Although the Roman emperors typically receive a great deal of attention in the history books, the women that often occupied the position of empress were often quite powerful in their own right, for all that Rome was a culture dominated by men. This article, the first in a series, will briefly discuss the life and family of Rome’s first empress, Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus.
Livia Drusilla was born into a powerful family of ancient Rome and she was first married to a fellow nobleman named Tiberius Claudius Nero who, unfortunately, often took the wrong side in political conflicts. After Augustus’s victory over his enemies, he asked (perhaps forced) Tiberius to divorce Livia so that he could marry, despite the fact that she already had two children by him, Tiberius and Drusus. Through these two sons, Livia would be the ancestor of the first four Roman emperors: her son Tiberius; her grandson Claudius; her great-grandson Caligula; and her great-great-grandson Nero, all ascended to this position of extraordinary political power.
Throughout her life, Livie exercised considerable political influence, especially on her husband Augustus, who trusted her and often turned to her for political advice. She was known as an ideal Roman matron, due to her extraordinarily appropriate behavior. When he died, she was granted the title Julia Augusta. It was rumored (by such sources as the hostile Seutonius) that she might have been at least partially responsible for Augustus’s death, by feeding him poisoned figs from his own garden.
After Augustus’s death, she continued to wield substantial political influence over her son. Rumors abounded that she was responsible for the death of Augustus’s original heirs (two of his grandsons by his daughter Julia), in order to ensure that her own descendants attained the throne. Relations with her son were strained, however. It was not until the reign of her grandson Claudius that she was deified, something which she had long desired.
Livia has come to be well known in contemporary popular culture as a result of the novel I, Claudius by the noted British novelist Robert Graves. In that novel (which draws heavily on Seutonius), she is depicted as a shrewd but very ruthless matriarch who eliminates all threats to her family and their power, although she claims she does so for the strength of the Roman Empire and the nation. She occupied a similarly prominent role in the BBC adaptation of the novel, in which she is fantastically portrayed by the talented Sian Phillips. She also occupies an interesting position in the HBO series Rome, in which she is opposed to her mother-in-law Atia.
Much of our information about Livia comes from Seutonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which does not paint her in a very flattering light. Those who are interested in the subject might also want to visit Livius.org, which is a valuable resource containing information on a wide variety of topics relating to the ancient world, both immediately related to ancient Rome as well as other ancient cultures.