Matrons of Awesome Part V – Romana Princeps

10. Livia Drusilla

There are some historical characters you just become unreasonably attached to. Livia is my sweetie. Warning: you’re not going to get a balanced academic opinion on this one. (it was hard enough doing that in my thesis)

When Livia met Augustus, they were both married to other people. He had a daughter, and she was pregnant with her second son. Within a few months of meeting each other (round about the time Antony and Octavia were getting married), they had divorced their respective spouses and were shacked up together. They got married almost immediately after she had her baby.

Does that sound like a relationship that happened two thousand years ago? Nope, me neither.

Livia never bore Augustus any children. There is no cited reason for this – they had both had children with their previous spouses. But she did suffer a miscarriage early in their marriage, which could have led to physical complications. What is interesting is that despite Augustus’ desire for a male heir of his body, he never divorced Livia to get a wife who would bear him a son. She was far too useful to him as a wife. HEAR THAT, HENRY THE EIGHTH?

After Livia’s first husband died, her two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, came to live in Augustus and Livia’s household. She also fostered various children. Ultimately, it was her Tiberius who succeeded Augustus as emperor.

In the literary sources Tacitus and Suetonius (and the iconic novel I Claudius by Robert Graves), Livia is portrayed as a manipulator, a poisoner and an ambitious mother. The premature deaths of many of Augustus’ male heirs (his nephew, several grandsons) are attributed to her, as are the public downfalls of many of his female relatives, including his daughter Julia, who was exiled for adultery and intrigue.

Both Tacitus and Suetonius are openly misogynistic in their writings. They were both published a century or so after the reign of Augustus, and their main priority was to show how modest, chaste and non-murderous the women of the current imperial dynasty were in comparison to their wicked predecessors.

By the time they get to “Livia sent her personal physician to the boy wounded in battle and he mysteriously died (cough, septicemia, cough),” or “she murdered her own grandson because he was more popular than her son,” or “she murdered her own husband after 50 years of marriage because he was maybe going to forgive one of his disgraced former heirs in favour of her son,” well, my eyebrows get tired from being raised so much. It’s such a blatant hatchet job on her reputation.

Having said that, if the sources are right and Livia was actually a controlling, manipulating, murderous and ambitious bitch from hell? She apparently kicked arse at it.

During his reign, Augustus promoted Livia as a public example of the ideal wife: working in wool (she had a whole household of slaves to do this for her), dressing modestly, behaving chastely. He publicly stated that husbands should guide their wives in proper wifely dress & behaviour, which the senators all thought was hilarious – when they asked him how they should actually go about this, he looked a bit vague and suddenly pretended he had to be somewhere else.

According to rumour, Livia used to supply slave girls for her husband’s bed. Which is also proper wifely behaviour, apparently.

Livia was one of Augustus’ main advisors throughout his public career. They were a partnership in a truest sense of the word. As the first emperor, Augustus had many titles, but there was no title or word that meant ‘wife of the emperor,’ no ‘empress’ or ‘queen’ for Livia or any other imperial wife. The term femina princeps (first lady) was used by the poet Ovid, and the term Romana princeps (first Roman lady) was also unofficially used for Livia.

There’s also Augusta, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

There are many portraits of Livia. This is my favourite. I fell in love with it in photographs, then had the extraordinary good luck to be able to visit her personally. Never mind the Mona Lisa, this is the Louvre’s greatest treasure. She is way more beautiful in person than on the page. I spent a long time trying to get the right photo to capture her, but it’s impossible. The basalt just glows in a way that a photo can’t convey.

If you’re ever in Paris, say hi to her from me.

After the loss of so many of Augustus’ heirs, Livia convinced him to make his daughter Julia (twice a widow) marry Livia’s eldest son Tiberius, in order to promote him as an heir. She forced Tiberius to divorce a wife he loved (Vipsania, Julia’s stepdaughter, a bit like the Bold and the Beautiful, isn’t it?) in order to expedite this. It worked, though Tiberius and Julia hated each other.

No one actually liked Tiberius all that much, including his mother Livia. Her younger son, Drusus, was the one who got along with everyone (though he was, gasp, a Republican). Drusus was married to Antonia, daughter of Octavia and Mark Antony. Their children included Germanicus (another golden boy, beloved by all), Claudius (a cripple & stutterer, believed to be mentally deficient) and Livilla (a little too popular with the boys).

When Drusus died, everyone was devastated. A famous poem, Consolatio ad Liviam, was written in honour of Livia as the dead man’s mother. Livia was awarded the honorary honour of ‘mother of three children’ despite only having two that lived. She invited her widowed daughter-in-law Antonia to move into her household.

Towards the end of Augustus’ life, he adopted Tiberius (his own stepson/son-in-law) as his son and heir (on condition that the shiny and fabulous Germanicus be named as his uncle Tiberius’ heir, despite the fact that Tiberius had a son and grandson of his own). Tiberius was officially the Last Turkey in the Shop but he had stayed the distance, and outlived everyone else.

(No one ever suggested that Tiberius had bumped off all his male relatives – no, no. They blamed his mother for it.)

Augustus was in his eighties when he died. According to rumour, this one was down to Livia too. He became paranoid that he was being poisoned, and ate only the food he picked himself. So she poisoned the olives on the tree.

It’s a very good story, but I don’t believe a word of it.

In his will, Augustus posthumously adopted Livia as his daughter, (Bold and the Beautiful, eat your HEART out), giving her the name Julia Augusta. Julia/us was his family name, and Augusta the feminine equivalent of his own name/title Augustus. No source has ever stated what ‘Augusta’ was meant to mean, or whether it held any power as a title, but it became an honorary title given to many imperial women over the years. My PhD thesis, for those of you still interested, was on trying to figure out what the title meant, based on the women it was given to.

As Julia Augusta, mother to the emperor, Livia also became the widow of a god when Augustus was deified, and she was named priestess of his cult. The people of Rome saw her as her dead husband’s representative, and she was seen on many occasions acting as if she was still the ‘Romana princeps’. Indeed, she was still the First Lady of Rome, as Tiberius had no wife during his reign (Julia had been exiled for adultery).

The Senate offered Livia many other honours, including an arch (which Tiberius never built) and that Tiberius be officially known as son of Julia (which Tiberius refused). Oh, and the title Mater Patriae (Mother of the Fatherland, an exercise in gendered irony or ironic gendering) which Tiberius refused on her behalf.

Really, there’s a reason no one liked Tiberius very much.

Here’s the best argument against all those poisonings and machinations: Augustus respected Livia, and listened to her advice. Tiberius didn’t. Livia had far more power (however uncredited) during her time as the imperial wife of Augustus than her time as the imperial mother of Tiberius. So if she did murder a bunch of people including her husband to get there, then it was a tragic waste of her time and effort.

Tiberius did, however, put Livia on the coinage. Possibly. There are three coin portraits which are almost certainly representations of Livia, though they claim to be personifications of Iustitia (Justice), Pietas (Piety) and Salus Augusta (Health of the Augustan Family). They don’t have her name on them, or anything, but they kind of look like her. From a certain angle.

Livia died in her eighties. Neither her son Tiberius nor his successor, Livia’s great-grandson Caligula, allowed her to be deified like her husband. Good old bumbling Claudius, however, whom Livia had described in her own correspondence as a fool and a cripple, saw fit to make his great-aunt a goddess. Divus Augustus and Diva Augusta shared a temple and a priest, and were commemorated on the coinage. Unlike many other ‘homegrown’ gods, they were worshipped and remembered for many imperial reigns after their own shared dynasty died out.

Robert Graves’ novel “I Claudius” is often praised for being so well-researched. In fact, what he did was take Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus at face value, then added a bit more in the way of dialogue, characterisation and a few extra scandals.

His Livia is unrepentantly manipulative of her family – she poisons more people than even the historical sources suggested. In the BBC miniseries based on the book (with Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Brian Blessed as Augustus), Sian Phillips steals the show as Livia, an aging superbitch of epic proportions.

The evil, calculating and ambitious queen that Tacitus and Suetonius and Graves believed in is brought to life magnificently by Sian Phillips, and while I don’t believe that Livia really existed, I like her almost as much as the one I feel is more historically credible.

At the far end of the credibility scale, we have Xena: Warrior Princess, a show that gave us women of colour playing both Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, a surfing Valley Girl Aphrodite, vampiric goth girls as Bacchae, a Caligula who actually was a god, and an unforgettable Ares in black leather. In the Xenaverse, Livia (Adrienne Wilkinson) is actually Xena’s daughter, a warbitch and fierce lady general. Separated from her mother at birth, she is adopted by Octavian as a baby, which is creepy beyond words and yet… there’s a seed of real history there for which, kudos. As his mistress and the general of his brutal armies, she regularly goes around wiping out Amazon tribes and growling at the camera. I find this version of Livia utterly hilarious, and I love her too.

You see? It’s even worse than my crush on Julius Caesar. I am, indeed, a hopeless case.

But I want it on record that I didn’t name a daughter after this one.

NEXT: Imperial Daughters and Many Small Islands


The Matrons of Awesome series was originally posted on Livejournal (LJ user: cassiphone) in March 2006 for Women’s History Month.

I’m reprinting the series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.

One reply

  1. Within a few months of meeting each other (round about the time Antony and Octavia were getting married), they had divorced their respective spouses and were shacked up together. They got married almost immediately after she had her baby.

    Does that sound like a relationship that happened two thousand years ago? Nope, me neither.

    Heh. I’ve always taken that story the exact opposite way: we might think that kind of thing is recent, but really, human nature hasn’t changed in two thousand years.

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