Accessories to power: imperial women's dress, adornments, and attributes in art and text

Cockell, Lisette (2015). Accessories to power: imperial women's dress, adornments, and attributes in art and text MPhil Thesis, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland. doi:10.14264/uql.2015.923

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Author Cockell, Lisette
Thesis Title Accessories to power: imperial women's dress, adornments, and attributes in art and text
School, Centre or Institute School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry
Institution The University of Queensland
DOI 10.14264/uql.2015.923
Publication date 2015-10-09
Thesis type MPhil Thesis
Supervisor Janette McWilliam
Caillan Davenport
Total pages 139
Language eng
Subjects 210306 Classical Greek and Roman History
Formatted abstract
This thesis investigates the use of accessories, namely adornments and attributes, in the imagery of imperial women from Livia to Julia Soaemias in literary and visual sources. Sartorial accessories were an important means of distinguishing an individual’s place and behaviour within Roman society. Although Roman women did not possess particular items which denoted rank in the same manner that men did, their attire was still treated, especially in literature, as a means of distinguishing one type of woman from another – frequently chaste, austere matrons from women that were frivolous and dissolute in their morals. Jewellery was one particular type of accessory which garnered a great deal of interest from Roman writers, who often associated it with women who acted in a manner that transgressed social expectations, either by lacking fidelity (to their husbands or to the state), or by favouring fashion over their traditional duties. However close reading of texts, especially imperial biographies such as Suetonius’s Lives and the Historia Augusta, reveals that jewellery and similar adornment was mentioned in relation to imperial women in a number of contexts that did not always portray the wearer in a negative fashion. By drawing upon various topoi which involved jewellery and clothing more generally, writers could characterise not only the woman who was thus adorned, but invariably also the emperor with whom she was associated.

A survey of sculpted portraits also shows that here jewellery was perceived in a positive light and served to exalt the woman depicted. Previous studies have explained the presence of jewellery in imperial portraits as either being realistic portrayals of costume, or a representation of the wealth (and thus social capital) that the woman possessed. They also claim that both of these possibilities were, by necessity, generally restricted to a private viewership. However, an examination of the evidence raises another possibility. The constant presence of divine attributes in conjunction with jewellery on glyptic portraits indicates that jewellery in imperial portraits was intended to liken these women to goddesses, who were also represented as being adorned. Moreover, the connotations of fertility and maternity of many of these attributes could mean that jewellery was also intended to emphasise and complement their presence, especially since several of these portraits show women wearing an amulet which might represent a fertility charm.

As imperial women were often shown holding divine attributes, their purpose and employment was also investigated. It was concluded that attributes functioned as visual metaphors, through which imperial women were depicted as having qualities similar to the goddesses who also bore the attribute. The study also shows that in this context attributes were not applied to imperial women in the same schema as they were on representations of goddesses. Instead this could be altered, through omission of certain elements or the addition of others, in order to best suit the context in which the woman was depicted. This thesis will demonstrate that accessories were effective elements in constructing representations of imperial women in art and text.
Keyword Imperial women

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Created: Sun, 27 Sep 2015, 21:16:51 EST by Lisette Cockell on behalf of Scholarly Communication and Digitisation Service