Mother of an empire…
The phrase ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ has rarely been truer than in the case of Livia Drusilla. An intimidatingly powerful woman in life and a goddess in death, she helped to lay the foundations of the Roman Empire.
Born the daughter of a wealthy citizen of the Claudii family, Livia was married to her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, who was also her cousin, when she was fifteen. Her family was at the time embroiled in the civil war between the assassins of Julius Caesar and Caesar’s heir, Octavian – the Claudians were on the side of the assassins.
Bust of Livia circa 31 BCE
Her father committed suicide during the Battle of Philippi, but her husband continued to fight, now on the side of Marc Antony. Livia’s first son, Tiberius, was born a year into their marriage. When he was two years old, the family fled to Greece to escape the Triumvirate formed between Octavian, Antony and Lepidus.
Once peace was finally declared, Livia and her family returned to Rome where, at nineteen years old, she was introduced to Octavian. The young politician was twenty-five and married. Both his wife, Scribonia, and Livia were pregnant, but apparently nothing would stop him.
Octavian quickly divorced Scribonia and instructed Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce Livia. Only three days after she had given birth to her second son, Drusus, Livia was married to the most powerful man in Rome.
Life with Augustus:
Despite unusual beginnings, it was a marriage that would last for 51 years. After Marc Antony’s defeat at Actium in 31 BCE, Octavian changed his title to Augustus and ruled as Emperor – with his wife as his most trusted advisor.
The couple styled themselves as role models for the ideal Roman household. They lived modestly despite their immense wealth, presenting themselves as humble and pious. Livia in particular dressed plainly, rarely wore jewelry and acted as a dutiful and faithful wife in all things, even making Augustus’ clothes herself.
In a world dominated by men, Livia’s role as equal to her husband was highly unusual. She was given control over her own finances, influenced Augustus’ policies and petitioned him on behalf of others. Everyone in Rome knew that the Emperor listened to his wife, and she soon commanded a great deal of power.
They had no children together, though Augustus’ first wife had given birth to a daughter, Julia. Livia did not hesitate in pushing her two sons forward into powerful roles. The younger Drusus became a general and married Augustus’ niece, Antonia Minor. Tiberius was married to Julia and later adopted by Augustus and named heir.
Contemporary sources portrayed Livia as a very proud and dignified woman who was a worthy consort to the Emperor. Her poise is demonstrated in one particular incident which recorded that some naked men once crossed her path (goodness knows why they were naked) and her guards wanted to put them to death for indecency. Livia however saved their lives by claiming that as she was a chaste woman, the men’s bodies were no different to her than statues.
Other writers were not so kind. Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio both suggest that Livia’s greatest ambition was to place her sons in positions of power, and that she was ruthless in her tactics.
Rumors circulated that she murdered Marcellas, Augustus’ favorite nephew and heir by poison – also that she orchestrated the circumstances which led to Agrippa Posthumous, Augustus’ other adopted son, to being exiled and later killed.
Tacitus and Cassius Dio (both of whom were born many years after Livia lived and died) even go as far as to accuse Livia of having poisoned and killed Augustus himself.
Augustus died in 14 CE, leaving a third of his property to Livia and the rest to Tiberius.
Life with Tiberius:
Livia had an often troubled relationship with her eldest son, Tiberius. His reign seemed to get off to a positive start – he made speaking against his mother treason in 20 CE, and in 24 he gifted her an honorary theatre seat amongst the vestal virgins.
However, as Livia continued to exercise the same powers she had held under Augustus, Tiberius began to turn against her. A particular sore spot for him was the public opinion that he owed his throne to his mother.
Livia’s friend, Plancina was saved from execution by the empress after being accused of murdering Drusus’ son Germanicus. In 22 Livia commissioned a statue to Augustus in the centre of Rome and put her own name before her sons on the inscription. These examples and others have been used to perceive Livia as overbearing – when Tiberius retired to his summer home in Capri, historians infer that it was to get away from his mother.
When Livia died in 29 at the grand age of eighty-seven, her son did not come to her funeral, instead sending his grand-nephew Caligula to give the oration.
Livia was a direct ancestor of the three Emperors who followed Tiberius; she was great grandmother to Caligula, grandmother to Claudius and great-great-grandmother of Nero.
Tiberius vetoed all of the honours Livia had been granted by the Senate after her death and stopped her will from being carried out – perhaps a final ‘screw you’ from a bitter son.
It would be her grandson Claudius, thirteen years later who made sure that Livia became Diva Augusta, the Divine Augusta. A statue was erected to her in the Temple of Augustus and races were held in her honor.
The popular historical fiction novel I, Claudius by Robert Graves is based on Tacitus’ writings and portrays Livia as a Machiavellian, scheming political mastermind.
The comic Distant Mirrors – August by Neil Gaiman features Livia.
Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran has Livia as a character portrayed as a kind of wicked stepmother to the young Julia.
In the short story The King of Sacrifices by John Maddox Roberts Livia hires Decius Metellus to investigate the murder of one of Julia the Elder’s lovers.
Livia plays an important role in two Marcus Corvinus mysteries by David Wishart, Ovid (1995) and Germanicus (1997). She is mentioned posthumously in Sejanus (1998).
Livia is a central character in Luke Devenish‘s Empress of Rome novels.
In Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough, Livia is portrayed as a cunning and effective advisor to her husband, whom she loves passionately.
Films and TV:
In the 1976 BBC television series based on the book I, Claudius Livia was played by Siân Phillips who won a BAFTA for her portrayal:
In the 1968 ITV television series The Caesars, Livia was played by Sonia Dresdel.
Television series Xena: Warrior Princess presents another heavily-fictionalized version of Livia (played by Adrienne Wilkinson) as Xena’s daughter in season 5.
A 2007 episode of the TV series Rome features Augustus’ first meeting with Livia played by Alice Henley.
The television series, The Sopranos, originally dealt with the relationship between the scheming mother, named Livia, and her crime boss son, Tony Soprano.
I, Livia: The Counterfeit Criminal: the Story of a Much Maligned Woman – Mary Mudd
Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce E. Salisbury
Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome – Anthony Barrett
“Altes Museum – Statue der vergöttlichten Kaiserin Livia” by Anonymous – Ophelia2.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Livia Drusilla Louvre Ma1233” by Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2007.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Livia Drusila – Paestum (M.A.N. Madrid) 03” by Luis García.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons