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  • Livia the PrincepsGender and Ideology in the Consolatio ad Liviam
  • Thomas E. Jenkins (bio)

I. Introduction

The pseudo-Ovidian Consolatio ad Liviam refracts a single politically charged event—the funeral of Drusus the Elder—through an astounding range of viewpoints (mortal and supernatural, female and male, noble and plebeian) and set pieces (consolatory rhetoric, mythological exempla, eyewitness narrative, and internal monologue).1 One constant in this kaleidoscope, however, is the quintessentially Augustan discourse that surrounds the characterization of the empress herself, up to and including the apparently novel application of the term princeps. The appellation princeps thus continues its Augustus-propelled trajectory from a moniker of "the leading statesmen of the Republic" (so Syme 1939),2 to a nebulous and therefore powerful epithet of Augustus and his possible male heirs (so Rowe 2002),3 to a title that, when applied to Livia in the Consolatio, attempts, like much of the poem, to reconcile some of the inherent contradictions in Augustan constructions of imperial womanhood.4 Other imperial narratives of Drusus's death, such as Livy, Seneca, and Tacitus, recognize the importance of the funeral as an icon of Augustus's dynastic ambitions: a curious amalgam of private mourning and public performance played upon the Roman stage. None, however, approach the Consolatio's elaborate structure or its persistent focus on the ever increasing political authority of the women of the Domus Augusta. Indeed, though the poem putatively focuses on Livia's private mourning, it returns time and again to her extraordinary public actions and powers, whether as intensifications of traditional female prerogatives, or as revolutionary steps in imperial patronage and influence. The poem's concluding endorsement of Livia thus attempts, however imperfectly, to balance Livia's gender with her (perhaps troubling) powers of auctoritas.

Though the dramatic date of the poem is 9 B.C.E., the year of Drusus's death, the poem was likely to have been crafted under Tiberius, and thus created precisely at a time of renewed attention to (and anxiety [End Page 1] about) the discourses of gender and power surrounding the imperial household.5 As (Kristina Milnor 2004, 4) has outlined in her recent examination of the ideology of domesticity in the early empire, "The family (especially the emperor's own) and domestic life constituted the central space around which the rest of civic life might be built. It is, of course, a fundamentally paradoxical position…." In Augustus's case, the paradox is particularly acute: the greater the emperor's emphasis on domesticity "as a kind of moralized privacy" (Milnor 2004, 7), the greater the tension with the increasing prominence of imperially connected women, and of their involvement in civic affairs. As an example, Milnor points to the portico dedicated to Livia on the Palatine Hill as emblematic of this paradox; the portico replaced the extravagant private villa of the eques Vedius with a public edifice in honor of Livia (thereby reversing the more traditional associations of the female with the private, and the male with the public).6 Beth Severy (2003, 234) has argued that the principate of Tiberius actually accelerated such innovation in imperial discourse. Representations, particularly literary representations, of Livia were relatively infrequent under Augustus; after Augustus's death, Livia exerted a far greater presence in a number of public forms, including literary references (principally in Ovid), portraiture, coins, and honorific titles.7 This expansion may be linked to Tiberius's own agenda in forging, publicly at least, a unified front with his mother, but it also represents the efflorescence of discursive seeds planted in the previous principate. So while the exact date of the Consolatio is unknown, its primary ideological tensions are thoroughly 'Augustan' in that the poem juggles multiple, and often mutually conflicting, representations of proper female imperial behavior.8

Scholars' comparative neglect of the Consolatio may be attributed not just to its uncertain provenance, but also to its fluid—some may argue chaotic—structure (a structure that presents unique challenges to a modern reader searching for either its narrative unity or its ideological underpinnings). As related by Dio Cassius (55.2.1–3), the facts of Drusus's death are clear enough. While on campaign in Germany in...


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