Saturday 19 August 2017

Who was Livia, first lady of Rome? By Alison Morton

At seventeen, running through a burning forest in 41 BC, nearly betrayed by the cries of her baby son, Livia Drusilla fled through Sparta with her husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, a supporter of Mark Anthony. Pursued by Octavian’s forces during the two warlords’ bitter struggle, they barely made it to safety.

Livia carried the blood and prestige of both the Livii and the patrician Claudii, families long accustomed to power. Politics was in the very air she breathed. She’d married within her aristocratic circle to Tiberius, whom Cicero described as ‘a nobly born, talented and self-controlling young man’ and who had risen to the rank of praetor, a senior magistrate. Unfortunately, he had backed the wrong side in the wars following Julius Caesar’s death. 

Livia Drusilla, Museo della Civita Romana, author’s photo
During an amnesty between Octavian and Anthony, Livia and her husband were able to return to Rome in 39 BC, doubtless relieved after a life on the run. Stripped of three-quarters of their assets for their disloyalty, the patrician couple accepted this was the end of Tiberius’ political career. But 39 BC was the year Livia began as a political exile and ended as the consort of one of one of the most powerful men in the world at whose side she stayed for over fifty years.

Livia was introduced to Octavian in autumn 39 BC when she was six months pregnant with her second child, Nero Claudius Drusus. Legend says that Octavian fell immediately in love with her, despite the fact that he was still married. He divorced his wife, Scribonia, on the very day that the latter gave birth to his daughter, Julia. Livia’s husband, Tiberius, was ‘persuaded’ to divorce Livia who then moved into Octavian’s house. On 14 January 38 BC Livia's child was born; Octavian and Livia married on 17 January, waiving the traditional waiting period. Fantastically enough, Tiberius, her divorced husband was present at the wedding giving her in marriage ‘just as a father would’!

The importance of the patrician Claudii to Octavian's cause, and the Claudians’ own political survival provide more rational explanations. Octavian, a rising star but from a middle rank equestrian background, needed connections with aristocrats like Livia to provide an aura of Republican respectability to his growing power. As for Livia's feelings, at 20 years old she was probably content to be joined with a younger man of 25 with such overwhelming promise. The 47-year-old Tiberius, newly pardoned by Octavian, did not have a real choice, but he was aware that it did not hurt to bestow his wife on Rome's ascendant power. Everyone gained. 

By all accounts, Livia played the role of a loving, dutiful and even old-fashioned wife. When Octavian rebranded himself as Augustus, Livia cooperated with his idea that upper-class women should behave in the austere fashion of earlier times, so she and other female members of his household spun and wove (at least some of) his clothing.

Dupondius depicting Livia as Pietas
By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0
Livia's image appears in ancient visual media such as coins and evolved with different styles of portraiture that promoted imperial propaganda and the cult of Augustus. Becoming more than the "beautiful woman" described as in ancient texts, Livia served as a public image for idealised Roman feminine qualities and symbolised the renewal of the Republic with the female virtues of pietas and concordia that were supposed to set the public pattern for future imperial women.

She ignored Augustus’s notorious womanising; Tacitus called her an "easy wife". But this was not unusual. The goal of a Roman marriage was the formation of a household and the production of children not sexual gratification which could be found elsewhere. Unfortunately, Livia never bore Augustus any living children. It demonstrated the strength of their relationship that Augustus did not divorce her because she failed in that respect. The two were a partnership; with her intelligence, connections and influence, she served him as a trusted confidante and advisor, even accompanying him abroad.

The perception that Livia schemed and was ambitious for Tiberius, her son with her first husband, fed the idea of her complicity in Augustus's death in AD 14. She supposedly smeared poison on figs, then guided him to pick one of these for himself while she selected untainted ones. Although implausible, the accusation shows how strongly she came to be perceived as championing her offspring at any cost. 

Suetonius describes a loving and trusting relationship between Livia and Augustus at the end. The emperor's last words were 'Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell’. He died as he kissed her. This detail is probably no more accurate than the poisoned figs story, but it represents Livia’s double role: dutiful wife and ambitious schemer. 

Livia remained an influential figure even after Augustus’s death. Gaius, her great-grandson who followed Tiberius in the principate as Caligula, lived with her when he was young. He called her Ulixes stolatus, (Ulysses in a matron's dress), a strong and manipulative woman. 

Livia died in AD 29 at the advanced age of 86. She received a public funeral, although a relatively modest one, and was buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Gaius (the future Caligula) delivered the eulogy. When he became emperor, he paid the bequests that she had provided for in her will that her own son Tiberius had ignored. Her grandson Claudius would oversee her long-deferred deification in AD 42. Women were to name Diva Augusta in their oaths; she received an elephant-drawn chariot to convey her image to the games; a statue of her was set up in the temple of Augustus; races were held in her honour. The woman who played an important role in two principates joined the imperial pantheon at last. Tacitus's obituary calls her "An imperious mother and an amiable wife, she was a match for the diplomacy of her husband and the dissimulation of her son", a concise statement of the reputation that she left behind.

Further reading: 
The First Ladies of Rome: The women behind the Caesars, Annelise Freisenbruch


Sue Bursztynski said...

You know, I've read Suetonius and others, but when I think of Livia I can't help thinking Sian Phillips and the scene where she holds a fig thoughtfully ... I remember going home from a science fiction con to watch the latest episode and telling my friends the amazing news that Germanicus was dead and LIVIA DIDN'T DO IT! Amazing!

Alison Morton said...

Yes, I remember that scene! Sian Philips can do a very good thoughtful look that's full of menace.
I've always been sceptical about the poisoned figs. Figs had great symbolism including several rude interpretations, e.g. 'giving someone the fig' was the Roman equivalent of today's 'giving someone the finger.'
Perhaps that was another subtle denigration of Livia.