Online Review: Book

Die Frauen des römischen Kaiserhauses. Eine Untersuchung ihrer bildlichen Darstellung von Livia bis Julia Domna

By Annetta Alexandridis. Pp. xv + 432, pls. 64, tables 29. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2004. €75.80. ISBN 3-8053-3304-8 (cloth).


This comprehensive study is a much-expanded version of the author’s dissertation of 1996/1997 at the University of Munich. It is the result of an extensive investigation of the issues of the depiction of Roman imperial women and of previous scholarship, as reflected in the long footnotes. Here, the author thoroughly debates the various scholarly opinions of particular aspects of the topic.

The introduction addresses the various methods used to date Roman portraiture. This is followed by a chapter on propaganda and the atmosphere that affected the creation of those portraits in antiquity. The third chapter discusses the public image of women in imperial households and various programs in this context. In the fourth chapter, the visual material is analyzed from a variety of perspectives. The summary is followed by a catalogue and three appendices. One is a roster of portraits capite coperto, another a typology of statues and lists of replicas, and the third names coin types followed by detailed tables and inscriptions. Finally, several indices facilitate the use of this volume as a reference work.

Alexandridis sees three major themes in research that have been pursued in the recent past: the image of the emperors and their families (“Herrscherbild”) as a political phenomenon, the problem of theomorphism, and the question raised by gender studies regarding the specifics of female imagery. She finds that the individual facial type and the idealized bodies are not to be recognized as formal but as a conceptual unit concerned with the display of ideal qualities. Furthermore, she posits that research on theomorphic representation has tended to place more focus on the intentions of the ruler rather than the reception by the general populace. For gender studies, she finds that the variety of depictions of women still requires further interpretation, and that the literary image has not been given sufficient consideration by modern portrait specialists who have pursued this approach. The goal of this book is to investigate the portraits of women of the imperial families relative to the way the Roman emperors saw themselves and others, as well as the role these women (who did not hold an office) played based on their imagery.

In so doing, the author investigates a range of subjects, and there is little, if anything, that is not covered. Chapter 3 concerns public representations of imperial women. The focus extends to honorary titles and positions, ideology, canons of virtues, tradition and charisma, and stimuli for new types on coin (as well as the particular places where the images were displayed), to name just a few. The following chapter is devoted to visual representation. Here, again, we find a comprehensive catalogue of analyses on image and reality, the significance of particular attributes, spousal and maternal roles, the meaning of statuary types, hairstyles as expression of tradition, jewelry, beauty, and the visual portrayal of various virtues and roles. This chapter ends with thematic and chronological summaries.

Of enormous value for any future work on the subject are the tables. They show the distribution of images of particular women in Italy, the western provinces, North Africa, the Greek east, and unknown origin. For inscriptions, there are tables of particular divinities or types of deities (such as fertility goddesses). These cite the bibliographical reference for the inscription, the deity, and the provenance. Numismatic tables for each woman list the legends vertically and the reverse images horizontally. An example is the case of Plotina, where the reverses show “FELICITAS,” “FIDES,” “MINERVA,” “VESTA,” and “ALTAR.” There are also tables with synopses in which the various disguises are listed vertically and the names of the empresses horizontally. These tables constitute a model. Numismatists, archaeologists, and historians will be grateful to have such a complete catalogue available.

The bibliographical references in this book reveal an admirable level of scholarship and thoroughness of research. The intellectual strength of the publication lies in the fact that Alexandridis does not adhere to one approach, so her analysis of particular images is comprehensive, and her results provide complete pictures. Naturally, such a large and inclusive publication is bound to sometimes echo other authors’ statements. A weakness is that in the scholarly apparatus, too much is repeated that can easily be found in other places. The collecting of information may make it easier for the reader to have it all at hand, but this reviewer considers it to be a virtue when readers and researchers are compelled to consult other and earlier publications. It does not make much sense to quote in the catalogue all the bibliographical references that one would find for the same portrait in other recent titles by such specialists as Bartman, Boschung Rose, Winkes, or Wood. Fortunately, the descriptive part of the catalogue is brief and does not include lengthy descriptions of earlier scholarship. There is also no need to show photographs that have already been illustrated in other pertinent works. All this does is drive up the price of the volume, which, while not outrageous for such a big book, is still considerable. This corpus-like approach is also costly for those who pay for the subvention of such projects, and it may take away from other worthy causes. The digital age is increasingly making publications available worldwide, so the 19th-century tendency to create corpora-like books will probably decrease dramatically within the next few years, just as there will be less need to travel to libraries. Whatever our future setting, this volume by Alexandridis will be considered one of the best of her generation.

Rudolf Winkes
Artemis A.W. and Martha Sharp Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World
P.O. Box 1837
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island 02912

Book Review of Die Frauen des römischen Kaiserhauses. Eine Untersuchung ihrer bildlichen Darstellung von Livia bis Julia Domna, by Annetta Alexandridis

Reviewed by Rudolf Winkes

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 1 (January 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1111.Winkes

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