me is Dr. Rad. And also very excitingly, we have Dr. Vicky Austen as well. Hello,

Dr Victoria Austen 1:28

Dr G 1:29
Hello. How are you?

Dr Victoria Austen 1:31
Good. Good. Very happy to be here. Excellent.

Dr G 1:35
Excellent. Well, we’ll see if that continues throughout the course of the interview. We are very thrilled to have Dr. Austen with us to have a chat about things to do with the our pockets are gusty, and also the villa Olivia. So these are two really key sort of architectural works that come out of the Augustine period. So I’m a bit of an Augustine fanboy, which is problematic as a historian, one knows. And so I’m thrilled to be here. Dr. Read specialises more in Tiberius, and may have some criticisms to add into the conversation.

Dr Rad 2:13
Look, you know given the focus that where we’re taking I don’t know if I’m going to crap all over Augustus like I normally do. Well just just have to see…

Dr Victoria Austen 2:24
I mean, he does kind of open himself up for that a lot of the time so I kind of love to hate him.

Dr Rad 2:32
Yeah, the same way that you know, I I love Tiberius, but I can also see his flaws, you know? Yeah, but at least we’re talking about Tiberius’ mum.

Dr G 2:42
Oh, that’s true. Yeah.

Dr Rad 2:43
Yeah, Freudian complexities, you know.

Dr G 2:48
Wait a minute. All right. So Dr. Victoria Austen holds an MA and PhD from King’s College London. She has lectured in the classics at the University of Winnipeg. And is currently the Robert A. Odin Junior Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Humanities and Classics at Carleton College Minnesota. Her research interests span the Latin literature of the late Republic and early empire, ancient Roman gardens and landscapes, race and ethnicity in the ancient world, the reception of classical myth and the integration of digital humanities into the classroom. So we have a specialist in many areas with us today.

Dr Victoria Austen 3:31
Yeah, like I it’s, it’s boring to just be interested in one thing. So I just like to, if I get frustrated with one topic, then I can give it up for a while and move to something else. That’s my that’s my general approach to it.

Dr G 3:45
And I think that’s really useful and good because there’s lots of ways in which that interval can be approached and taking a single focus might mean that you miss out on some of the really cool interconnections that are out there to be seen. Exactly. So Austen’s monograph Analysing the Boundaries of the Roman Garden: Reframing the Hortus is forthcoming in 2023, as part of the Bloomsbury Ancient Environment series, so welcome, welcome.

Dr Victoria Austen 4:11
Thank you. I feel like whenever anyone says my new position title, because it has the word innovation in it’s like, I feel under pressure all the time to say something really exciting and innovative. So

Dr Rad 4:26
hopefully, I will be doing that. Sounds very impressive.

Dr Victoria Austen 4:30
I know it sounds great. I mean, it’s it’s a long, it’s a long title. But yeah, it just started so, you know, hopefully there’ll be innovation coming

Dr G 4:41
off that there is no doubt I think it’s interesting to pair innovation with classics though, because traditionally, Classics is considered very, maybe very particular in the way it approaches things maybe less than innovative. And yes, it’s a really good spot to see it all coming together. I mean, like, we know there’s room for growth here, guys.

Dr Victoria Austen 4:57
Exactly. It’s potentially not a high bar.

Dr Rad 5:04
That’s the best part of your training.

Dr Victoria Austen 5:08
We could Yeah, we’ll, we’ll aim high with it.

Dr G 5:14
I look forward to seeing how it progresses. So to get us started, we might start with some one of the really obvious questions, perhaps which is what is the Ara pocket? So Gus stay?

Dr Victoria Austen 5:26
Yeah, so essentially, it’s a big monumental altar, kind of mini complex. It’s made up of a central marble altar. And then that altar is surrounded by four walls. And it has kind of steps going up one side, and there’s also kind of an entrance, past the steps. And then you can also exit the other side. And, yes, it’s an altar, but it’s probably most famous for what’s depicted on the outer friezes. So, you know, people tend to forget that it is a sacred altar complex. And instead, they focus a lot on it as a piece of artwork because it has these fantastic exterior friezes, that show all of these kind of mythological and also Imperial images that are really designed to place Augustus at the centre of pretty much everything. It’s like I am the chosen one I have, you know, there’s images of a near us there’s images of Romulus and Remus, Venus, the kind of mythical Roma, and then you have this procession of all of these senators in the imperial family. And it’s really designed as this very kind of monumental statement of Augustan power. And the whole kind of concept of the altar as well, are a parkus means altar of peace. And it kind of gets to the heart of that Aug, A message of he’s very, very keen to say, you know, I’ve closed the doors of the temple of Janus. And you know, we have no war anymore. But it’s kind of peace born out of military victories. So this ultra complex was awarded to him by the Senate as a kind of commemoration for the fact that now Rome has this piece. But obviously, pieces may be an interesting thing to commemorate when actually, it’s the result of all of these kinds of military successes and a very kind of powerful statement.

Dr Rad 7:28
Absolutely. So the exterior of the Ara Pacis Augustae, is dominated in the lower register by panels known as the acanthus friezes. So when you visit the Ara Pacis sees acanthus friezes dominate your perspective as a viewer, what is it that makes these friezes special in terms of the flora that’s depicted on them?

Dr Victoria Austen 7:50
Yeah, so this is kind of my primary focus, really, these lower friezes, which goes against, in some ways, the kind of traditional approach to this alter complex, because as I said, that kind of upper registers have all of these very obviously, political, Imperial dynastic images of Augustan power. But for me, the lower friezes are doing more of the same, but I think it’s in a more subtle way. And for me, what’s really interesting is maybe taking a step back and rethinking about this division between kind of figural sculptural reliefs and then what’s traditionally been seen as more ornamental or kind of, it’s just pretty flowers at the bottom for, you know, it doesn’t mean anything. But I think more and more, it’s kind of widely accepted that these floral friezes can really contribute to that Augustan message on what we see with these friezes, it wraps around the entire kind of bottom register of the altar. And it’s not just a random array of flowers, you know, they’re very purposely picked. And they’re all designed to kind of put forward particular kind of Augustan messages, you know, the campus itself, this as a plant is a plant characterised by it loses its leaves, and then it kind of re re emerges. So that idea of rebirth is really kind of central to Augustus, his new role in general. And that’s kind of visually represented on these friezes where you have a central account this flower, and then it kind of Blooms out and spirals and transforms into all of these other flowers and plants. And it’s kind of this magical, fantastical, abundant display. So for me, it’s really cool because it it’s not just that ornamental aesthetic decoration, you know, there’s a lot to be said about what’s going on with all of these plants,

Dr Rad 9:52
like ya know, like, I can’t believe until I read your article that I hadn’t really thought of that I definitely in the past have focused entirely on the people I’m like, People, let’s focus on what the people need because people need people. And I’ve completely ignored the flowers at not thinking about the fact that if you’re chiselling something into marble and sculpting something, you probably did pick it on purpose, you probably didn’t go. Now I want an Aeneas, I want Romulus I want all the members of the imperial family and then just whatever, yes, just whatever takes your fancy.

Unknown Speaker 10:23
And I mean, it’s, it’s not to say, you know, that kind of the campus ornament, it was a popular ornament at the time, we see it on lots of things. And it can be kind of purely, you know, decorative. But the fact that I mean, one, this is on this monument, there’s more of it than anywhere else. Yeah. And actually, it like, actually dominates your view. And when you think about where the Ara Pacis was in the campus Martius, and the fact that you have the steps leading up to it, actually, the floral ornament is at eye level. So that’s the thing that you’re probably going to come it’s going to catch your eye first. So I think it’s been really underestimated in the past, I think not just how important it is on its own, but it actually interacts with what’s going on above with the people, it complements what’s going on. It’s not just merely decoration. Yeah,

Dr Rad 11:15
I think I think thinking about things spatially like that adds so many more interesting dimensions. And it’s easy to forget, I think, especially because we live where we do, we don’t actually get to experience these things all that often. And so we’re looking at them in books. So we look at the pictures of the different phrases. But when we were doing an episode on children in Pompeii, it was really interesting to consider, like the height level of things, and how you know, people of different ages would have experienced from pain. And this is kind of a similar thing. It’s about what hits your eye, what would you see. And again, I think Augustus is the master manipulator, and there’s no way he would ever leave anything.

Unknown Speaker 11:56
And another thing in terms of just how it would catch your eye, very easy to forget that there would be so much colour on this monument. And, you know, this is well documented now, but I think it’s so easy to forget that we this monument would have been coloured, and, you know, floral ornament, it’s got to be probably very vibrant colours, you know, the the general impression is that, obviously, there’s a lot of green, probably on a very kind of blue background, and then lots of other colours for the flowers. So that’s really going to stand out, because I can’t imagine that even the upper figural reliefs, they’re going to be much less plain just because of the subject matter. You know, it’s a lot of members of the imperial family and senators in togas, it’s not it’s not going to have that same kind of vibrancy as seeing this kind of bright green and blues on the bottom. And as I said, it’s at eye level. So and as you rightly said, he doesn’t do anything by chance. So I think, you know, this is this is not something to be ignored.

Dr Rad 13:04
No, definitely not. And that’s definitely it. I mean, my, in spite of the fact that my students hate black and white, when we’re looking at things from modern history. When it comes to Rome, they still really can’t get their head around this idea of the colour and when they see things colourize They absolutely hate it. They’re like, why can’t it just be like an IKEA store where everything’s just like, beige? It’s so classy. But yeah,

Dr Victoria Austen 13:29
I mean, neutrals are very in right now as well. So, exactly, I don’t think it’s actually helped by how it’s displayed in the museum currently, as well, because it’s this very stark, kind of neutral, very cubic building with all of this glass, which I think again, it’s all these clean lines, and everything’s very neutral. So that that adds to that sense of, well, it wouldn’t possibly be this bold, vibrant colours. So yeah, I think that’s something really important. And I forget that a lot too. I have to kind of constantly remind myself that the colour would be an added element to to how we kind of think about it, and also the experience of walking up to it and what you would see on what would stand out

Dr Rad 14:15
Oh, yeah, it was a struggle because we’ve been absolutely used to thinking of the Romans has been classic classy means white, you know, white columns, all that kind of stuff, white tablecloth, whereas really, it’s more like, you know, walking into like a Versace fashion house.

Dr Victoria Austen 14:31
Yeah, I mean, you only have to look at their wall paintings in Pompeii to know that, you know, everything was very colourful, like they didn’t, but their walls were neutral. So like, why would their monuments be? That’s yeah,

Dr G 14:45
I think there’s a real sense in which, as they progress with our understanding of the Ara Pacis, you do get to see some of that colour a little bit more often, but they kind of do it as like a special event. And so as like, every time I get to go to Rome, which is not that Not often, but when I do it, it’s one of the places that I always go regardless is like, doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been there, it’s on my to do list and seeing the projection of the colour onto the face of the stone, it really changes your whole concept, because they do have some very sort of subtle colorization off to one side where they’re like, this is what it might have looked like, and it’s all pastels and stuff. And you’re like, that’s cute guys. Yeah. But then you do the VR experience. And it’s all like in your face, and it’s highly saturated, and you’re like, Oh, my God, and it’s like, and you can’t get away from those lower friezes, like the plant life really comes out at you. And not just because of that eye level. But because the colours are so striking as well.

Dr Victoria Austen 15:40
Yeah, and this is why in my work, and I know we’re going to speak about this, I’ve tend to compare or use as a point of comparison between the Aeroparque is not other kind of monumental pieces, but instead garden paintings, because that also gives you that colour. And so it helps you I think, envisage maybe, the impact of the colour and I think that’s a useful reference point, rather than just comparing to other marble ornaments. Which again, if you’re comparing kind of the marble to marble, it’s easy to lose the impact of the floral. And instead, you focus on the figural instead. But I think when seen from this perspective of in conjunction with more garden paintings, wall paintings, I think that’s when it really becomes obvious what’s going on. And the purpose of the friezes these lower friezes

Dr Rad 16:33
Well that’s giving me the perfect segue speaking of garden painting, what is the garden room at Livia’s Villa otherwise known as the Villa ad Gallinas?

Dr Victoria Austen 16:43
Yes, so Livia is Augustus his wife, and she has this villa just outside of Rome, I suppose we’d call it the suburbs. So it’s kind of close enough. But it’s not it’s not a coastal villa, it’s kind of just a little bit outside of central central Rome. And in the underground, kind of rooms of this villa, we have this amazing 360 degree kind of garden room experience, it’s a floor to ceiling, you know, 100% wraparound painting in this one room, dominated by this garden painting. And, you know, it’s seen as that kind of garden painting par excellence, you know, we have lots of other examples, but the fact that it’s, it’s not just one wall, it’s this complete room, you know, you step in, and, and I love the, in the museum that you go to now they’re kind of recreated it as a room. So you get that whole sense of experience, you walk in through this open archway, just as you would in these underground apartments, and then suddenly, it hits you and you’re just surrounded by all of this colour. So it’s a really special painting, just in the sense that, you know, we have this entire room and we can reconstruct it, but also the location of the villa to has its own significance for the Augustan regime. And thinking about the significance of plants as well. This villa was said to be the kind of location of a of a miracle to do with Libya and Augustus, you know, this is where we get the Ad Gallinas idea from so it was said that when Livia was just about to marry Augustus, as happens to everyone, she’s just sitting there having dinner, and Brad comes along and drops a sprig of Laurel in her, you know. Absolutely 100% happened. And so then she was told you know what you should plant this sprig of Laurel. And it was seen as this auspicious sign of her marriage to Augustus, which would no doubt have been controversial because she was pregnant with good old Tiberius at the time. And that’s not August is his biological child. So, you know, it did them some favours to have this kind of auspicious bit of Laurel, which is associated with the god Apollo dropped into her lap. And it was said that she then planted this sprig of Laurel, and it blossomed into this Big Grove and from this grove, Augustus and then all the following members of the Julio-Claudian family would take Laurel from that Grove and make their triumph for crowns. So we have the villa as a whole is kind of seen as this special place associated with sacred laurels. And then we’ve got this big garden painting, which features a lot of Laurel as well, in the basement, essentially, of her house.

Dr G 19:39
Yeah, I think this is leads us very nicely into thinking about like some of the trees that are depicted in this space. So obviously, there’s going to be some Laurel in here, but it’s not the only tree that gets to make a feature. And so I’m interested in like the significance the various trees might hold. When thinking about how Augustus is striving to connect his Ruta Rome’s past in particular. So you’ve already mentioned that connection to Apollo through the Laurel. But I imagine there’s going to be some other symbolism coming through as well.

Dr Victoria Austen 20:09
Yeah. So Laurel unsurprisingly is pretty much everywhere in the garden painting. It shown it in all of its forms. So we have it in small shrubs and trees. And obviously, that’s a real connection to Apollo, which also in turn reaffirms Augustus his connection with Julius Caesar, because Julius Caesar use the Laurel as his own kind of personal symbol as triumph for Torres. But in each wall of the garden room, there’s kind of a central tree that kind of dominates the foreground and this kind of a focal point on each wall, and one of them is an oak tree. And if we take that combination of oak and Laurel together, these two trees were said to kind of have a really important role. On the Day when the then Octavian was given the name Augustus that he took on. So it was, it was said that he he was given the right to wear a Corona civica, which is a another special crown made of leaves. And traditionally, it’s given to a Roman citizen that has kind of saved the life of another citizen. So it was seen as he’s saving Rome, really saving us all. And then the Laurel on that day, he was given the right to put to Laurel trees outside of his house. Now, traditionally, to Laurel trees were put outside a lot of religious buildings. So you’ve got this combination of he’s kind of saving the people of Rome. And we’ve got again, another connection to the kind of sacred past, he’s kind of mirroring what would happen in the past with sacred buildings on his own personal residence, and this symbol of the Two Trees would become so synonymous with him that we even have coins, where instead of actually saying Augustus, it’s just the two trees, so people knew that these trees were, were symbolic of him. So we’ve got the oak, we’ve got the Laurel, we also have a pine tree, and a palm tree, and the palm tree, there’s another, you know, handy anecdote about Augustus that 100%. So it was said that a palm tree kind of miraculously sprung out of the ground, again, another sign of the rebirth of the state. And then it was said that he then bought that palm tree inside his inner courtyard of his house, and then that helped an oak tree that had kind of been withering away, that then kind of came back to life with this palm tree as well. So all of these central trees are clearly Well, I kind of see them, they’re a reminder of all of these key stories that Augustus used. And it’s interesting, he kind of weaponizes or, yeah, I say, weaponize the ideas. It’s not just yeah, there’s thought behind it. So it’s kind of weaponizing these connections between trees and kind of gods. But then he’s putting himself and inserting himself into that narrative. So now it’s not just a link between Laurel and Apollo. It’s Laurel, Apollo, Augustus. And those three are together. So he’s kind of inserting himself into a traditional religious connection, I think, between particular trees, and then his own political narrative.

Dr Rad 23:39
Oh, wow, I met I managed to make that through that without gagging, Dr. G. Oh, God, this is sickening.

Dr G 23:49
It’s kind of clever because it’s like you think about it, like the symbols that resonate the most, or the ones that have the oldest connections. And nature is essentially where those connections start. And you see this with many ancient sort of religious sort of like, and ritual thinking as it sort of develops, it comes from the landscape, and for Augustus, in this time of a much more sort of monumental Rome, than it has been for hundreds of years at this point to go back to that symbolism. I think might suggests that he’s maybe dangerously clever…

Dr Rad 24:23
I’ve never disputed that.

Dr Victoria Austen 24:26
I think he’s, he’s tapping into those very deeply, very deeply rooted sense in the Roman world of this kind of connection to your agricultural spaces and people and also, you know, Pliny the Elder has this very cool passage in the natural history where he says that the trees were the first temples of the gods and then from those trees, you would then start building monumental architecture around it and actually make it into these enclosures. So you know, from Maybe that’s kind of what he’s doing with the our pockets because he’s got his own altar or sacred space there. And he’s inserting trees or plants or that botanical imagery. So kind of really going back to that very deep seated, kind of agricultural basis bases, I think, in Roman religion and kind of how they identified as a people, you know, a lot of their, you know, old time figures, you know, since an artist and all this kind of stuff, it’s like, they’re working the land, and they’re there. And this is good. So I think he’s kind of tapping into that, which is, as you said, Very clever.

Dr Rad 25:36
I think he’s got his own take on the idea of greenwashing. Yeah. All right. Well, thinking about all this natural stuff that you’re talking about, it leads in nicely to our next question, which is, in your work, you also discuss Augustus his creation of public gardens as being part of this deliberate policy that he’s following? So if we understand Augustus as shaping room, not just as a city of marble to steal a bit from Suetonius, but as a city that integrates buildings with things like living sculptural forms and green spaces, how does this enhance our reading of the depiction of gardens and forage that we see on structures? Like the our pockets?

Dr Victoria Austen 26:17
Yeah, so I think you have to, and one of the things that I think is really important about the Ara Pacis is, you don’t want to think that as just like you said, these individual friezes that you look at a book and you think of it as almost a two dimensional thing, you want to try and put it back into the space. And I think that it works with the entire Campus Martius complex, you know, there’s several descriptions of this area during the time and it and it really talks about how he almost made it into this kind of landscaped public park. And so you get this sense that the whole area is just a nice place to be. You know, I think, often when I read kind of more modern articles about city planning, now we’ve got we’re kind of recognising this idea that you don’t want cities to be just concrete and buildings, you actually need to put plants back into it and makes it a healthy place. And, and, you know, Horace actually talking about the gardens of my scenesse, in one of his poems, he says, you know, this used to be this, you know, horrible graveyard and witches are here, and now they’ve been banished, and it’s like a healthy place, and people enjoy going there. And so, I think Augustus kind of, he wants the big monumental pieces, but he also again, wants to tap into those ideas of, there’s this green space, you want people to enjoy the spaces. And he really followed Julius Caesar in this and a bit, Pompey, the great as well, this idea of having these public spaces where, yes, you know, who has provided the space again, so it’s public, but it’s kind of been given to you this idea of public benefaction. And I think it’s, with these public spaces, they, with the green space, in particular, I think they feel maybe the most free, because they’re, like, physically open. So you can kind of enjoy that, and enjoy the surroundings. Whereas something like the Ara Pacis like, you know, you’re not going to be going like in there for for an actual ritual, you know, that’s bought out from everyone else. But you can enjoy the whole idea, you know, I kind of think of it as it’s like a big public park and you’re you’re walking around, you’re like, Oh, there’s one monument, there’s another and you can kind of make a day of it. And there’s this idea that he wants to connect. I think he wants to connect with the people in these kind of very clever, but subtle ways. So this idea that you’re opening up the city, yes, there are these big impressive monuments. But you can be a part of that in these kind of wider landscaped spaces.

Dr Rad 29:04
Yeah, and definitely considering the fact that for a lot of Romans, it’s easy to forget that they would have been living in really small, dark, dank sort of places, and therefore, probably would have wanted to be outside of the actual living quarters as much as possible,

Dr Victoria Austen 29:20
Exactly like they’re not, you know, when we think of, say, houses in Pompeii, these elite houses, they have all of these nice garden spaces, these interior courtyard gardens, people living in Rome, they’re living in these cramped apartments. Again, I think it’s in Pliny the Elder, he talks about, you know, maybe if you’re lucky, you know, you have like a little window garden. So I think he’s talking people have interpreted that as like a little window box. And I think Martial also says about, you know, people have no space anymore for gardens in the city of Rome. So there’s definitely this idea that he’s giving people something that they can’t have in their day to day lives. And again, That’s very clever former benefaction. Because, yeah. He’s not there every day, but just the fact that if you go there, you know, oh, he’s allowed this to happen. And then you’re surrounded by buildings like there are pockets, which very obviously are Augustan. And you’re like, Oh, there’s another reminder that he kind of allowed us to be here. So, yeah, very, very clever.

Dr G 30:23
It’s interesting, isn’t it, because it’s like that sense of like being in a public space. And also noting that it is a political space. So I’m thinking about for us in Sydney Hyde Park is, is both a beautiful garden and a really open sort of place. There’s lots of spots you can go to within it. But it’s also the place where there is an ANZAC Memorial, so and it’s a really big building. And they’re doing something every day there. And there’s a pool that goes with it. And so it’s like, that’s a highly politicised part of that park. And you can’t help but know about it when you go through that area. And you could avoid that part of the park. But if you don’t, you will definitely encounter that. And you will have to think about it in some way. And I think you get a sense that Augustus is doing something similar here, where it’s like, you can’t avoid some of these buildings, and you’re going to encounter them, and we’ll see what happens to you and how you think about it at the end of that.

Dr Victoria Austen 31:19
And I think it’s probably more clever, because you are kind of, you know, it’s happening. But you also don’t know it’s happening. So you go thinking, Oh, I’m just maybe enjoying the green space, but you can’t fail to be influenced by what’s around you. And this is, again, why with the our pockets, and that division between the kind of upper figural. And then the slower traditionally seen as just decorative, I actually think that the so called decorative, it’s doing a lot more. And perhaps it’s even more effective, because it’s doing it in a subtle way. So you may think, Oh, well, this this bit I’m looking at, it’s not political, but actually, it’s

Dr G 32:01
Even more dangerous.

Dr Victoria Austen 32:04
It’s like psychological. Yeah, he’s really getting into your brain.

Dr G 32:08
Hmm. So to what extent do you think is it plausible to read the natural imagery that we have at play in the garden room, and on the Ara Pacis, as part of it Augustan project to suggest that he’s rule represented a sort of a fertile and abundant golden age for Rome?

Dr Victoria Austen 32:26
I think 100% I think it does to me. And that’s, that’s very much the kind of argument I’m making, in a lot of my work. And I think it’s this idea of the abundance, I think is is particularly interesting, because that taps into the kind of general Golden Age metaphor that he likes to play with this idea of everything, if you look at the friezes of the our pockets, and livers golf garden room, all the flowers are in full bloom at the same time. So everything’s great, you know, no one’s having to work hard. And I can tell you, as someone who kills a lot of plants, it’s not easy to get them to bloom, you know, is nothing, even if you’re the best gardener in the world, you know, having everything be just right, that’s fantastical. But the artists also put flowers that would bloom at completely separate times. They’re all in full bloom together. So you know, it’s kind of ignoring the rules of nature. So it really taps into I think, what he’s saying that it’s a very visual reminder of the fantastical, because everything about you know, it’s natural, but it’s really not natural at all these plants, you know, on the our pockets, you’ve got one plant transforming into another. So it’s a very obvious visual kind of transformation. And clearly, you know, acanthus doesn’t transform into vines and into roses and stuff at the end. But it’s just this kind of miraculousness. And I think, again, it’s not maybe an obvious kind of this is a political statement. But just that overall sense of this is a great time, you know, we’ve had all of this war, and now everything’s happy and everything’s blooming. And we see this reflected in poems like the Eclogues, where it talks about the kind of over abundance of all of the plants and the flowers. So yeah, I think he’s kind of tapping into that same messaging with this kind of stuff.

Dr Rad 34:32
And that’s kind of what you looked at as being this idea of hyper fertile abundance. Right?

Dr Victoria Austen 34:37
Yeah. And I think with the abundance that is being depicted on these two pieces of artwork, and this links to what I was just saying about, it’s so abundant that it’s not just that you’ve created, you’re such a good gardener that things are at their best, but it’s kind of outside of the natural time of things because I Everything is in full bloom at once. And so irregardless of those individual plants cycles and life cycles, you’ve got the best of everything all at the same time. So it kind of goes one step further than just, I’ve managed to cultivate something to the point of it being like the best. Now, I’m creating like this completely fantastical abundance. And that’s why I think that kind of hyper fertility I talked about in my work, because it’s not just individual plants doing their own thing. It’s like, I’ve created this so called natural thing, but it’s really outside of nature, where we’re pushing it into the kind of fantastical or, you know, the marvellous,

Dr G 35:43
It’s interesting because it sort of stands outside sort of seasonal representation as well. And it’s like an often that’s something that the Romans are interested in, and it plays into everything about how they understand the calendar. And, and yet in this representation on the parkas, it’s like, you don’t get to sense it’s not like one side, it’s winter. One side is autumn, things like that, which you might expect. It’s like, it’s all happening all the time.

Dr Victoria Austen 36:08
Yeah, exactly. Like there’s no pause in this. And it’s exactly the same in Livia’s garden room. It’s, everything’s in full bloom at once. So you could never, you could never get this in reality. So it’s completely beyond the realms of what is possible in in a real garden.

Dr G 36:27
A big political statement, I think, is on the horizon.

Dr Victoria Austen 36:30
I think so yeah. Because he’s basically saying, like, look, look what I can create or cultivate, and I think, ideas of cultivation and kind of cultic. I mean, we do get those words from the same. From the same Latin stem, this idea of the kind of growth and that fantastical, I think plays in with the religious kind of aspect in general, and that kind of sacred, like, we we are so great that we’re going beyond what is kind of humanly possible. And again, Augustus, therefore, is inserting himself into this traditional connection between plants and kind of sacred groves. And now he’s saying, like, look, I too, can create a kind of sacred grove because, you know, look at my sacred grove, it’s the our pocket.

Dr G 37:22
So modest.

Dr Rad 37:24
It’s interesting, though, when you’re comparing those two places, you know, Livia’s villa and the Ara Pacis, because presumably, a smaller circle of people would have seen live years than then maybe could have experienced there are pockets.

Dr Victoria Austen 37:39
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s why it’s useful to us. And for me to be able to compare the two and draw these comparisons to help me understand what’s going on in the pockets. But as he said, we do have to remember that the Ara Pacis that’s the kind of very public monument, whereas we have garden room, clearly not everyone’s going to dinner at the villa of Livia to begin with. And then the fact it’s also in these kind of underground rooms as well, like, you have to go through a very kind of special set of corridors to get there. Like it does seem like it would be a very select audience that would see that. So you’ve got two very different types of audience, which is something that I want to it’s kind of frustrating the Livius garden room, because there’s always that question of, well, who would have asked Who was this for? Like, is it because she’s like, I want, you know, it would be very self indulgent if it was just for Augustus like, look how great I am. This is my room!

Dr Rad 38:45
It’s his man cave, where he goes to brainstorm – how am I going to use plants for evil next?

Dr Victoria Austen 38:54
Maybe I should, I should suggest that in my in my next, my next article it is actually Augustus’ man cave.

Dr Rad 39:01
Actually it reminds me a bit like this is gonna be the most random reference. But this is what happens when you watch too much television. It reminds me a little bit of this episode of Ru Paul’s series, AJ and the Queen where Ru Paul directly goes to visit his girlfriend and she has these ridiculous parties with all these other like rich people in the city that they’re in. But then during the party, she she taps a few of the wives on the shoulder to go upstairs to her bedroom for like a private Slumber Party part of the socialising and I kind of imagining Livia. Like, come on down.

Dr Victoria Austen 39:36
Yeah, come and see my garden room. And there is there is also some suggestion, although it’s kind of up in the air, but Livia’s villa is also where the very famous Prima Porta statue of Augustus was found. And there is some suggestion, you know, what was it by the entrance to this garden room, you know, some people have posited that as well. So that feeds into this man cave idea. It’s I look I’ve, I’ve and maybe it’s not Livia’s garden room at all. Maybe we should call it Augustus’.

Dr G 40:08
And that’s my statue. I’m looking pretty good.

Dr Victoria Austen 40:12
That’s me. These are my palms. All the Gods love me.

Dr G 40:20
Some classic Augustan moments. Yeah. So taking this idea of this sort of like hyper fertile abundance, there’s also this idea that you discuss called contain profusion. And I’m interested in how that’s coming into play as well.

Dr Victoria Austen 40:35
Yeah. So I think the super interesting thing about both of these pieces of art is, you kind of see them on your initial impression. And then when you look into the actual composition, you take a closer look, you realise it’s a bit more complicated, as with many pieces of art, than you first thought. So with both pieces, your initial impression is, wow, everything’s, as you said, everything’s going on all at once there’s spirals, you know, everything’s in full bloom, everything looks fantastical, it’s amazing. With Livia’s garden room, there’s some kind of subtle evidence of control in this kind of painting. So there are a couple of fences in the painting as well. So this idea of kind of bounding the plants in and we do have a kind of nice, very neat kind of grass area at the front, which kind of balances out this idea of all of these fantastical trees in the background. Also, when you look closer at the trees, it does seem that they have been kind of pruned or trimmed into very nice shapes. So again, this idea of, yes, it’s this abundance, but it’s really all an illusion, because it’s been created in this way. This idea that it just kind of spontaneously erupts. I think when you look closer, it’s complicated, a bit more in the garden room, because we have this evidence of the kind of shaping and pruning of the various plants and you also realise that there is general kind of artistic audit to the composition with the balance between the kind of foreground and the background of the painting. Similarly, with the Ara Pacis, initially, you’re kind of wowed by just the all encompassing, it’s kind of you know, this huge friezes. But then when you take a step back, you realise that each of these panels is kind of surrounded by a very kind of unnatural geometric kind of border. And then it’s obviously enclosed by the figural, friezes at the top as well. And so you get this idea that yes, it’s abundant, but I talked about it being contained, because on the our pockets, it’s kind of physically contained within the two friezes within the frieze panels. And for me, I think this kind of taps into this idea that Augustus wants there to be this rebirth of the state, he wants there to be this regeneration, but only to a certain extent, or there’s there’s a kind of right way to do this and a wrong way to do this. So when you think, oh, yeah, we want everything to bloom and everything to be great. Well, no, we actually want we actually want some control over this. So I think it’s this, it’s this balancing act between he wants to kind of give the impression or illusion that everything is free flowing. overflowing, brilliant, wonderful. But actually, there’s this very clever control going on. And I think we see this in many of the laws that he put in to do with kind of women’s sexuality, and this idea of, you know, encouraging children and you know, no sex outside of marriage, like this kind of idea. And he famously kind of punished his daughter for not following these rules. So there’s the idea of, there’s a right way to be fertile, I think and that’s kind of mirrored in these like sexual laws. And so he wants to give the impression of encouraging it, but only to a certain extent. So there’s a there’s an appropriate amount of growth.

Dr G 44:17
I kind of liked how there’s always the inherent irony for Augustus about how his relationship with Livia came around and how that plays into this as well because it’s like he’s trying so hard to be so controlling. And I was like, this guy he’s got some issues.

Dr Victoria Austen 44:33
Yeah, well, I’m this goes back to the to the miraculous event. Livia’s Villa like he needs that story. Because when you think about it, like he was marrying someone that got divorced and was pregnant with another man’s child, like that goes against everything that like kind of legislatively he had put in so he needed something to to make That kind of divine or suspicious sign. And I think it’s very interesting that he just used the kind of plants to do that. It’s fertile ground for appropriation

Dr Rad 45:11
Well surely that’s got to be part of the appeal of Livia, like, I like to joke that Augustus had like some sort of fetish for pregnant women. But really, really, he probably was looking at her and going, right. She’s elite, and I know she can get knocked up.

Dr Victoria Austen 45:26
Yeah, well, and it was never the plan for Tiberius to actually be I mean, but we now know we, you know, with hindsight, that’s what he ended up becoming so. So the kind of the omen with this laurel kind of takes on another life when we think well, actually, it was all about little Tiberius was in her belly at the time.

Dr Rad 45:48
For Tiberius, in spite of the fact that I am a fan of his, I actually think his life would have been a lot better if he never became emperor.

Dr Victoria Austen 45:55
Also with the Laurel Grove as well. Again, this 100% Really Happened idea. It was said that just before like the death of Nero, that Laurel Grove like withered away, because it signalled like the death of the Julio Claudian dynasty. So you know, perfect timing. So all of these kind of plant tropes, they kind of continue on with this idea of the Laurel and the triumphal crowns, but it just wasn’t working out.

Dr Rad 46:24
Still, I actually just watched the most recent episode of The Rings of Power, and there is a city which has a story associated with it, that when that city is in power, and it’s about to fall that the leafs will fall off the tree that’s in the centre. Yeah, no, it’s yeah, it’s not like a it’s an idea that we actually keep returning to, in spite of the fact that there is a massive disconnect from nature for a lot of people in the modern world.

Dr Victoria Austen 46:48
And so I just think it’s really interesting. This kind of balance with both the Ara Pacis and Livia’s garden room, you’ve got this tension between the kind of wild and the tame, and the kind of natural and the unnatural, because you’re giving this illusion that it’s completely wild, which would be natural, but actually, it’s been tamed. And that is unnatural. But so he’s kind of trying to walk a thin line there. Between those two, so yeah, very, like I said at the beginning, you know, it’s, it’s subtle, but it doesn’t kind of detract from what’s going on in those upper friezes of the Ara Pacis. So I think it’s just kind of like complementing and enhancing and kind of maybe complicating, you know it a little bit as well. And so I just think it makes it even more interesting. Yeah, monument. Because there’s so many figures. Like, I don’t need to analyse another sculpture of men and togas, like I just don’t.

Dr G 47:52
Aw come on think of the fun. And this toga is sitting like this

Dr Rad 47:52
The drapery.

Dr Victoria Austen 47:59
Yeah, I’m like, but what about these swans that are pointing down at this acanthus?

Dr Rad 48:05
I love it. I love it. So if we try and put maybe the our pockets in a bit of context here, like we’ve been talking about, you know, what was outside of Livia’s Villa and that sort of thing. What do we know about the area that’s around the our pockets? Is there some sort of transition from Garden to a campus frieze that might be comparable to the way that trees were integrated into the exterior of Augustus as mausoleum?

Dr Victoria Austen 48:27
Yeah, so it’s both Yes. And no, is going to be my answer to that. So in very broad terms, as I’ve said, it’s part of this Campus Martius Park, which is seen as this overall kind of mixture of the monumental and this landscaped park. So I do think we have that nice mixture going on, however, you know, in the immediate surroundings of the Ara Pacis we think that it’s pretty much kind of like, paved stones, essentially. So in that sense, there would be a kind of break from maybe the greenery leading up directly to the monument, which I think again, would maybe make the floor friezes stand out even more, because you’ve kind of you are surrounded to some extent by more artificial materials in the immediate surroundings. And then you’ve got like kind of bam, this big kind of floral reminder. So it’s in that way, it’s different to, for example, the mausoleum of Augustus, which is close by, and that actually had plantings like literally on it. So I think it’s slightly less integrated on the parkas but then I suppose I would argue that maybe it’s not because we have the floor friezes. So is that seen as a kind of, to me, that’s just a transference of what we’ve seen on the mausoleum, but onto stone, like they’re doing the same kind of thing, just in a different format.

Dr G 49:54
Yeah. And I think that’s the sort of thing where that’s the power of the marble in a way is So as you can create that vision, and it becomes a static vision as well. So it’s like the symbolism is always the symbolism that you want it to be. Whereas if you’re relying on the garden that you’ve created to do that work, you’re you’d have less control over the seasonal elements.

Dr Victoria Austen 50:18
So again, it kind of plays into that, yes, you’re, you’re gonna have the nice kind of real greenery. But that is subject to the elements, it is subject to seasonal change, if you put it in a painting, or it’s in marble, it’s frozen in time, it’s that fantastical. So again, that’s a level of control. When we talk about profusion, it’s all an illusion, it’s not, it’s not actually just spontaneous, you know, as you sit, you know, it takes a long time to carve that marble. So, you know, it’s, and it’s not going anywhere. So it’s, it kind of plays in with the idea of the eternal Augustan piece as well, this idea of, you know, we’re stamping this monument with things that it lasts forever, like this idea of, you know, his victories, that annually re commemorated, you know, there’s meant to be a sacrifice every year, there’s kind of this continual reminder of the original messaging that’s been reinforced on a daily basis by the friezes on the outside,

Dr Rad 51:24
you hear that Dr. G, it’s all an illusion that we’re taking away from this. Fake

Dr G 51:37
Ouch, I feel like the Res Gestae would have something to say about that. We won’t touch on that subject for now. Let’s say as a wrap up question, let’s say we’re going to Rome, that’s the big dream. And we’re in the garden room, or we’re at the Ara Pacis what kind of details and ideas would you encourage us to focus on and think about when we’re in those spaces and seeing them as a viewer.

Dr Victoria Austen 52:01
So I’ll start with Livia’s garden room, because I think it’s quite easy as a viewer to kind of transport yourself back to the ancient world, because it’s been the room has essentially been recreated in the museum like a arched doorway to enter the room is designed to be like the exact same size as the arched kind of open doorway. So you get this real sense of, and I think it’s really nice when you’re about to enter the room to kind of pause because you can see a kind of glimpse of an initial tree, like through the open archway. And so you kind of getting this hint at what’s going on. And then when you step in, there’s like this Wow moment that you realise it’s not just the wall in front of you, but it’s actually all around. So I think, you know, as someone who spent a lot of time sitting in that room, take your time sitting in the room, and I think you want to with both of these monuments or, or representations, I think you have your initial perception, but then you want to take that time to kind of think about the individual elements of the composition, because I think you kind of get a different flavour each time you look at it, I’m always noticing something different every time I look at just the images of these places. So I really, I really just with Livia’s garden room would say, you know, have that moment of pause before you enter to kind of get that transition between what you see as you’re approaching versus the experience actually being surrounded by it. With the Ara Pacis, I think the thing that I would say and we’ve already kind of spoken a bit about this is don’t forget the colour, because I think because of the museum it’s in and I was thinking about it. Before this question, I think it kind of does it a disservice. And I know that other people have issues with the museum that it’s that in, but I think it’s quite hard to imagine it in its original surroundings because it’s a very, very stark, almost like modernist museum that it’s in. And I think it takes it’s a lot harder to kind of imagine its original surroundings compared to living as garden room. So I think you can take in everything for the individual monument. But you’ve got to try and imagine it not in this stark, clean line space, but instead as part of a big park. So you kind of want to imagine that you’re you’re in this big park and you’ve kind of been interacting with people. And yeah, try and put them back in their original location, I think is is a nice way to appreciate them on that level.

Dr Rad 54:36
Cool if they could make a duplicate, like a replica and put that integrated space in Rome. So that people that actually yeah, interact with it. Maybe we should apply for funding to do you. Copyright copyright.

Dr Victoria Austen 54:50
Yeah, we will. I’ll contact someone. It could be like a, we could get a modern sculptor involved and they could resculpt the Ara Pacis and paint it and everything. Yeah, I just think. And more, and they need to do more of the light shows the VR. Yeah, like you said it shouldn’t just be a special occasion. Yeah,

Dr G 55:13
I was gonna say was on like one day a week in the evening and I was like, Guys, this needs to be all day every day.

Dr Rad 55:20
It is the 10th anniversary of our podcast next year. So I think we apply based on the fact that Dr. G’s favourite Emperor of All Time is Augustus. I think Rome should throw a celebration in her honour and create an Augustan theme park so she can be happy forever

Dr G 55:37
would be interesting to try and create the Campus Martius like holus bolus somewhere it’s like Rome has a lot of garden space available and it’s just kind of talking to the right people.

Dr Victoria Austen 55:48
Yeah, and and well now it’s also cool because like they’ve reopened the mausoleum, which pages I need to go back so that I can I can then get a sense of how those two would work together.

Dr Rad 55:59
That’s very thing. Yeah, definitely.

Dr G 56:02
Yes. That’s the dream. I haven’t been able to be back since it open. Yeah, I’m blaming the pandemic.

Dr Victoria Austen 56:09
I think I’m hoping to go next year. So fingers crossed.

Dr G 56:12
Likewise. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Dr Victoria Austen 56:16
We can have an Augustan party.

Dr Rad 56:19
I won’t come but

Dr G 56:25
That’s disappointing to hear, but understandable.

Dr Rad 56:28
I’ll come but I’ll be like moody and standoffish which I Yeah, in the vibe of Tiberius. Yeah,

Dr G 56:34
Fair enough. Fair enough. Well, Dr. Austen, thank you so much for spending this time.

Dr Victoria Austen 56:39
Thank you so much. This is great.

Dr G 56:41
It’s been really good to chat. And yeah, I feel like I’ve got like a whole new vision to think about when it comes to these spaces.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!

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