Livia: First Empress of Rome

Livia the wife of the Emperor Augustus was loved by most, hated by some, but feared and respected by all. She was the devoted help-mate of the Emperor and came to represent the epitome of Roman womanhood – a role-model to her people; but she was also cunning, manipulative, ruthless, and according to some a vile poisoner.

Born Livia Drusila on 30 January 59 BC, into the Roman Aristocracy, one of the Claudian Clan, she was made aware of her exalted status from an early age and was quick to let everyone else know of it too having little difficulty in adopting the heirs and graces that were deemed appropriate.

Even though she displayed little interest in learning she was considered to be a bright child if a somewhat haughty and arrogant one and she certainly did not suffer fools gladly often being cold towards her friends and cruel to her servants and slaves.

Physically she was diminutive and slim and was not the full-figured woman considered attractive in Roman society, though she was strikingly pretty and her status alone made her desirable and at the age of just 15 she was married to the rich nobleman and Senator Tiberius Claudius Nero, a year later giving birth to her first son, also named Tiberius.

Both her husband, and her father Marcus Claudianus, supported Pompey Magnus in his war with Gaius Julius Caesar for control of Rome. It was to prove a mistake for in the ensuing conflict Pompey was defeated and the entire family found themselves on the run. It was to prove the most traumatic period in the young Livia’s life as fleeing from village to village in the Greek hinterland the family were forced to sleep rough and forage for food and she lived in constant fear for her own and her young child’s life. In Sparta she was almost killed in a forest fire only escaping by the skin of her teeth with Tiberius in her arms and her cloak afire.

Eventually Caesar announced a General Amnesty and the family were spared further punishment and permitted to return to Rome.Such leniency did not guarantee loyalty however, and both Tiberius Claudius Nero and Marcus Claudianus conspired in Caesar’s assassination on 15 March, 44 BC. Again, they had chosen the wrong side.

Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius were forced to flee Rome by Mark Antony who along with Caesar’s great-nephew and anointed successor Octavian, pursued them to Greece where they were defeated at the Battle of Philippi.

This time there was to be no promise of amnesty and Livia’s father committed suicide whilst her husband took the less honourable course of changing sides. In the meantime, Livia was left to fend for herself in Rome where despite her perilous situation she did not flinch. She had her name, she had her beauty and she knew how to use both – she was still Livia Drusila of the Claudian Clan.

In the early winter of 39 BC she was introduced to Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus.

Octavian was a cold, calculating young man of unlimited ambition not given to displays of affection, even so he was smitten with Livia from the first time he met her. It is doubtful that it was her charm and good looks alone that so intrigued him. There was far more too her than that and he knew it. He was even willing to overlook the fact that she was heavily pregnant at the time with her second child, Drusus.

On 14 January 38 BC, he divorced his inconvenient wife Scribonia, the very same day that she gave birth to their daughter, Julia. He then ordered Livia’s husband to divorce her and Tiberius Claudius Nero, who was now back in Rome and desperate to win Octavian’s favour, was only too willing to oblige. Three days later on 17 January, Octavian and Livia were married.

Octavian governed the Roman Empire as part of a Triumvirate along with Marcus Lepidus in Africa and Mark Antony in Egypt. Over the next few years Lepidus was forced out and made to retire leaving Octavian and Antony to vie for power in Rome.

Octavian was deficient in those qualities that make a man popular he lacked charm and warmth but he was supremely intelligent and extremely political. Antony, by contrast was coarse and vulgar but had through his undoubted courage, dissolute ways, and close association with the ever popular Caesar the heart of the people.

Octavian sought a showdown with Antony but he did want to appear the one instigating it and in this regard he was to be helped by Antony’s own behaviour.

It would take time for Octavian to win Rome to his side but Antony’s increasing absence from the city helped, for he was now firmly ensconced in Egypt and having a passionate affair with its Queen Cleopatra, a woman both hated and feared by the Romans who considered her a a witch, and Octavian exploited the propaganda value of their relationship to its utmost.

Finally, after nine long years he was able to persuade the Senate to declare war.

On 2 September 31 BC, the forces of Octavian under the command of his close friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Just under a year later on 30 August 30 BC, Antony committed suicide in Alexandria. Cleopatra did likewise not long after.

Octavian returned to Rome and quickly set about consolidating his power. He trod carefully and paid lip-service to the notion of the Republic but he had no intention of handing the power he had fought so hard to acquire back to an assembly of rich old men and through a clever process of playing the reluctant hero, bribery, and implied threat he achieved all that he had been seeking.

In 27 BC a Senate, grateful for the peace he had brought to Rome after so many years of war bestowed on him the title – Augustus Caesar. Publicly, Octavian appeared reluctant to accept it but he did – it was the beginning of Empire and the new Augustus was determined to make Rome in his own image with the Imperial Family setting the standard by which all Rome would live. He resided modestly in his villa on the Palatine Hill eating frugally, and drinking only in moderation. He praised the fidelity of Roman womanhood passing laws in favour of marriage and making divorce more difficult and in the mission he had set himself to improve the morals of the ordinary Roman citizen he had a willing accomplice in his wife.

Simplicity was the watchword of an Imperial Household that Livia was not only the public face of but ruled with a rod of iron. She dressed modestly choosing inexpensive materials and plain colours, eschewed the wearing of jewellery, and it was even rumoured she made the Emperor’s clothes for him. But she was always more than the Roman Matriarch par excellence, she was her husband’s right hand playing a very prominent role in the administration of the Vestal Virgins and with use of the Royal Seal she undertook many official duties greeting foreign emissaries, allocating posts, signing off audits, addressing public meetings, and responding to complaints.

But all was not as it appeared – the Imperial Family were not the paradigm of moral probity and social rectitude they first appeared. Augustus himself, a physically unimpressive man short, pasty-faced and pitifully thin so much so that he took steps to make it appear that he was more than the sum of his parts rouging his cheeks, wearing platform shoes and extra layers of clothing to provide more bulk. He was in truth, extremely vain and a serial philanderer but never a brave man rather than confront his opponents he would seek to humiliate them forcing Senator’s to concede to him sleeping with their wives and daughters. In particular, he delighted in anal sex and had a passion for young virgins having them brought to the Imperial Palace for his pleasure. He was also an inveterate gambler.

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Augustus went to great lengths to ensure that his errant behaviour remained a secret from the Roman people and Livia was complicit in maintaining the Augustan myth of the well-ordered family. Indeed, she may well have procured his young lovers for him thereby maintaining control over his activities both inside and outside of the bedroom.

Yet, serial philanderer though he was as the historian Suetonius remarked – she was the only woman he loved until death – and even as his final moments approached he would say – Livia, be mindful of our marriage.

Once when asked how she managed to wield such power over her husband Livia replied:

“To him I remain chaste and do whatever he asks of me. I also turn a blind eye to many of his passions.”

She was aware of her husband’s infidelities but these were less important to her than her own public image. As far as the people of Rome were concerned she would always be the ideal Roman woman. Once she was confronted by some naked men who fearing that their immodesty would cost them their lives threw themselves at her feet begging for her mercy. She saved them from further punishment by simply remarking that to a chaste woman such men were but statues.

As time went on Augustus came to rely more and more upon his wife as the only person he truly trusted and they governed the Roman Empire as effective co-rulers with Livia running Rome in her husband’s absence and only in military affairs was she excluded from the decision making process.

Augustus and Livia were to be married for 51 years and at no time did Augustus ever consider divorcing her even though she bore him no children and together they ruled over the most prosperous period in Roman history. They were the perfect working partnership but Livia also had ambitions of her own.

Augustus had no direct heir and she was determined that one of her sons, either Tiberius or Drusus, would succeed him. Augustus however had already effectively nominated his nephew Marcellus but when this seemingly healthy and robust young man inexplicably succumbed to food poisoning and died, a bereft Augustus instead of alighting upon Livia’s children for his chosen successor looked instead toward the sons of his daughter, Julia.

Livia was furious that despite her best efforts to promote them both Tiberius and Drusus were overlooked.

There was still much work to be done.

Julia had been married aged 18, to Augustus’s oldest friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. It was a difficult marriage not only because Agrippa was 25 years Julia’s senior but also because he was of low-birth, and it was another old friend, Macaenas who told Augustus that:

“You have made him so great that he must either be your son-in-law or be slain.”

Augustus chose the former.

It appears to have been happy union for Julia was to have four children by Agrippa, three boys, Lucius, Gaius, and Postumus, and a girl, Agrippina. All three of the boys would now be next in the line of succession before either of Livia’s children would even be considered.

When Agrippa died suddenly and unexpectedly in 12 BC, Augustus adopted the two oldest boys and began grooming them for power. In the meantime, the freshly widowed Julia set her eyes upon her step-brother Tiberius for whom she had always had a passion and suggested that they should marry.

Livia was certainly not averse to her son marrying directly into the Imperial Family and petitioned her husband to grant the request.

Tiberius, however, was no longer the man that Julia remembered from their childhood together. He had always had a brooding personality but he had since become surly. Also his sexual proclivities went some way beyond the parameters of his marriage vows and in no time at all they learned to loathe one another. Tiberius never forgave her for being the cause of his having to divorce the woman he loved and Julia never forgave his lack of sexual interest in her – the marriage was a disaster.

Julia was also no friend of Livia’s who she thought overbearing, condescending, and manipulative while Livia on her part saw Julia as a bar to her ambitions.

In 2 BC, Julia became embroiled in a sexual scandal that brought shame upon the Imperial Family.

It was anonymously revealed that she had been sleeping around not just with Senators and Roman citizens, but with slaves and even Gladiators that she had in fact been behaving like a common whore.

Augustus was furious, for years he had promoted family values and carefully cultivated the image of the Imperial Family as chaste and frugal in all things, now this! Julia was arrested on charges of adultery and treason yet despite the promptings of Livia, Augustus remained disinclined to execute his own daughter and instead banished her, but it was to be a harsh banishment.

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She was exiled to the Island of Pandeteria which was little more than a mile in circumference where she was denied wine and any male company. Her mother Scribonia was also exiled along with her for having given birth to such a whore.

Julia was permitted to return to Italy five years later but barred from ever leaving the region of Reggio di Calabria. She never saw Rome or her father again and was probably starved to death on the orders of Tiberius after he became Emperor.

Not long after Julia’s banishment her two sons Lucius and Gaius who remained in the line of succession both died in mysterious circumstances. Only Posthumous remained and he was not a popular young man considered both arrogant and rude who with little expected of him as the third son other than he behave responsibly failed miserably to deliver even upon this meagre expectation drunkenly whoring his way around the city and offending almost all those he encountered. Even so, following the death of his brothers in 4 AD Augustus adopted him as his son and legitimate heir but on the insistence of Livia who worried, she said, who would succeed him if anything happened to Postumus, also adopted Tiberius.

In AD 9, Postumus was accused of trying to rape his cousin Livilla, and given his reputation it was an accusation people were only too willing to believe prompted by Livia to do so, Augustus certainly did.

Despite pleading his innocence and begging his grandfather to trust him Postumus, was like his mother before him, banished this time to the tiny Island of Planasia where he was kept under constant guard.

An old man saddened by the death and banishment of his family who suffered badly from the cold and wandered the corridors of the Imperial Palace alone at night unable to sleep Augustus remained deaf to the rumours sweeping the Royal Court that his wife Livia had in some way been responsible for the ill-fortune that had blighted the Imperial Family, that she had an unhealthy interest in poison and was determined that her son and no one else would succeed to the Imperial Throne.

On 19 August AD 14, the Emperor Augustus died aged 78, his last words:

“I found Rome of clay and leave her to you of marble; then if I have played my part well so applaud my exit.”

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Upon his death the Senate summoned Tiberius and offered him the Imperial Purple which he initially declined with scant sincerity knowing the Senate would return and beg him to do so.

Three days after becoming Emperor he had Postumus killed.

In his Last Will and Testament deposited with the Vestal Virgins, Augustus bequeathed Livia a third of his personal fortune, ordered she be adopted into the Julian Clan, and provided her with the honorific title of Augusta guaranteeing her patrician status and to quash the rumours that she was responsible not only for deaths within the Imperial Family but even that of the Emperor himself, Tiberius also made any future public criticism of her treasonable and thereby a capital offence.

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Livia was determined to rule through her son as she had through her husband and for a time this seemed to work quite well but the always broody and ill-tempered Tiberius soon grew resentful at his mother’s constant meddling particularly as whenever they disagreed Livia would be quick to reproach him with the words:

“Were it not for me you would never have become Emperor.”

Over the next few years their mutual loathing only increased and when the Senate proposed a motion to make Livia, Mater Patriae, or Mother of the Nation, Tiberius vetoed it.

In AD 26, Tiberius retired to the Island of Capri, it was said to get away from his domineering mother though it was more to do with being able to pursue his increasingly perverted sexual desires away from the public gaze. In his absence effective power in Rome fell to the Commander of the Praetorian Guard Aelius Sejanus and as a result Livia’s influence waned but never her status.

In AD 29, Livia Augustus, Empress of Rome, died, aged 86.

She had dominated Roman life for more than 60 years and tears were wept openly on the streets at her passing, shops were closed and even Rome’s infamous entertainments were put on hold as the entire city mourned the loss of its Queen Empress, but not so her son.

Livia’s body was preserved for a number of days in the expectation that Tiberius would be paying his last respects. But there was to be no last farewell from a son to his mother. He did not return and neither did he attend the funeral. In the end her body was buried because of the dire state of the corpse.

Thirteen years later her nephew, the Emperor Claudius, had her declared a God.

It was a final and fitting tribute in a deeply patriarchal society that so readily embraced deification to acknowledge, for all the rumours of regicide and more, a woman of substance – a recognition that had been denied to her by her own son.

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