The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Victoria Austen
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I’ve never had a “favourite” ancient text – I think one of the wonderful things about ancient Greek and Latin literature is that there is something for every occasion and mood. I think I am also lucky that my research interests (gardens and landscapes) are not limited to one particular author, genre, or period, so I tend to dip in to a whole range of texts – I love the variety that presents.
I do, however, have a favourite Roman wall painting – Livia’s Garden Room at Prima Porta. I don’t think I will ever tire of how visually stunning it is.
When did you first come across this room?
I distinctly remember doing my first Google search for “Roman garden paintings” at the very beginning of my garden research journey and images for Livia’s Garden Room instantly populated my feed. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of it before!
At the time of the search, I had no plans to make artistic renderings of gardens a major part of my PhD project – I thought (perhaps naively) that I would be sticking firmly in the literature lane – but it was the discovery of the images of the room that made me rethink the whole scope of my project and move to an intermedial analysis of garden boundaries and their functions. Looking back, that Google search really was a complete game-changer in terms of the future trajectory of all my research.
Can you tell me a bit about this room and its context?
The garden room was located in the underground apartments of the Villa of Livia, which was built in the early years of the Augustan regime and was located just outside of Rome.
The villa site is, perhaps, most famous as the location of the Prima Porta Augustus statue – but it can also be understood as part of a deliberate monopolisation of specific plant types to establish a ‘botanic mythology’ for Augustus and his family.
This mythology is encapsulated in the story of the omen of the Gallina Alba, which also took place at the villa: soon after the marriage of Livia to Augustus, an eagle flew down and dropped a white hen with a sprig of laurel right into her lap. She was advised to preserve the hen and its offspring, and to plant the laurel as religious observation. To mark the spot of this auspicious event, Livia planted the sprig of laurel at her villa (Pliny Nat. 1.137), where it flourished into a grove. It was from this very grove that Augustus then took branches for his triumphal crowns – and this practice continued for all Julio-Claudian emperors until just before the death of Nero, when the grove (rather ominously!) withered away.
Within this context, it’s unsurprising that the composition of Livia’s Garden Room is also full of ‘Augustan’ plants (and it is for this reason that is often viewed in conjunction with the lower floral friezes of the Ara Pacis). For example, laurel, oak, and palms feature prominently, and these three plants feature in significant Augustan events – the laurel and oak played a central role on the day Octavian was given the name Augustus (Dio 53.16.4), and the oak and palm feature in a tree-based anecdote (Suet. Aug. 92.1-2) that was seen as a symbol of the rebirth of the state under the new Principate.
What is it about this room that appeals to you most?
The composition and artistry in the room are obviously amazing, but what intrigues me is just how well the room encapsulates the Romans’ desire to play with the boundaries of garden space.
For example, it takes the illusionistic prospect of the so-called Second Style of Roman wall painting to its limits – rather than being presented with a landscape vista as seen through colonnades (as we would expect with the Second Style), this garden features no visible architectural supports at all. Instead, we are presented with an unbroken garden prospect that wraps around the entire room so that, rather than looking ‘out’ in to a garden, we now feel like we are firmly ‘in’ it. This is then complicated further by the inclusion of a wicker fence and stone wall within the painting that also wrap around the entire room – when you break down the composition, it’s not actually clear which bit is meant to be the garden at all!
And this leads me to one of the things I love the most about Livia’s Garden Room – you can still, to a large extent, experience the room in its ‘original’ form. The frescoes are now housed at the Museo Nazionale Romano, and are displayed in a reconstructed room with the same dimensions as the original subterranean complex. This creates a far more immersive experience than simply looking at each individual panel along a wall. When I visited the museum in 2016, I could have stayed in that one room for hours (and almost did!).
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
As my Twitter bio states, “I like to bake and run for sanity”. Both of these activities are incredibly important for my mental health, and I have found they have been even more important during the recent COVID-19 lockdown (although I think I failed at quarantine because I did not attempt a sourdough starter – lots of banana bread though!!) I started running in 2016 and have gradually worked my way up from only being able to run for 1 minute continuously to completing a couple of half marathons and also a 15-mile challenge. I love both the physical and mental challenge of running, and I’m not ashamed to say that I am one of those crazy people who runs outside in -30 in the middle of Canadian winter with frozen eyelashes! My current goal is to run 2020km in 2020 – so far, I am on schedule to reach that target.
“I received my PhD in Classics from King’s College London in 2020, and have been a lecturer at the University of Winnipeg since 2019. I am also the communications officer for the Women’s Network of the Classical Association of Canada.
My PhD research focused on the imaginative space of ancient Roman gardens and landscapes across literature and art from the Late Republic and Early Empire; but I also have broader interests in classical reception (particularly related to myth) and the study of race and ethnicity in the ancient world.
I am currently working on adapting my PhD thesis into a monograph, and my article “Columella’s Prose Preface: A Paratextual Reading of De Re Rustica Book 10” was recently accepted for publication in Syllecta Classica (forthcoming in 2021).
I am also the co-chair of a Columella reading group along with David Wallace-Hare.
You can find me tweeting (a lot!) at @Vicky_Austen @columethods and @wn_cac”
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.