Murderess or Maligned?
By Natasha Sheldon
The Empress Livia was the most powerful woman of her day. But was she also a murderess? Or have Roman male biases towards women in power been used to malign her?
Livia Drusilla was born in 58BC. Although her father, Livius Drusus Claudianus was adopted into the Livii, he was by birth a Claudian, one of Rome’s oldest –and most notorious- patrician clans.
No important family at this time could avoid becoming embroiled in the violence and politics that marked the end of the republic. Livia’s father was killed at Battle of Philippi when the forces of Caesar’s assassins Cassius and Brutus met with those of his avengers: Lepidus, Mark Anthony and Octavian-the future emperor Augustus.
By this time, Livia was married to her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero, a staunch republican. Because of that marriage, she soon found herself in the opposite political camp to her future husband. As the triumvirate faltered, Tiberius Claudius sided with Mark Anthony, and fled Italy for Greece, taking his wife and young son Tiberius. The family remained in exile for several years until the pact of Misenum in 39BC allowed them to return to Rome.
Did Livia share her husband’s political sentiments? This is not known. But she did stand by him and she was brave. By sharing Tiberius Claudius’s exile, both Livia and her son were in real physical danger. Suetonius describes a dramatically tense scene at Naples where the crying Tiberius nearly gave away the couple to their pursuers. Later, in Sparta, he also relates how she became caught in a forest fire when attempting to flee with her son.,
But critically, Livia’s behaviour shows the kind of loyalty expected of a roman wife. Of course, in sticking by Tiberius Claudius, she could simply have been making a calculated move, waiting to see where the balance of power would finally rest. But this wifely loyalty was something she became famous for-but with a different husband.
Relationship with Augustus
On the 17th January 39BC, pregnant with her second son Drusus and not long after returning to Rome, Livia married the man her former husband had opposed. The sources state that Augustus fell in love with Livia and ordered her husband to divorce her. So was it a love match?
Augustus may have loved Livia but that would not have been his sole consideration in choosing her as a wife. Although adopted into the Julii by his great Uncle, the former Octavian’s own paternal family was undistinguished. Uniting himself with the Claudii undoubtedly bolstered his own political position.
As for Livia’s own views, there is no record. But we can assume she was happy with the union. It seems strange that a man like Tiberius Claudius, with a proven track record of opposition to Augustus would meekly hand his wife over-unless his wife made it clear it was what she wanted.
Certainly, once married, Livia threw herself wholeheartedly into her wifely duties. Suetonius and Tacitus agree she was the very model of a Roman matron. Although she never provided Augustus with a child, she ran Augustus’s household and brought up his daughter Julia according to the strict traditional values approved of by the emperor.
Augustus held his wife in such high regard that in his will, he adopted her and made her his co heir with her son Tiberius.
But this was not simply a recognition of Livia’s domestic skills.
Mother of her Country
Augustus reputedly divorced his previous wife Scribonia because she had nagged him. But Livia was by no means a compliant wife content to sit in the background and spin. It was widely acknowledged that she was one of Augustus’s most trusted and influential advisors.
Such was the extent of Livia’s influence, it continued even after Augustus died. With Tiberius’s ascension to the purple, the senate tried to show his mother equal honour by voting her the title ‘Mother of her country’. At the same time, dedicatory inscriptions in the empress’s honour began to appear in towns such as Pompeii. No doubt this was to curry favour as well as show recognition to her services of the state. But it does show Livia’s continuing power.
But how did she acquire such a level of influence?
Augustus may not have had a son but he had plenty of young male relatives who should have inherited the empire from him. First, there was his nephew Marcellus who married his daughter Julia. Marcellus died young and childless but Julia remarried and provided her father with a clutch of grandchildren-all of who met tragic ends. Of her sons, the two elder Lucius and Gaius, who Augustus adopted, died young. Her youngest son, Posthumous Agrippa was convicted of debauched behaviour and executed after his grandfather’s death.
It was beyond bad luck to so carelessly lose all your male relatives in such a way. But then, maybe bad luck had nothing to do with it. And who benefited from tragedies? The emperor’s stepson, Tiberius.
Tacitus lays all these deaths at Livia’s door, for this very reason. In his Annuals, he states she killed to clear the path for Tiberius. As well as causing the deaths of his brothers, she engineered the banishment of Posthumous by manipulating his grandfather, ordering his execution after Augustus’s death. Tacitus even claims Livia kept Augustus actual death a secret until she was certain of Tiberius’s succession, keeping the corpse of Augustus imprisoned in a villa surrounded by her guards. The perfect matron is gone. She has become a manipulative murderer.
Murderess or Maligned?
Tacitus’s and Suetonius’s accounts were written after Livia’s death, and after the demise of the Julio Claudian dynasty. The chaos of the reigns of the later emperors had taken their toll. Many may have wanted to revere Augustus but on the whole the name s of the rest of his family were mud. Tacitus’s account could be coloured by this view. It is markedly biased against the original imperial dynasty. This could explain in part why he maligns Livia.
But why choose her as the scape goat, Especially when elsewhere in his account, he sings her praises as a model wife (although overbearing mother)? In fact, Tacitus’s view is puzzlingly contradictory. On one hand she has set out to ruin all of Augustus’s relatives. Then, she is recorded as trying to ease the plight of the exiled Julia the younger who like her mother the emperor’s daughter was banished for adultery.
But contradictory though it may be, Tacitus’s stories come from somewhere, suggesting that rumours of Livia the murderer predate him. But why would a woman revered for her morals and hard work by some be reviled by others?
Livia’s sex could be the key. For wife’s, no matter how supportive, were not meant to hold power. It threatened the status quo. For a woman to hold such an unnatural amount of power, she must be resorting to unnatural means-even murder. Thus, the unfortunate fates of Augustus’s family which benefitted Livia’s son were laid at her door.
Certainly Tiberius came to view Livia’s power as inconvenient. Threatened by his own mother’s continued support and power, he quickly acted to curb her. Besides reputedly moving to Capri to avoid her, he vetoed the senate’s honours of her and gradually side-lined her. His spite even continued after her death in 29AD, when he refused to properly honour her will or to deify her.
Livia had overstepped the mark with her son. Perhaps others held that view. And perhaps they simply couldn’t accept that a woman could gain political influence through hard work and intelligence.
The Oxford Classical Dictionary
Cooley, A E and M G L, (2004) Pompeii: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge
Suetonius The Twelve Caesars
Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome