Few Roman residents and tourists have heard of Livia’s villa, despite the fact that one of the most famous statues of Emperor Augustus was found at this site in northern Rome, as well as one of the most beautiful set of frescoes. The statue, now based in the Vatican museums, and the frescoes, housed at Palazzo Massimo, are the closest most people get to seeing this villa and learning about the life of Livia, wife of Augustus and mother of his successor Tiberius.
There are no real obstacles to reaching the site. Roma Nord trains run from Piazza Flaminio and stop just a short walk away at the station of Prima Porta. It is open on the first, third, and occasional fifth weekend of each month, and it’s free!
I visited recently with Paolo Biondi, a former colleague of mine who has written a book about Livia’s life. He has highlighted how we all hear so much about Augustus’ rule over Rome between 27 BC-14 AD but we know so little about the woman who stood by his side for more than 50 years. He also paints a broader picture of her character, while most historical accounts of the period are limited to her role in several deaths at the time and her control over her family.
Livia’s villa is mentioned in ancient texts which gave it the name “Ad Gallinas Albas” based on a legend that described an eagle dropping a white hen into Livia’s lap. The hen was holding a laurel branch in its beak and omen interpreters told her to raise the bird and its offspring, and to plant the branch, which she did on the site of this villa where the Via Flaminia meets the Via Tiberina.
Augustus is believed to have fallen in love with Livia Drusilla at first sight, even though he was still married to Scribonia and she was married to Tiberius Claudius Nero and pregnant with her second child. Divorces were arranged and Augustus and Livia were married shortly after the birth of Nero Claudius Drusus in 38 BC.
Once married to Livia, Augustus rebuilt this countryside residence, introducing many large green spaces. This reflects the fact that the couple liked being surrounded by nature and groves.
The villa was abandoned in the 5th century AD, and subsequently pillaged and looted for antiquities. In 1863, the famous statue of Augustus of Prima Porta was discovered on the site, as well as the birds and trees frescoes in an underground dining area. These were moved to museums in the city to conserve them.
It was only in 1982, when the site was bought by the archaeology authority of Rome, that it was properly safeguarded and renovations were initiated. Here is a map of the villa and gardens to give you an idea of their shape and size.
When you first reach the remains of the villa, you come into the private quarters. These date to the Augustan period with some rebuilding work undertaken in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Here you can see the rooms that Livia and Augustus used, with some of the floor mosaics remaining, and close by you can also see a reconstructed herbal garden belonging to Livia.
“Traditionally in the Republican era, countryside residences were used for cultivating plants and flowers. Livia also did this in front of her bedroom where she had her private garden and where she enjoyed growing her medicinal herbs,” said Biondi.
The private quarters emerge onto a large square terrace surrounded with porticoes. The Lauretum, or laurel grove, stood in the centre of this garden. It is believed that the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty obtained the branches for their triumphal wreaths from here. Probably other trees existed beside the laurel plants, such as apple, apricot, peach, fig and olive trees.
After wandering back through the private quarters, we arrived at the residential sector of the villa. Here large ceremonial rooms, used for banquets and receptions, surround a huge peristyle, or open square. This is decorated with mosaics depicting marine scenes that are covered at the moment but will probably look spectacular when renovated. A swimming pool was added to the centre of this square in the Flavian period. Here is the peristyle with the pool in the centre and the covered mosaics, viewed from inside the residential area.
We walked across the peristyle and then came to the triclinium, which was as an underground banquet hall used for dining in the hot summer time.
Walking through this door and down some steps, you come to the dining room, where the beautiful frescoes that are now housed in Palazzo Massimo were originally displayed. Dating back to around 38 BC, they depict an array of different trees bearing fruit and surrounded by pretty birds.
“Livia had a fresco painted on the walls which reproduced the nature outside. In fact there are several types of trees, and there are also 69 different types of birds, like those found in the woods around the villa,” said Biondi. “People who were inside this triclinium, relaxing and having dinner, had to have the impression they were in a garden with pines, orange trees, pomegranate, roses… plants that also probably surrounded the villa at the time.”
A copy of the originals has been placed in the underground chamber, also to show how they were set up with a slight distance from the walls, to help preserve them and avoid damage from dampness.
“There were probably about four divans in here which people would lay on. About eight people could fit in comfortably, but numbers could go up to about 16. They would lay back on these divans with little tables around them where chicken, eggs, fruit and wine would be laid. Wine was always served mixed with water, probably because the wines made at the time were very strong and had to be diluted,” said Biondi.
Next we moved on to the guest rooms, where the remains of some pretty mosaics and grotesque paintings on the walls can still be seen.
Finally we wandered through the elaborate thermal baths complex, and saw the varying rooms including the frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium for cold, lukewarm and hot dips.
Livia never had any children with Augustus. But using her influence over him, she managed to push her sons Tiberius and Nero Claudius Drusus into powerful positions and convinced Augustus to name Tiberius as his heir. When Augustus died in 14 AD and Tiberius became emperor, mother and son initially had a good relationship. However, Tiberius grew resentful of her power, particularly the idea that she had arranged the throne for him. He vetoed a plan to give her the title “Mother of the Fatherland”. Historians such as Tacitus portray Livia as an overbearing matriarch and explain Tiberius’ move to Capri as motivated by his desire to escape her. After she died in 29 AD he vetoed further honors that were due to be bestowed on her and failed to fulfill her will.
Her influence lived on for years however, as she was also the paternal grandmother of Emperor Claudius, who restored many of her honors, paternal great-grandmother of Emperor Caligula and maternal great-great-grandmother of Emperor Nero.
I highly recommend a visit to Livia’s villa if you are in Rome on the right weekends, and you double-check that it is open. It is a site steeped in history and I’m sure it will be fantastic when further renovations are completed and more of the mosaics are revealed. If you don’t have time to visit the site of the villa, aim to at least see the wonderful frescoes in Palazzo Massimo, next to Termini station.
For more information on the villa see here
For information on Palazzo Massimo see here