Livia Drusilla was born into one of the foremost families of the Republic of Rome representing the epitome of republican politics: patrician, rich, and powerful. She came of age at 14 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.
The year after Julius’ demise, the triumvirate consisting of Mark Antony as the most powerful of the three, 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 Philippi, her husband managed to make the u-turn and became a supporter of the triumvirate.
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 but they were recalled and spared proceedings when Octavian and Mark Antony renewed their alliance.
The scandal that ensued shook Rome. Octavian took Livia permanently into his home before a divorce had been filed. He persuaded Claudius Nero to file the divorce and married Livia immediately after it was legalised. She brought her two sons into the marriage, and Tiberius would follow his stepfather as first citizen of Rome.
During her long marriage to Octavian, Livia was promoted as the model Roman wife in the best republican tradition and 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.
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 to power in an imperial state is second to the republican ideals. It is this agenda which made him depict all persons in his writing as white or black, good or bad. Including and ignoring historical occurrences to suit his theme, his writing is less history than more characterization. Livia as the wife of the hated Augustus had to be cast as black, therefore, and that is how she is portrayed in the Anglo-Saxon world.
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 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 they are talking about the same person.
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.
Empress Of Rome: The Life Of Livia by Matthew Dennison is 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.