Livia (58 B.C.-29 A.D.) was an influential consort of Augustus, architect of the Roman Empire, who was depicted in imperial propaganda as the embodiment of womanliness and dedication, while her enemies believed her to be a ruthless seeker of power.
As mistress of the Roman world, Livia's private life was lived in public. Acting as a moral example of her husband's imperial ideology, she served Augustus as helpmate, sounding-board, conveyor of messages-off-the-record and as foster mother to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also successfully secured the throne for her own son by a previous marriage.
On both sides of her family, Livia was the descendant of Roman senators. Her father Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus was, as his name shows, a member of the Claudian family who was adopted by Livians. Such adoption of an adult, or nearly adult, male heir into a line which lacked one was quite common in Rome. The adoption also served as a political bond between two powerful families.
Livia's early life presumably resembled that led by most young girls in the politically and economically elite circles of the Empire. Many of them were acquainted with rhetoric and philosophy, rather than restricted to the rudiments of literacy. Later some had literary interests, or, at least, joined the cultural avant garde of Roman society. But whatever education had been provided Livia, she displayed no later interest in taking up with a racy intellectual or artistic crowd. That helped to safeguard her reputation for both chastity and Roman traditionalism and made her a striking contrast to women like Augustus's granddaughter Julia.
Livia's marriage to Tiberius Claudius at 15 was typical for Roman women. Marriage to a cousin was also not uncommon. In this case it was even more to be expected, since the marriage of a Livia to a Claudius further cemented the relationship between both families. Aware of the politics of arranged marriage from an early age, Livia would later put this knowledge to good use in positioning her sons within the new royal family.
The young Livia had started her life as a Roman matron in the most conventional fashion, but the civil war which had already begun with Julius Caesar's death threw everything out of kilter. After the battle of Philippi, her father, who had fought for the Republic against the Second Triumvirate (Lepidus, Marc Antony, and Octavian), committed suicide rather than undergo the indignity of flight. But Livia, along with her infant son Tiberius and her husband, who had also fought in the battle, were fugitives. In their flight to join Sextus Pompey's forces in Sicily, they were nearly captured on two occasions when the child began crying and almost betrayed their presence. It must have been terrifying for Livia at 16 to be running for her life and to have her infant son twice snatched from her and stuffed away where his cries could not be heard.
It remains unknown whether or not Livia was surprised to find her husband less dedicated to the survival of the Republican forces than to his own advancement. After Sextus Pompey refused to accord him the position he wanted, the family set out to join the triumvir Mark Antony, when hostilities broke out between the members of the Second Triumvirate. That journey too was traumatic for Livia. With her infant son and a few attendants, she was almost killed in a forest fire in Sparta. She barely escaped with a smoldering cloak and singed hair.
In 39 B.C., the triumvirs reached a settlement among themselves, and Livia's family returned to Italy under a general amnesty. There she met the triumvir Octavian. We do not know what Livia thought of him, but he was instantly enamored with her. Overcoming his conservative scruples, the elder Tiberius Claudius gave a traditional wedding feast to celebrate the marriage of his newly divorced wife—who was six months pregnant with his second son—to Octavian. Octavian, who had been unwilling to wait for her to deliver, had sought a priestly opinion that Livia was able to remarry while visibly pregnant. The incident foreshadowed the later Augustan government which appeared to defer to propriety and the constraints of tradition while actually accomplishing whatever Augustus (Octavian) wanted.
Little is heard of Livia during the ensuing years, but her former husband died in 33 B.C., presumably disappointed, as he had received no rapid political or military advancement. The young Tiberius, now nine, gave his father's funeral oration. Traditional funeral orations celebrated the political career and goals of the deceased. As war between Antony in the eastern Mediterranean and Octavian in the west loomed, it must have been obvious that the winner would dismantle the old Republic permanently. It was presumably a short and carefully worded speech. That same year Tiberius was betrothed to Vipsania, daughter of Octavian's close friend and aide Agrippa, who was probably even younger than he was. Some have seen Livia's hand at work there, strengthening her son's ties to his stepfather and positioning him for the assumption of power.
Given the circumstances of her remarriage, tension between Livia and her son was inevitable, and the relationship between Octavian and Tiberius was edgy at best. Octavian and Livia had a happy marriage, and Livia's younger son Drusus apparently got along well with his stepfather, but Tiberius did not. In the 20s B.C., Octavian (now the emperor Augustus) claimed to be restoring the old ways of the Republic, though he was actually putting together the elements of a new state. As Tiberius was educated in Roman politics and history, he must have felt increasing disquiet at the discrepancy between what Augustus claimed to be doing and his actual concentration of power in his own hands.
Nonetheless, Livia managed to devote herself wholeheartedly to both Augustus and Tiberius. Augustus's need for male family members to represent the dynasty in the provinces allowed her to serve the interests of her husband, son, and Empire at once. In 20 B.C., Tiberius was sent to deal with an Armenian crisis and handled it creditably. Upon his return, he was married to Vipsania, and Livia's second son Drusus was set out on his political career. Nonetheless, the year ended on a frustrating note for Livia and Tiberius when Julia, Augustus's daughter by a previous marriage, bore the first of her three sons, Gaius. Lucius followed in 17 B.C. Tiberius could look forward only to being used in the interim, until the grandsons of the emperor's blood were old enough to take over.
But the events of 12 B.C. apparently forecast political success for Livia and Tiberius. Agrippa died, leaving Tiberius, at 29, the only adult male in or close to the family whom Augustus could entrust with potentially sensitive assignments. Undertaking the problem of pacifying tribes in the Danube basin, Tiberius handled the situation well. Livia at least agreed to—and was perhaps even enthusiastic about—Augustus's next plan for Tiberius. Forced to divorce his beloved Vipsania, with whom he had enjoyed a tranquil marriage, Tiberius was made to marry Augustus's daughter Julia, Agrippa's widow. At nearly 50, Livia had had to face the fact that she and Augustus could not have children together. Children of Tiberius and Julia would have been the next best thing. Then in 9 B.C., Tiberius as well as Livia felt deeply the loss of Drusus, who died in a fall from his horse.
The family crisis came in 5 B.C. Tiberius, who had served Augustus and Rome loyally at some personal cost, was distressed to witness popular affection for the two attractive young grandsons as well as a clamor in the streets calling for them to be allowed to hold political offices at an illegally early age. Never having aroused such popular enthusiasm, Tiberius now felt rejection. He understood an assignment in Armenia to be an effort to get him out of Rome and consolidate opinion behind Gaius and Lucius, and perhaps it was. Though his mother appealed to him to relent, Tiberius refused to work for the regime anymore. Infuriated, Augustus agreed to let him go to Rhodes for postgraduate study in philosophy, but Livia realized, as Tiberius did not, how precarious his position was. A good general was either loyal to the emperor or dead. In 1 B.C., perhaps at his mother's urging, Tiberius did ask Augustus if he might return to Rome, but Augustus's reply was hostile. Desperately afraid for her son, Livia secured an appointment for Tiburius as ambassador to Rhodes to mask from the public his complete estrangement from his imperial step-father. When Gaius, Augustus's older grandson and heir apparent, began speculating openly about Tiberius's fate, Livia became frantic. Augustus, given to letting Livia have her way in almost everything, drew the line. He said that it was up to Gaius to let Tiberius return. Finally, in 2 A.D., he did, but Tiberius was ordered, as a condition, to withdraw from political life.
Later that year, the younger grandson Lucius died; Gaius died two years after. By this time, Tiberius and Augustus hated each other, but neither had a choice. Augustus was too old and frail to take active field commands himself; his great-grandson Germanicus was too young. Julia's youngest son was a juvenile delinquent. Tiberius could either serve the emperor or break his mother's heart and face execution. Suzanne Dixon's comment that "the royal family sometimes exaggerated its togetherness for propaganda purposes, " seems a tremendous understatement.
Extravagant Roman gossip and popular modern novels have suggested that Livia engineered the deaths of Gaius and Lucius, one at the western end of the Mediterranean and the other at the eastern, but this seems highly unlikely. Nor is it likely that she could have been eliminating all of the emperor's current and prospective heirs, with the exception of her own son, and still have retained the affection of Augustus, a subtle and clever man. Suetonius tells us that Caligula later remembered his great-grandmother as an "Ulysses in skirts, " alluding to the Homeric hero known for his cunning rather than his use of arms, but the demented Caligula also believed that his horse could be a consul of Rome. Given his paranoid fantasies, there is little reason to accept this particular belief that Livia was indulging in Mediterraneanwide skullduggery.
Certainly Augustus came to respect Livia's devotion to her friends and her penchant for political maneuvering. Suetonius is our source for the gossip that she actually helped to procure for Augustus the younger women he wanted. Roman spouses of both genders were often known to be tolerant of even more exotic extramarital adventures, and that is not impossible. What is sure is that their marital union remained solid. As Suetonius says, "Livia remained the one woman whom he truly loved until his death." Perhaps she was the one person, other than himself, whom Augustus had ever really valued; his final words to her would be, "Be mindful of our marriage."
There is no doubt that during Augustus's final illness in 14 A.D., Livia had her eye on the future. She gave the order to seal the house and surround the streets with soldiers, ostensibly to avoid disturbing the dying man, but surely to secure control for herself and her son and to prevent anyone from contesting their version of his wishes. She was also suspected, along with Tiberius, of ordering the execution of Augustus's scapegrace grandson in exile, the young Agrippa Postumus. Perhaps she did; it would certainly have been the wise thing to do to keep him from being used as a pawn by other parties. She was even suspected of having hastened Augustus's end once he had become dangerously incapacitated. It is more likely that Augustus's loving dependence on her during his final weakness led him to accede to her wishes wholeheartedly. As Tacitus commented, "Livia had the aged Augustus firmly under control." It was never quite clear just when Augustus died. Livia did not allow an announcement until Tiberius was on the spot and in command of the Praetorian Guard.
If Livia consoled herself in her widowhood with the thought that there was only smooth sailing ahead, she must have been shocked by Tiberius's subsequent conduct. He had been disappointed too often to accept the responsibility of rule gladly. He still concealed Claudian republican sentiments which he did not enjoy betraying. At 56, he also did not wish to appear to be ordered about by his mother. Livia had been accorded unprecedented public honors by Augustus: he had dedicated a building in her honor, and she had been allowed to restore a temple. Coins in the provinces proclaimed her the mother of her country and even of the world. She had been granted a status previously reserved for vestal virgins. Augustus's will posthumously adopted her into the Julian clan, allowing her to use the name Julia Augusta. Tiberius stopped the flood of honors.
Genuinely against according Romans the sorts of honors previously associated with the hellenistic potentates of the eastern Mediterranean, he kept the Roman senate from proclaiming her mother of the country and refused to let them put up an altar to her adoption or assign her special attendants. Still, the apparent rancor in some of the scenes in the senate recounted by Tacitus also stemmed from a reluctance to be reminded that his own good services had not secured him the throne; his mother's cleverness had. He was particularly piqued by a senatorial move to add "son of Livia" to his own nomenclature.
Still, Livia's influence often counted with Tiberius in times of discord. She was able to persuade him to show clemency to her friend Plancina who was accused of conspiring to assassinate Augustus's great-grandson Germanicus. In another case, Tacitus tells us that Tiberius did not want to deny his mother, so he promised to appear in court to defend a friend of hers, then took a very slow walk to court and arrived too late. Amazingly, Tacitus, who takes a very dim view of Tiberius, thinks this a smart ploy and reports that the Roman populace thought so too. There must have been a contemporary consensus that simply saying no to Livia was not to be contemplated.
Suetonius claims that "Tiberius then complained that his mother Livia vexed him by wanting to be co-ruler of the Empire, " and he therefore avoided her. "Although he did occasionally need and follow Livia's advice, he disliked people to think of him as giving it serious consideration." He became especially angry when a blaze broke out near the temple of Vesta, and she took charge of crowd control and firefighting, "directing the populace and soldiery in person, as though Augustus were still alive."
One vignette in Suetonius is particularly telling. Tiberius and Livia began quarreling openly about a man whose name she wanted registered among those of potential jurors. "Tiberius agreed to do so on one condition—that the entry should be marked 'forced upon the emperor by his mother."' Livia's response was to haul out some of Augustus's letters to her which described Tiberius's "sour and stubborn" character. Her point was presumably to remind Tiberius that he had not earned adoption as Augustus's successor. She had secured it for him.
Supposedly that incident inspired his partial retirement to Capri and his delegation of the government to the vicious Sejanus, which led in turn to Sejanus's plot, its discovery, and the subsequent "reign of terror" which killed so many senators. Among the consequences of the confrontation over the letters, according to Suetonius, was that Tiberius visited Livia only once in the last three years of her life and not at all during her final protracted illness at the age of 86. He did not attend her funeral or probate her will. He vetoed her deification, which was accomplished by a later emperor, Claudius, a handicapped grandson for whom she had little regard.
Livia had, nonetheless, secured a peaceful transition between the first and second emperors, no mean feat since there were no precedents, no legal guidance, and plenty of other claimants. It is quite possible that without her Augustus's great accomplishments including the pax romana, the Roman peace itself, might otherwise have been lost in another round of the sort of civil war which had racked the Republic for the previous century.
Further Reading on Livia
Dio Cassius. Dio's Roman History. Vols. 6 & 7. Harvard University Press, 1960.
Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Penguin, 1957.
Tacitus. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Penguin, 1989.
Balsdon, J. V. P. D. Roman Women. Barnes and Noble, 1983.
Dixon, Suzanne. The Roman Mother. Oklahoma University Press, 1988.
Hallett, Judith P. Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society. Princeton University Press, 1984.
Levick, Barbara. Tiberius the Politician. Thames & Hudson, 1976.
Seager, Robin. Tiberius. University of California Press, 1972.