Livia, First Empress of Rome

Livia was the first First Lady of Rome. As the wife of Octavian Augustus, she was the first Empress of Rome. She was grossly vilified by Roman writer Tacitus roughly a hundred years after the event. Matthew Dennison came to her rescue with a book about her life. The biography was intended to rectify some entrenched myths even historians had a problem leaving behind.

Livia Drusilla Julia Augusta


Livia Drusilla was born into one of the foremost families of the Republic of Rome; family members represented the epitome of republican politics: they were patrician, rich, and powerful. She came of age at 14 (the legal age in Rome) in the year Julius Caesar was murdered. Her father’s political involvement in the murder saw her married to Claudius Nero, a relation from her father’s Claudian birth family with whom she had two sons, Drusus and Tiberius.

Livia Drusilla Julia Augusta

The year after Julius’ demise, the triumvirate consisting of Mark Antony as the most powerful of the three members, Octavian, and Lepidus instigated a massacre of 300 senators and 2,000 republicans. The guise was revenge for Julius Caesar; the goal was confiscating their fortunes to pay their armies. While her father committed suicide after the battle at Philippi, her husband managed to make the u-turn and became a supporter of the triumvirate.

Livia Drusilla Julia Augusta

But Claudius Nero bet on the wrong horse and became an adherent of Mark Antony and part of the staff of his brother Lucius Antonius. After the Perusian War, Livia had to flee Rome with her husband. They were recalled but spared treason proceedings when Octavian and Mark Antony renewed their alliance.

Octavian Augustus

Octavian took Livia permanently into his home before a divorce had been filed. The scandal that ensued shook Rome. Octavian persuaded Claudius Nero to file for divorce and married Livia immediately after it was legalized. She brought her two sons into the marriage, and Tiberius would follow his stepfather as first citizen of Rome and Emperor.

Livia Drusilla Julia Augusta

During her long marriage to Octavian, Livia was promoted by the government as the model Roman wife in the best republican tradition and she actively campaigned for traditional family values. After Octavian’s death, meanwhile known as Augustus, she became by testamentary adoption Iulia Augusta and started promoting the divinity of her dead husband. Becoming his first priestess, she remained the first woman in Rome and according to inscriptions and literature was only second in power to Tiberius.

Tiberius

These are the bare bones of the history. But Tacitus had an agenda when writing his Annals, and he set out to prove that the concentration of personal power in an imperial state is second to the republican ideal of power sharing. It is this agenda which made him depict all persons in his writing as white or black, good or bad. Using or ignoring historical occurrences to suit his theme, his writing is less history than characterization set out to prove a morale with a clear political goal. Livia as the wife of the hated Augustus had to be cast as black. Tacitus' influence was responsible that she was and still is portrayed as such in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Livia Drusilla Julia Augusta

I have to admit; at first I was lost in Dennison’s book, because many of his elaborate constructions to extenuate Livia seemed to me rather ridiculous. They were not ridiculous in the sense of being either wrong or childish, but because nothing was new to me. And I had to learn: the way Livia is presented in English history writing is nearly all black, while in German history writing she is presented nearly all white. In fact, if you hold the two side by side, you’ll have to check the names to even consider historians are talking about the same person. 

Livia Drusilla Julia Augusta

Dennison’s book is an attempt at looking at Livia in a more neutral way. It is a start. But Dennison fails, in the end, to cast off the shadows of the Tacitus adherents in the English history establishment. But the book opens an interesting can of worms: What about history as being taught in schools; is it history at all? Dennison’s compilation shows that, like Tacitus, historians tend to include as relevant and exclude as marginal whatever fits their own worldview.

Livia Drusilla Julia Augusta

Empress Of Rome: The Life Of Livia by Matthew Dennison was published by Quercus. It’s definitely worth opening this can of worms, especially if you were brought up on the black or white picture of Livia and even more so if you believe that historical films contain any history at all.