In 1863, during the excavations, the Villa Livia was discovered – archaeologists saw chambers full of unusual frescoes. Particularly noteworthy is the room with frescoes depicting a fabulous Mediterranean garden – and really, dear reader, when looking at the paintings, we get the impression that we are in a real garden, full of flowers, palm trees, pine trees and orange and lemon trees (it makes you want to reach out and pick this fruit).
Various birds fly or walk among the vegetation: blackbirds, quails and thrushes. But these frescoes are not only meant to please the eye, because if we look at them, but we will also notice laurel trees and white chickens… and this is related to the story, dear reader, which became the key to the legend of Octavian, after his victory at Actium.
This legend is told by various ancient writers. Sometimes it differs slightly in detail; and she tells about how Livia, recently married to Octavian, walks in the garden of her villa. Suddenly, a snow-white little chicken fell on her, which had been dropped by a flying eagle. A frightened little chick was holding a laurel twig in its beak. Livia, sensing a symbolic message in this event, went to the augurs (priests). They advised her to plant a twig in the garden. Soon the twig grew to form a lush laurel grove. And when the little chicken grew older, it got a flock of small, equally white chickens.
This myth became very important to the heirs of Octavian and Livia. As long as laurels grow in Livia’s gardens, the dynasty she initiated and Octavian will prosper. The laurel twigs themselves will become an attribute and symbol of the divine right to rule. Hence, both August and later emperors decorated their temples with a laurel wreath.
Of course, this is a myth. So far, researchers have not been able to find this legendary garden in which the laurel trees were celebrated in legends. But during excavations at the southwestern edge of the Prima Porta slope, hundreds of cracked clay pots were found that were being fired in Livia’s villa. Perhaps in these pots, there were legendary laurel bushes?
Frescoes depicting Livia’s fabulous garden are currently on display at the National Museum in Rome.