EVERYTHING IN THE GARDEN’S LOVELY
Twenty-year old Livia Drusilla must have considered herself lucky. Born in 58 BC into a wealthy noble Roman family - beautiful, intelligent, married with a son and another on the way, everything in her life was proceeding as it should to all intents and purposes. However destiny had other plans for her. Despite being six months pregnant with a second son, a chance meeting changed her life forever. She caught the eye of the Emperor Augustus who it is recorded, fell in love with her on the spot. Augustus was the great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar who appointed him his heir in his will. If you valued your life you didn’t argue with the Emperor. Livia’s husband Tiberius Claudius Nero - no, not that one - agreed not only to a rapid divorce but also to give Livia away when she married Augustus. Following that shock double whammy, he vanished in a puff of smoke, never to be heard of again. Augustus divorced his much older second wife Scribonia on the day she bore him a daughter, Julia. She and his first wife Claudia’s marriages lasted only two years apiece. Both unions were for purely political reasons, perfectly normal for the times. The emperor married Livia in 38 BC, shortly after the birth of her son - it was to be third time lucky for him. Their childless marriage lasted for 51 years until Augustus’s death at the age of 75. Livia outlived him, dying at the ripe old age of 86. Considering the average life span at the time was 50 to 60 if you were lucky, their joint longevity was remarkable. Towards the end of her life Livia’s steely character came to the fore as she schemed and plotted with a ruthless resolve to ensure her son Tiberius became the next emperor. Augustus and Livia’s Rome town house surprisingly not a grand palace despite them being the most powerful couple in the known world
- is near the Temple of Apollo on the exclusive Palatine Hill above the Forum where the Roman elite lived in luxury, surrounded by servants, beautiful gardens, pools and fountains. The house can be visited today. Livia was a good manager of household affairs. She was unostentatious in her dress and manner, treated her inferiors with consideration and even made clothes for her powerful husband. Augustus learned to trust her judgement, relying on her advice increasingly as the years passed by. She became the quiet influential power behind the throne and was given the honour of becoming the first Roman woman to have a coin minted with her image on it in 16 BC. Livia was undoubtedly Rome’s very first First Lady. Upon her marriage, Livia brought her families’ country villa at Prima Porta as part of her dowry. It’s about nine miles north of Rome - a day’s journey in those times. Built on a hill with commanding views over the Tiber valley, the villa was called Villa ad
Gallinas Albas - villa of the white chickens. The reason for this curious name being that Livia had a dream where an eagle dropped a pure white chicken carrying a laurel branch in its beak into her lap. Soothsayers pronounced that she should always keep a flock of white hens at the villa and plant a laurel grove in the middle of the garden. This she did. The laurels, which she tended herself, grew so vigorously they were used to make triumphal wreaths for the rest of Augustus’s reign and indeed for generations to come. Both she and Augustus clearly enjoyed gardens and the outdoors. Most of the villa’s bedrooms lead onto a courtyard or directly into the garden which was protected on three sides by a pillared portico, leaving the southern view unhindered looking out across the Tiber valley the hills beyond. The effect is no longer as impressive as its immediate surroundings are rather built up today. This open living style is a very early example of the integration of landscape, gardens and architecture into one harmonious whole, echoed in the twentieth century by architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright with the integration of his Fallingwaters house in Pennsylvania built in 1935 where the gardens and the immediate landscape became part of the design, integrated into his global architectural concept.
The couple’s large garden was full of every imaginable plant available at the time, including apricots, apples, peaches, plums, pomegranates, figs and olives. Suetonius, a contemporary historian, recorded that they “preferred porticos and groves to statues and paintings”. Livia had a small private garden outside her bedroom where she grew medicinal herbs. Could her use of them be a clue to her long life? Augustus improved the villa, which was already spacious and elegant with its painted walls, coloured marble and mosaic floors, fragments of which can be seen today. In addition to its summer use, it was designed to be an allweather retreat with under floor heating, thermal baths and protected private winter quarters. The villa featured three vaulted rooms, built half below ground to keep its occupants cool during the scorchingly hot summers. They had decorated stucco ceilings of which fragments remain. The dining room would have been furnished with low divans for guests to recline on with tables before them as servants bought in endless platters of food such as chicken – not those lovely white ones surely – a variety of meats, eggs, olives, vegetables, fruit, fresh or dried and wine, invariably diluted with water. It was considered vulgar to drink it neat. One especially tasty morsel served as a starter was dormice dipped in honey rolled in poppy seeds. Dinner parties could last as long as eight
hours. No wonder they needed those divans. The Dining Room, which seated up to 16 people at a pinch, featured one of the most beautiful and charming Roman murals ever discovered. Depicting a garden scene complete with birds, flowers and fruit, all flowering and fruiting simultaneously for maximum effect. Iris, oleanders, roses, violets, poppies, acanthus and chrysanthemums bloom in unison. Created between 30 – 20 BC, running right round the room, partridges, doves and goldfinches fly amid the sun-lit trees or feed on the fruits. A goldfinch is trapped in a small golden cage placed on a wall. The painted garden is surrounded by a picket fence with a boundary wall in the background. Discovered in 1863 it was eventually removed and restored and is on view at the Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome. Well worth a visit for the mural alone. It’s a pity there isn’t a really good facsimile in the actual room at the villa - due to a lack of funds needless to say.
The villa was extended and restored over the next four centuries, adding better heating systems, baths, saunas and cold rooms, fashionable larger reception rooms and a swimming pool before being abandoned and looted in the 5th century. The remains of the villa were first unearthed in the sixteenth century. Serious excavation work did not take place until 1863 when apart from the garden mural, an imposing statue of Augustus was discovered, now in the Vatican museum. Archaeologists continue to work on the villa today. Surrounded by a pleasant park, Livia’s villa is open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays 9.30 – 1.30 Admission is free. If you don’t have a car, catch a Roma Nord train from Piazza Flaminia to Prima Porta. After visiting the villa and its little museum, followed by a walk in the park you might well feel like a bite to eat. If you do have transport, Il Grottino at Via Tiberina, Pian dell’olmo is a rustic trattoria serving simple Roman dishes made from fresh locally sourced ingredients. Classic Roman food at its best the likes of which Augustus and his Livia might well have enjoyed in that beautiful dining room more than two thousand years ago. No dormice dipped in honey on the menu – you’ll have to look further afield for that sought after delicacy.