Livia Drusilla (58 BCE–29 CE)

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Livia Drusilla (58 bce–29 ce)

First empress of the Roman Empire, who was considered a model of womanly decorum and influence. Name variations: usually referred to simply as Livia; after Augustus died, Julia Augusta. Pronunciation: Liv-ee-ah. Born on January 30, 58 bce; died in 29 ce; daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus (a senator) and Alfidia ; married Tiberius Claudius Nero, 43 or 44 bce and divorced 39 bce; married Octavian (future emperor Augustus), January 17, 38 bce; children: (first marriage) Tiberius (42 bce–37 ce), emperor of Rome; Drusus.

Granted tribunician protections and freed from legal guardianship (35 bce); granted the rights of a mother of three children (9 bce); adopted into the Julian family and renamed Julia Augusta at the death of Augustus; revered in conjunction with her son the new Emperor Tiberius; appointed priestess to the cult of Augustus (14 ce); deified by the emperor Claudius (42 ce).

Livia Drusilla enters the historical narrative only because of her marriage to Octavian (Augustus), first emperor of Rome, who reshaped all Roman political structures. But because of her honored position as his consort and her creative use of the attendant privileges, she became a revered model of correct feminine behavior in her own time and for centuries after her death.

Livia was a member of the Claudian clan which could trace its ancestry back to the beginnings of Rome. These family connections would enhance Octavian's prestige, since he could not personally claim such strong traditional roots, but there was clearly more to the marriage decision than political considerations. Velleius Paterculus, an ancient historian, tags Livia as "the most eminent of Roman women in birth, in sincerity, and in beauty." Ovid, the flattering love poet of Rome, claimed that she combined the beauty of Venus with the character of Juno—evidently an irresistible combination. Octavian fell in love with Livia, "the one woman whom he truly loved until his death," Suetonius, an ancient biographer, informs us.

It is surprising that Livia and Octavian ever met, and even more so that they married. Livia's first indirect contact with him was through her father, M. Livius Drusus Claudianus, a Roman senator who supported the losing side in the civil war and committed suicide rather than surrender to Octavian and Mark Antony. When these two commanders developed an open rivalry, Livia's husband Tiberius Claudius Nero chose loyalty to Mark Antony. As a result, he had to flee from Italy with Livia and their young child Tiberius. Not until a new accord was struck between Octavian and Mark Antony was the family able to return in safety. Cassius Dio, a historian writing in the third century ce, says: "This was one of the strangest whims of fate; for this Livia, who then fled from Caesar, later on was married to him, and this Tiberius, who then took flight with his parents, succeeded Caesar in the office of emperor."

When Livia met Octavian, he was one of the most powerful figures in Rome, still in contest for ultimate supremacy, and married. He divorced his wife Scribonia on the day his child Julia was born in 39 bce, because, as he stated, "I could not bear the way she nagged at me"—and most likely because he had set his sights on Livia. Livia was not only married at the time but also pregnant with her second child. Octavian asked the Pontifical College whether he could marry her, given the circumstances. The college, perhaps prompted by the military power at Octavian's disposal, replied that if the conception was certain, marriage was permissible after a divorce. Tiberius Claudius Nero meekly gave Livia away at the wedding.

These unusual circumstances led to rumors. One popular epigram speculated: "How fortunate those parents are for whom their child is only three months in the womb!"—implying that Drusus, the child in question, was actually the son of Octavian. Octavian wrote in his diary, however, "Caesar returned to its father Nero the child borne by Livia, his wife." Given the fact that throughout their years of marriage Livia remained childless (apart from one premature birth), and that Octavian never formally acknowledged Drusus as his own, it is improbable that Drusus was his son. Nevertheless, both Livia's boys joined the household of Octavian at their own father's death in 33 bce.

In 35 bce, Octavian succeeded in passing a unique law granting Livia and Octavia , his sister and the wife of Mark Antony, "the right of administering their own affairs without a guardian, and the same security and inviolability as the tribunes enjoyed." The "security and inviolability of the tribunes" was an honor designed to give Octavian a legal basis from which to declare war on Mark Antony should he offend Octavia in any way. But this honor was unprecedented and came uncomfortably close to associating women with high public office. The very idea of a woman in public office was anathema to Romans and, indeed, this honor was never again bestowed on any other woman.

Livia may have been particularly pleased with the freedom to manage her own affairs, however, for she owned many properties. Among others, she owned a house on the Palatine Hill in Rome, the "House of Livia," which is still open to visitors. The size of her involvements may be judged by the great burial monument on the Appian Way which Livia established for her extended household, with space for about 1,100 people. Most of those buried were slaves and freedmen attached to her family who were involved in the extensive administration of her various households.

Octavian overcame Mark Antony in 31 bce and achieved sole rulership of the Roman Empire, later taking the inspired name Augustus, which implied divinely sanctioned authority. As he began to deemphasize raw force and to cultivate more subtlety in rule, Livia moved into the role of ideal wife and mother for the Roman Empire. She had to define this new role, and she seemed always to sense what was appropriate. Her exemplary behavior was legendary, as witnessed by the numerous statements which come down to us 2,000 years later: "Chastity stood beside her marriage bed"; "she guarded her good name jealously"; "her private life was of traditional purity." Her closest friends were women and there was never any suspicion of sexual wrongdoing on her part. She wove the material for the clothes that Augustus wore—a sure sign of chastity and virtue in the ancient mind. She managed her extensive households thriftily and effectively. In one telling incident, Augustus announced to the other senators that "you yourselves should guide and command your wives as you see fit—that is what I do with mine."

Livia is famous for her kindness to various people. For instance, in addition to generously helping to raise friends' children, she also contributed to dowries for them. In one incident,

when some naked men met her on the road and consequently were in danger of being put to death, she saved their lives by averring, according to Dio, that, "to chaste women such men are no whit different from statues." In later years, although she had previously been at odds with Augustus' granddaughter Julia (c. 18 bce–28 ce), who had been in a long exile, Livia showed mercy to her.

Livia was granted many honors throughout the reign of Augustus. Cities were named for her in Pontus and Judea. Inscriptions later discovered in outlying areas of the empire associated her with divinity. She was voted the privilege of sitting with the Vestal Virgins in a superior spot at the theater. When her younger son Drusus died in 9 bce, statues were erected in her honor, and she was voted the legal privileges of a woman who had borne three children. With her many financial resources, Livia restored temples and shrines, particularly those associated with goddesses and women, including the temples of Fortuna Muliebris, Bona Dea Subsaxana, and Concordia. She was also involved in the construction of a provision market called the Macellum Liviae in Rome. All these honors and activities placed her in the public eye and went beyond the traditional norms of behavior associated with women.

Since power was now concentrated in the hands of one man, those who had personal access to him were in a position of unparalleled influence. Many stories confirm this. In one famous incident soon after their marriage, as Livia traveled to her house at Prima Porta, an eagle flew by and dropped a white pullet with a berried laurel branch in its beak. Interpreting this event as an omen, Livia kept the bird for breeding and planted the twig. The hen was so prolific that the house was nicknamed "The Poultry"; the twig took root and grew so luxuriantly that Caesars always plucked laurels from it to wear as they celebrated their triumphs. While we may suppose that Livia interpreted the omen positively, others believed that "Livia was destined to hold in her lap even Caesar's power and to dominate him in everything," as Cassius Dio records.

A dominating mother and an accommodating wife, [Livia] was a match for both her devious husband and her insincere son.


According to Cassius Dio, when Livia was asked later in life "how she had obtained such a commanding influence over Augustus, she answered that it was by being scrupulously chaste herself, doing gladly whatever pleased him, not meddling with any of his affairs, and, in particular, by pretending neither to hear of nor to notice the favourites that were the objects of his passion." (Incidentally, Livia is said to have procured young virgins for Augustus to deflower—a charge which may be slander intended to undermine her moral reputation, or a truth that was meant to be hidden from public view.)

Livia's influence certainly went beyond public paradigmatic living. The ancient sources agree that she was Augustus' best confidant and counselor. According to Suetonius, who had access to imperial records, Augustus would jot down lists of items to be discussed with Livia, and then take careful notes of her replies to be consulted again later. In one famous example, Augustus met with Livia to discuss what should be done with Cinna, a grandson of the great Pompey, who had been involved in a conspiracy. Livia's advice was to pardon the fellow, suggesting that Augustus "follow the practice of physicians, who when the usual remedies do not work try just the opposite." After listening to her advice, Augustus canceled a meeting of counselors previously called to discuss the matter and later even appointed Cinna consul, a very great honor.

In Augustus' efforts to rejuvenate traditional morality, he held up his family as an embodiment of the ideal. Often Augustus would make public appearances at games with Livia and the children in his family. The famous Altar of Augustan Peace in Rome was dedicated on Livia's birthday and had carefully organized bas-relief sculptures glorifying his family and dynastic fecundity in general. In gratefulness for the new stability in the empire, the Roman people granted Augustus the title Pater Patriae (Father of the Country). Livia was correspondingly referred to as Mater Patriae (Mother of the Country), although her title was not official.

Livia was very much involved in influencing Augustus' dynastic plans, even though their own marriage remained childless. Originally Octavia's son Marcellus, husband of Augustus' daughter Julia, seemed to be the favored designate, with Livia's son Tiberius as a back-up candidate. Unfortunately for Octavia's hopes, Marcellus died young. It is said that Octavia hated Livia from then on, because Tiberius seemed to be the probable successor.

However, Livia's position as mother of the next emperor was far from secure. Augustus, we are told, did not care for Tiberius, viewing him as dutiful but dour and lacking in inspiration. Tiberius therefore remained only a marginal possibility, because Augustus next turned to Julia's new husband, his trusted commander Agrippa. When Agrippa died, however, Tiberius was forced to divorce his wife Vipsania Agrippina , whom he loved very much, and to marry Julia. By now Julia's moral laxity was proverbial, and Tiberius deeply resented the marriage, although it placed him closer to the succession. He was appointed general and, according to Roman lights, did a creditable job of increasing stability along the Balkan borders of the Roman empire. Livia is generally credited with influencing this sequence of events.

When in 7 bce Tiberius celebrated a triumph for military achievements, he included his mother by dedicating a colonnade for her in an area near Naples which was named the "Precinct of Livia." He gave a banquet for the senate, and Livia gave a corresponding banquet for the prominent women of Rome. Augustus followed by granting Tiberius further authority, and we may assume that Livia felt Tiberius was not only next in line, but that also she would share in his future honors.

Again Livia's hopes were interrupted. Tiberius profoundly dismayed Livia by taking an action that nearly cut him off from everything she had worked for. He left his responsibilities in Rome and withdrew to the island of Rhodes, later saying he did it to step aside for Augustus' grandsons who would be more probable successors. His withdrawal was in stubborn opposition to his mother's wishes, and Augustus only reluctantly permitted it. When a few years later all his official powers lapsed, Tiberius asked permission to return to Rome. Augustus flatly refused, angry because Tiberius had disrespectfully abandoned him while needed. Livia, however, begged that Tiberius be at least granted the title of legate, a favor she succeeded in procuring. When a few years later Tiberius again asked Livia to intercede, he was allowed at last to return.

Because all the other hopeful candidates had died, in 4 ce the aging Augustus adopted Tiberius, facing the fact that Tiberius, least preferred of all possibilities, would likely be the next emperor of Rome. Augustus announced, "I do this for reasons of state," a statement which gave legal force to Tiberius' position. Final confirmation was added in 13 ce, when Augustus reinstated Tiberius' tribunician power and gave him equal military authority with himself over all the provinces and armies.

In August of 14 ce, Augustus lay dying. His famous last words were, "Goodbye, Livia: Never forget our marriage!" Always pragmatic, Livia took matters in hand, sending a letter recalling Tiberius from his armies in Illyricum (some versions of the story present Tiberius as having already returned); she then restricted access to the surrounding areas and continued to publish news about Augustus' state of health. In Tacitus' words, "Then two pieces of news became known simultaneously. Augustus was dead, and Tiberius was in control." Livia's long patience and determination had finally paid off.

For Livia, Augustus' death was a major turning point. He had bequeathed one third of his considerable property to her, a fortune so great that a legal exception had to be made to allow her to inherit it. Livia paid a considerable sum of money to the senator who had sworn to have seen Augustus' spirit ascending into the heavens, for, as a result, not only was Augustus deified by the senate, but Livia was also appointed priestess for the new cult to the Deified Augustus. In conjunction with this honor, she was granted a ceremonial lictor, an ancient symbol of authority, to precede her in public.

In Augustus' will, he adopted Livia into the Julian family and gave her the name Julia Augusta. The name "Julia" allowed her technically to claim she was the daughter of a god, but the title "Augusta" was enigmatic. Did her new name imply that Livia should be co-ruler with her son Tiberius, who was given the title "Augustus" in the same will? Cassius Dio says that for a time Livia's position was so prominent that letters to the emperor bore both her name and that of Tiberius. Dio says, "She occupied a very exalted station, far above all women of former days, so that she could at any time receive the senate and such of the people as wished to greet her in her house; and this fact was entered in the public records."

In the first years of his rule, Tiberius actually sought Livia's advice on occasion in private. But the power struggle that they were to be involved in for the remainder of Livia's life was already apparent. Tiberius promptly blocked many honors which the senate tried to offer her: proposals to set up an Altar of Adoption in her honor; to name the month of October for her; and to formally bestow the title of Mater Patriae. He was deeply offended when the senate added "Son of Livia" to his own honorific titles. On one occasion, when there was a fire near the temple of Vesta and Livia "was directing the populace and soldiers in person, as though Augustus were still alive, and urging them to redouble their efforts," Tiberius warned her to stick to affairs becoming to a woman and to stop interfering with matters of state. Tacitus says that Tiberius "regarded this elevation of a woman as derogatory to his own person."

Eventually Tiberius ordered Livia to remove herself from all public affairs and stick to managing her own household. Effectively blocked from official avenues, Livia went after de facto power, attempting to force her points through lawsuits. In one case, a lawsuit was brought against her friend Urgulania who refused a summons to court because, according to Tacitus, her "friendship with the Augusta had placed her above the law." When the prosecutor tried to physically drag Urgulania from Livia's house, to which she had fled for protection, Livia used the language usually reserved for treason trials: she felt "violated and diminished." In the end, Tiberius was cajoled into agreeing to appear in court as Urgulania's counsel, which in effect determined the outcome. After Livia had won this battle with Tiberius, she simply paid the money for her friend, which resolved the dispute.

The next year Livia fell ill. Tiberius did return from Campania to be near her, and the senate proclaimed games in her honor. It was probably for this occasion that a coin was issued in her honor to the salus augusta, or health of Augusta, in 22 ce. Tiberius tempered the permission for these honors with a notice that prayers for her recovery should not go beyond the norm.

After Livia recovered, she attempted to force Tiberius into appointing a certain citizen to be a juror. Tiberius agreed on condition that the man's name be marked "forced on the emperor by his mother." In anger, Livia exhibited some letters by Augustus which complained of Tiberius' "sour and stubborn character." Soon after this, Tiberius left Rome, ending up on Capri in self-imposed exile. According to Tacitus, "he was driven away by his mother's bullying: to share control with her seemed intolerable, to dislodge her impracticable—since that control had been given him by her." When she fell ill again, he did not visit her.

Livia died in 29 ce. The funeral was postponed until Tiberius sent a letter from Capri saying that because of important business he was unable to attend. So Livia was given a belated and modest funeral at which Caligula, her grandson, delivered the eulogy, and she was buried in Augustus' mausoleum in Rome. Women were ordered to mourn for a year, and the senate proposed and voted for her deification, an honor which Tiberius refused on her behalf. The senate also voted an arch in her honor—a distinction conferred on no other woman—but since Tiberius was designated to pay for it, it was never built. Indeed, Tiberius ignored Livia's will, and it was not until Caligula was emperor that her will was honored. When Claudius, a grandson whom she had treated with scorn as a young boy, became emperor, she was declared a goddess of the state, sharing the honors with Divine Augustus. Claudius set up a statue to her in the temple of Augustus and ordered the Vestal Virgins to offer the proper sacrifices, commanding women to use her name in oaths as well. He also issued coins depicting Livia and Augustus on almost equal terms.

Livia's reputation remains basically positive, although there are also attempts from antiquity to invert the interpretation as well. Tacitus calls her "a real catastrophe to the nation as a mother, and to the house of the Caesars as a stepmother." He suggests, for instance (as do certain others), that Livia poisoned a number of potential candidates for emperorship. The very number of accusations (Marcellus, Lucius, Gaius, Agrippa Postumus, Germanicus, and Augustus himself) and the ambiguity associated with each instance make the theories suspect.

Several summations of her life come down to us. Velleius Paterculus calls her "a woman preeminent among women, and who in all things resembled the gods more than mankind, whose power no one felt except for the alleviation of trouble or the promotion of rank." And even Tacitus comments at last: "Her private life was of traditional strictness. But her graciousness exceeded old-fashioned standards. She was a compliant wife, but an overbearing mother. Neither her husbands' diplomacy nor her son's insincerity could outmanoeuvre her."

Indeed, Tacitus divides Tiberius' rule by her death. "Now began a time of sheer crushing tyranny. While the Augusta lived there was still a moderating influence, for Tiberius had retained a deep-rooted deference for his mother. Now, however, the reins were thrown off." But that's another story.


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ancient sources:

Cassius Dio. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. Vols V, VI. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917.

Suetonius. "Life of Augustus"; "Life of Tiberius"; "Life of Claudius," in The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves, 1957. Revised by Michael Grant, 1979. NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.

Tacitus. Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.

Velleius Paterculus. Compendium of Roman History. Translated by Frederick W. Shipley, 1924. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Sylvia Gray Kaplan , Adjunct Faculty, Humanities, Marylhurst College, Marylhurst, Oregon