Livia Drusilla

Rise to Power

Early Life

Livia Drusilla was born in either 59 or 58 BCE.[1]  Her mother, Alfidia, was from a wealthy, if not aristocratic family.[2]  Livia’s father, however, Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, had ties to two important aristocratic families: he was a member of the Claudian family by birth and the Livian family by way of adoption.[3]  The Claudian connection was especially notable, since the Claudian family included such figures as Appius Claudius Caescus, the man responsible for the construction of both the Appian Aqueduct and the Appian Way in the 3rd century BCE.[4]

During Livia’s early childhood, Livia’s father was a supporter of the triumvirate and, especially, of Julius Caesar.[5]  After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, however, he sided with Caesar’s assassins and fought and died alongside Brutus and Cassius (two prominent senators responsible for Caesar’s death) at the battle of Philippi against Octavian and Antony.  Luckily for Livia, her new husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero (who belonged to a lesser branch of the Claudian family), was far more pragmatic.  He saw which way the wind was blowing and sided with Antony and Octavian against Caesar’s assassins.  Thus, Livia’s father’s death wouldn’t have weakened her political situation all that much.   Unfortunately for Livia, her husband soon made the mistake of siding with the more experienced Antony in his struggles against young Octavian and, in 40 BCE, she found herself fleeing Italy alongside her husband and with her infant son Tiberius (the future emperor, who was just two years old at the time).[6]

Fortunately, Livia’s exile was a short one.  In August of 39 BCE, during a truce between Octavian and Antony, she and her husband were permitted to return to Rom.  While there she met Octavian and, within months, she divorced Tiberius Nero, Octavian divorced his own wife (on the same day in which she bore him his daughter, Julia!), and Livia and Octavian were betrothed.[7]

 

The First Lady of Rome

Because Livia was pregnant with Tiberius’ child at the time, she and Octavian were unable to marry immediately.  But, on January 14th, 38 BCE, only three days after her son Drusus was born, Octavian and Livia were wed.[8]  Interestingly enough, Tiberius Nero does not seem to have resented Octavian for stealing his wife (if he did, he kept it to himself).  He took on the role of Livia’s father during the wedding[9] and, when he died in either 33 or 32 BCE, he left both Tiberius (the future emperor) and Drusus in Octavian’s care.[10]

Livia_Drusila_-matron
Livia as a matron.  Luis Garcia via Wikimedia

Marrying Livia would have been politically advantageous for Octavian.  Octavian had wealth and power, but couldn’t boast of a particularly distinguished ancestry.  A connection to Livia, whose family did have prominent status, would thus have helped legitimize his position.[11]  But, while there were pragmatic reasons for the marriage, that does not seem to have been the only factor.  Octavian and Livia seem to have been genuinely fond of each other.  For example, because the only child they had together was stillborn, Octavian would have been expected to divorce Livia (this being the custom of the time).[12]  Despite this, they stayed together and their marriage lasted over fifty years.  One of the reasons the marriage worked is that Octavian strove to present himself, his wife, and his family as simple Roman aristocrats and he expected his family to live modestly (Livia was responsible for the production of all the imperial families’ clothing).  Livia, for her part, was quite good at playing the modest housewife and this likely helped endear her to her husband.  In part, Augustus (Octavian changed his name to Augustus in 27 BCE) probably emphasized modesty and insisted that he and his family were no more than one senatorial family among many in order to prevent himself from being assassinated (as Julius Caesar had been) for raising himself above his station.  But he was also genuinely conservative in his morals, especially when it came to his views on women.  For example, he passed a law requiring that women and men be segregated at the games.[13]  Augustus was thus keen that the women in his family would be seen to embody feminine virtues and he was quick to punish those he saw as behaving indecently (he exiled both his daughter – Julia – and her daughter – also Julia – for ‘improper’ behaviour).[14]  But he was satisfied with Livia’s modesty and virtue and he even rewarded her for what he saw as her virtuous behaviour.  For instance, in 35 BCE, he granted her a kind of protection from verbal insult patterned after that granted to tribunes, and gave her the right to administer her own property without a guardian.[15]

Empress Dowager

Tiberius and Livia

Livia had a rather strained relationship with her son, Augustus’ successor, Tiberius.  Tiberius never once visited her during her final illness and didn’t even attend her funeral.[34]  In fact, during the last three years of his mother’s life, Tiberius only saw her once, and then only for a couple of hours.  Then, after her death, he blocked motions in the Senate to give Livia divine honours and erect an arch in her honour and he actively began to persecute her friends.[35]  As a result, Livia wasn’t deified until 42 CE,

Livia with Tiberius
Livia is the figure reclining on the couch.  Tiberius is the one holding the spear.  (Janmad via Wikipedia)

during the reign of her grandson Claudius.[36]  Similarly, during her lifetime, Tiberius also blocked a motion by the senate to grant her the title ‘mother of the country’ (the female version of Augustus’ most cherished title ‘father of the country’).[37]  According to Tacitus, Tiberius claimed that he didn’t believe that such treatment was proper for a woman, but he was actually just jealous of his mother’s popularity.[38]  In fact, his dislike of his mother was so been so extreme that he actively avoided talking to her throughout his reign so that no one would think that he listened to her advice.[39]

 

Livia’s official role

Perhaps Tiberius was so hostile to his mother due to the change in her status which followed Augustus’ death.  Before Livia, the only women who played important roles in the public life of Rome were the Vestal virgins.[40]  Moreover, during the reign of Augustus, Livia was kept from the public sphere and never given a public title.  This is not to say that she was entirely a private figure.  For example, it was traditional that a women’s birthday should remain a private event and so, during Augustus’ life, Livia’s birthday was never explicitly celebrated in public.  But Augustus did dedicate “what was arguably the most important monument of his regime, the Ara Pacis,” on her birthday, lending the date a certain significance.[41]  Moreover, she did wield some influence over her husband.  Suetonius tells us that she asked her husband to grant Roman citizenship to a Gaul and, while he refused to do this, he did exempt the man from all taxation.[42]  Similarly, according to Cassius Dio, she convinced her husband to grant clemency to a number of senators who had conspired against him by telling him that “those who forgive are loved not only by those to whom they have shown mercy – and these men will even strive to return the kindness – but they are also respected and revered by all the rest, who will not lightly venture to harm them.”[43]  Augustus then released the conspirators and even granted their leader, Cornelius, a consulship.[44]

Livia_statue - goddess
Livia Drusilla holding a cornucopia.  (Chris O via Wikimedia).

Everything changed when Augustus died.  When Augustus’ will was read, it granted Livia one-third of his estate, adopted her as his daughter (posthumous adoption was perfectly normal at the time, Octavian himself having been posthumously adopted by Julius Caesar), and gave her the title ‘Augusta.’[45]  It might seem strange to us that Augustus would have adopted his own wife as his daughter, but Barrett suggests that he might have done so in order to keep the title of Augustus/Augusta within the Julian family.  This, and the fact that Augustus didn’t grant her the title during his own life, suggest that the title was not meant to be a mere honorific (he would have been unwilling to give her a title limiting his own power, but he certainly would not have been reluctant to give her an honorary title).[46]  Thus, the title was probably granted so that Livia, now Julia Augusta, would be seen as a public as opposed to private individual.  Certainly, the senate seems to have interpreted it that way, hence their attempt to grant Livia the extremely important title ‘mother of the nation’ (see above).  Livia’s birthday was now publicly celebrated and she was made a priestess of the newly deified Augustus (a move without precedent!  Prior to this, the only female priestesses in Rome at the time were the Vestal virgins).[47]  Tiberius tried to interpret the title as a mere honorific, seeing it as a threat to his position, and he was outraged when the senate began to refer to him not only as the ‘son of Augustus,’ but also as the ‘son of Livia.’[48]  But the Senate continued to interpret the title as conferring real power on Livia and, while Tiberius did manage to block some of the honours they attempted to grant to his mother, she now played an important role in the imperial government and was seen as a natural ally against Tiberius by the senate.  It is for this reason that, when Tiberius was rude to the senator, Quintus Haterius, Livia was brought in to ease the tension and defend the senator.[49]

 

Public benefactor

Barrett suggests the, as the wife of the Princeps and, later, as Augusta, Livia took her role as public benefactress seriously.  She worked hard to benefit her friends and there is no evidence that she ever persecuted enemies.[50]  Certainly, she seems to have been a great benefactor of the senate, shielding them from Tiberius’ excesses.  It is worth noting that, in the fifteen years between Augustus’ and Livia’s deaths (14-29 CE), Tiberius only held thirty treason trials.  In the four years following Livia’s death (30-33 CE), on the other hand, there were a total of 6![51] Even Tacitus, generally extremely critical of Livia, admits that she probably prevented the worst of Tiberius’ excesses before her death.[52]

 

Poison and Intrigue

Family Tree
Please refer to the graph in order to understand Livia’s relationship to the various individuals she is accused of murdering.  (Rursus, via Wikipedia).

 

A wicked step-mother

Not everyone was as convinced of Livia’s virtues as Augustus.  In 23 BCE Octavian’s 19 year old nephew, adopted son, and heir – Marcellus – grew ill and died.[16]  Cassius Dio suggests that Livia might have been responsible for his death, motivated by a desire to clear the way for he own sons’ succession.  This is extremely unlikely, since Marcellus’ health had never been particularly good and even Dio admits that there had been a high mortality rate that year due to illness.[17]  Moreover, as Anthony Barrett points out, Livia’s children didn’t even benefit from the death.  Instead, it was Marcellus’ father (Octavian’s brother-in-law) who was declared the new heir.[18]

The rumours that Livia was a poisoner were not restricted to Marcellus’ death.  Two of Augustus’ grandsons, Lucius and Gaius, died in 2 and 4 CE respectively.  Tacitus and Cassius Dio imply that Livia was responsible for both deaths.[19]  But, as Barrett points out, Lucius died of illness in Spain and Gaius died in Lycia of a wound sustained in battle.[20]  The logistics involved in carrying out both assassinations, so far away from Rome, would almost certainly have been far beyond Livia’s abilities.

The claim that Livia was responsible for the death of Augustus’ third grandson, the exiled Agrippa Posthumus, is more credible.  Posthumus was killed immediately after Augustus’ own death and Tacitus suggests that Tiberius (Augustus’ successor) and Livia were responsible.  Tacitus claims that Livia was responsible for Augustus’ decision to exile Posthumus in the first place and that she killed him to strengthen Tiberius’ position.  He also admits, however, that Augustus really did despise Posthumus[21] and, given Augustus’ treatment of Posthumous’ mother and sister (who were also exiled – see above), murdering a grandson would not have been out of character for Augustus.  Thus, it is more likely that Augustus had left standing orders that Posthumus be murdered upon his death.  Certainly, Tiberius appears to have been genuinely shocked by the death and, even if Tiberius was responsible, there does not seem to be any reason to suspect Livia’s involvement.[22]

 

Poison and intrigue: Grandmother and wife

Both Cassius Dio and Tacitus also suggest that Livia might have been responsible for Augustus’ death in 14 CE.  Dio speculates that she might have smeared poison on some figs, while they were still on the tree, and then tempted Augustus to eat them.[23]  Tacitus, on the other hand, does not speculate about what methods she may have used, but does suggest a motive.  He argues that Augustus had recently sailed in secret to Posthumus’ island prison of Planasia

Planasia
The tiny island of Planasia.  (Anthony Badger via flikr)

and had there been reconciled with his grandson.  According to Tacitus, Livia then murdered Augustus in order to prevent him from naming Posthumus as his heir.[24]  It is worth noting, however, that the emperor was 67 at the time of his death and had been sickly for most of his life, so his death was not particularly unexpected.[25]  Moreover, Alice Deckman points out that a round trip to Planasia would have been about 500 kilometers and she argues that Augustus would not have been well enough to make such a trip and, even if he had been well enough, he would not have been able to keep it a secret.[26]  Finally, we might wonder why he would want to keep it a secret in the first place.  Of all of Tacitus’ and Dio’s improbable accusations against Livia, the claim that she murdered her husband is especially ridiculous.

Finally, Tacitus suggests that Livia might have been responsible for the death of her own grandson, Germanicus.  He argues that she had always disliked him and points out that she didn’t even attend his funeral (although he undermines his own argument here by admitting that Germanicus’ own mother, Agrippina, also failed to attend).[27]  But Tacitus elsewhere contradicts this portrayal of Germanicus’ and Livia’s relationship as a hostile one: he claims that, while in Germany, Germanicus received a “pleasant dream” where Augusta (Livia) hands him a new toga.[28]  Clearly, this dream was meant to be a good omen of some sort.  It is true that Livia made herself unpopular after Germanicus’ death by defending her friend, Placina, when the latter was publicly accused of murdering Germanicus through witchcraft and/or poison.[29]  But this probably only shows that Livia truly believed her friend was innocent (perhaps she was more enlightened than the common, superstitious, Roman), not that they had conspired together to kill her grandson.

 

Poison and intrigue: An explanation

One of the reasons that Livia might have been so frequently accused of using poison is that she was something of a health nut (hence her living to the ripe old age of 86).[30]  She “never failed to have a salad upon her table,”[31] she drank a small amount of a certain vintage of wine consistently every day (she believed this would be good for her), and she took a daily dose of elecampane (a flower whose root was believed to be good for digestion).  She was also quite fond of home remedies and we still possess two

Elecampane
Elecampane (Derek Harper via Wikimedia)

of the recipes she used: one for an inflamed throat and another for nervous tension.[32]  So, it is not implausible that she would have administered various potions and tinctures to her families and it wouldn’t even be particularly surprising if she did inadvertently poison some of them (Barrett suggests that her recipe for an inflamed throat may have actually done more harm than good). Moreover, it is worth noting that poison was often considered a women’s weapon in antiquity and, because women were in charge of their family’s well-being, they were often blamed when a family member died of illness (especially gastric illnesses).  It is thus not surprising that Livia would have been accused of poisoning family members when their deaths were perceived to be to her advantage and we shouldn’t take these accusations too seriously.[33]

 

In Popular Culture

Perhaps the most well-known depiction of Livia Drusilla in modern literature is Robert Graves’ work of historical fiction, I Claudius.  Graves presents all of the vicious, unsubstantiated rumours about Livia mentioned by Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassius Dio as fact, and then goes one step further.  Graves’ Livia is guilty of almost all of the

Book Cover
Karyn via flikr

murders ascribed to her by the ancient sources.  She murders Marcellus, Lucius, Gaius, and Augustus.  In addition, while she is innocent of Posthumous’ and Germanicus’ deaths, she confesses that she would have killed them if given the chance.  Moreover, she is also revealed to be responsible for several other deaths throughout the novel, including her first husband (Tiberius Nero), Agrippa, Drusillus (her great-grandson and son of the future emperor, Claudius),[53] and Claudius’ first fiancée (Camilla).[54]  Finally, she is the cause for all of Augustus’ more callous decisions.  She is the one who convinces him to exile both Julia and Posthumous[55] and he only divorces his previous wife, Scribonia, because Livia convinces him that she is guilty of adultery.[56]

This is not to say that the Graves’ Livia has no redeeming features.  Graves has Claudius, the narrator, say that “however criminal the means used by Livia to win the direction of affairs for herself, first through Augustus and then through Tiberius, she was an exceptionally able and just ruler.”[57]  Graves also uses Tacitus’ claim that Livia helped prevent the wort of Tiberius’ excesses.  In the novel, it is only after she dies that Tiberius begins to persecute the senators in earnest.  Moreover, while Graves depicts Livia as the main force behind the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire (at several points, Augustus is about to restore the Republic and Livia has to convince him to remain emperor), her reasons for despising the Republic are not entirely selfish or irrational.  She believes the Empire is the only thing standing between Rome and the civil wars which characterized the last century of the Republic and she is convinced that everything she does is for the good of Rome.  Still, while Graves’ Livia is certainly a “remarkable”[58] woman and an able ruler.  She is also an “abominable”[59] character, willing to kill her own son, Drusus; grandson, Germanicus; and several other members of her family, all because she suspects they harbour Republican sympathies.[60]

In 1976, the BBC launched a televised adaptation of I Claudius.  It’s quite good for the time, especially Dame Sian Phillip’s portrayal of Livia Drusilla.

Dame Sian Phillips as Livia Drusilla in the BBC adaptation of Graves' I Claudius
Dame Sian Phillips as Livia Drusilla in the BBC adaptation of Graves’ I Claudius.  (TempusVolat.  via flikr).

Like any good dramatic trailor, this video includes essentially all of the most disturbing parts of the series.  Viewer discretion is advised.

 

References

Barrett, Anthony A. (2002).  Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Deckman, Alice A. (1925).  Livia Augusta.  The Classical Weekly, 19(3), 21-25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30108260

Dio, Cassius (1987).  The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus.  (Ian Scott-Kilvert, Trans.).  London, England: Penguin Books.

Graves, Robert.  I, Claudius.  London, Great Britain: Methuen and Co. Ltd.

Suetonius (2011).  The Caesars.  (Donna W. Hurley, Trans.).  Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Tacitus (2008).  The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero.  (J. C. Yardley, Trans.).  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

 

Endnotes:

[1] Barrett, 2002, p. 9
[2] Deckman, 1925, p. 21
[3] Barrett, 2002, p. 8
[4] Deckman, 1925, p. 21
[5] Barrett, 2002, p. 9
[6] Barrett, 2002, p. 14-16
[7] Barrett, 2002, p. 19-22
[8] Barrett, 2002, p. 26
[9] Deckman, 1925, p. 22
[10] Barrett, 2002, p. 32
[11] Barrett, 2002, p. 22
[12] Barrett, 2002, p. 120
[13] Barrett, 2002, p. 119
[14] Barrett, 2002, p. 115
[15] Barrett, 2002, p. 21
[16] Deckman, 1925, p. 22
[17] Dio, 53.33
[18] Barrett, 2002, p. 36
[19] Dio, 55.10; Tacitus, 1.3
[20] Barrett, 2002, p. 53
[21] Tacitus, 1.3 & 1.6
[22] Barrett, 2002, p. 71
[23] Dio, 56.30
[24] Tacitus, 1.5
[25] Barrett, 2002, p. 62
[26] Deckman, 1925, p. 23
[27] Tacitus, 3.3
[28] Tacitus, 2.14. J.C. Yardley, 2008.
[29] Tacitus, 3.15
[30] Barrett, 2002, p. 215
[31] Deckman, 1925, p. 22
[32] Barrett, 2002, p. 110-111
[33] Barrett, 2002, p. 110-112
[34] Barrett, 2002, p. 215-6
[35] Suetonius, 3.51.2
[36] Barrett, 2002, p. 222
[37] Suetonius, 3.50.3
[38] Tacitus, 1.14
[39] Suetonius, 3.50.2
[40] Barrett, 2002, p. 142
[41] Barrett, 2002, p. 139
[42] Suetonius, 2.40.3
[43] Dio, 55.16.  Ian Scott-Kilvert, 1987
[44] Dio, 55.22
[45] Barrett, 2002, p. 75
[46] Barrett, 2002, p. 151-153
[47] Barrett, 2002, p. 160
[48] Suetonius, 3.50.2
[49] Barrett, 2002, p. 147
[50] Barrett, 2002, p. 189
[51] Barrett, 2002, p. 220
[52] Tacitus, 5.3
[53] Graves, 1943, 330
[54] Graves, 1943, 100
[55] Graves, 1943, 74 & 150
[56] Graves, 1943, 15
[57] Graves, 1943, 221
[58] Graves, 1943, 2
[59] Graves, 1943, 2
[60] Graves, 1943, 330

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