Body and spirit of Victory: on the multiform conception of Victoria’s femininity in Roman visual culture

Victoria: spandrel relief from the Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna, 203 CE

In this project I analyse the range, variability and complexity of the goddess Victoria’s femininity in Roman visual culture, from the Late Republic through the Late Empire (c. 100 BCE–600 CE). The most disseminated and enduring of all Victoria types, epitomised by the Tarantine statue installed by Octavianus in the Curia Iulia to commemorate his victory at Actium in 31 BCE, was a virginal young woman stepping lightly on a globe, wings spread wide, double-girdled tunic rippling, laurel-wreath and palm-frond in hand, but it was far from exclusive. Between the 2nd and 4th centuries a number of significant variations on Victoria’s femininity developed, ranging from adolescent girls, fluttering little genies and Vestal-like ladies, to sexually alluring Venuses young and mature, brawny warrior-maidens and, in the Christianised Empire, gender- and ageless victory-angels. The virginal femininity of the archetypal Victoria could clearly be negotiated to bring alternative qualities to the fore. The aim of this project is to analyse and interpret this flexible conception of Victoria’s female gender — physical attributes, body language, ways of action and interaction — situated in its specific contexts, whether thematical, political, religious, socio-cultural, geographical or chronological, and within the greater framework of Roman victory ideology and theology. The variable and syncretic qualities of the Roman victory goddess’s femininity in visual representations have largely been neglected in the literature, where typological, chronological and historical aspects of schemata, devices and objective attributes of Victoria have prevailed, and the numismatic material received the most interest by far. When shifting the analytical focus from the typical to the diverse and particular, from the simple and straightforward to the complex and ambiguous, new and wider perspectives open on the perception of Victoria’s divinity and powers as it evolved through the Roman era, hence also on the Roman conception of victory and dominion, their driving forces and effects. The project has evolved from my research on Victoria in Late-Roman visual culture, shortly to be published as a monograph entitled Victory universal and eternal: Victoria and the cosmic conception of victory in Late-Roman and Early-Byzantine visual culture (c. 300-700).

Cecilia Olovsdotter