Livia, Empress of Rome

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Overview

Rome is a subject of endless fascination, and in this new biography of the infamous Empress Livia, Matthew Dennison brings to life a woman long believed to be one of the most feared villainesses of history.

Second wife of the emperor Augustus, mother of his successor Tiberius, grandmother of Claudius and great grandmother of Caligula, the empress Livia lived close to the center of Roman political power for eight turbulent decades. Her life spanned the years of Rome’s ...

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Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography

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Overview

Rome is a subject of endless fascination, and in this new biography of the infamous Empress Livia, Matthew Dennison brings to life a woman long believed to be one of the most feared villainesses of history.

Second wife of the emperor Augustus, mother of his successor Tiberius, grandmother of Claudius and great grandmother of Caligula, the empress Livia lived close to the center of Roman political power for eight turbulent decades. Her life spanned the years of Rome’s transformation from Republic to Empire, and witnessed both its triumphs under the rule of Augustus and its lapse into instability under his dysfunctional successor.

Livia was given the honorific title Augusta in her husband's will, and was posthumously deified by the emperor Claudius—but posterity would prove less respectful. The Roman historian Tacitus anathematized her as “malevolent” and a “feminine bully” and inspired Robert Graves's celebrated twentieth-century depiction of Livia in I, Claudius as the quintessence of the scheming matriarch, poisoning her relatives one by one to smooth her son’s path to the imperial throne.

Livia, Empress of Rome rescues the historical Livia from the crude caricature of popular myth to paint an elegant and richly textured portrait. In this rigorously researched biography, Dennison weighs the evidence found in contemporary sources to present a more nuanced assessment. Livia’s true “crime,” he reveals, was not murder but the exercise of power. The Livia who emerges here is a complex, courageous and gifted woman, and one of the most fascinating and perplexing figures of the ancient world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the wake of Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra, this is an attempt to similarly rescue the wife of her antagonist, Augustus, from the demonization of ancient historians. Livia Drusilla of the Claudii (58 B.C.E.–29 C.E.) was vilified by Tacitus and later by Robert Graves's I, Claudius as the ambitious schemer who poisoned five of her son's competitors for the Roman throne. Beautiful, intelligent, an aristocrat of impeccable lineage, through her first husband, who haplessly backed Mark Antony against the emperor Augustus, Livia was mother of two future emperors. While pregnant with her second son, she became mistress to Augustus and soon married him. As empress, Livia espoused an idealized image of virtue and restraint. British journalist Dennison (The Last Princess) clears Livia of the charge of poisoning Marcellus, Augustus's son-in-law and presumed successor, attributing his death to typhoid fever. As to the scant evidence offered posthumously that she killed Augustus's three grandsons, another son-in-law, her own grandson, and even Augustus himself, Dennison claims Livia's real crime was the exercise of power in an assertively masculine society. This is an erudite, nuanced, and engrossing portrait of a turbulent era and of an empress demonized for refusing to be invisible. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“This is an erudite, nuanced, and engrossing portrait of a turbulent era and of an empress demonized for refusing to be invisible.”—Publishers Weekly

“A fine biography. . . . [Dennison] has produced a scholarly but highly accessible book about the woman who—through chance, dress, behaviour and her own undeniable determination—was able to make the Empire her own.”—Lindsey Davis, New York Times bestselling author of Alexandria

“British journalist Dennison deftly sifts the historical record for a portrait of a woman in the right place at the right time. . . . Dennison does a nice job of defending this fascinating character from “demonization” through the centuries, and knowledgeably considers many facets of Roman history, including religion, the place of women and children, family life and iconography. A deeply considered look at women and power in the late Roman age.”—Kirkus Review

“Dennison attempts to set the historical record straight in this balanced biography of one of the most maligned females in ancient history: Portrayed in both fact (The Histories and The Annals) and fiction (L Claudius, anyone?) as a serial poisoner who would stop at nothing to ensure that her son Tiberius succeeded his stepfather, Augustus, as emperor of Rome, the Livia that is resurrected here is far from the femme fatale of legend. . . . Ancient Rome always appeals, and it is nice to see an unjustly tarnished reputation polished up for posterity.”—Booklist

“[A] richness of detail gives readers a solid foothold for understanding the complex traditions, customs, and politics of the era. . . . aficionados of Roman history, social history, women's history, or biography will enjoy the wealth of information.”—Library Journal

“Learned, engrossing and pacey new biography . . . Dennison combines a healthy scepticism towards his sources with an alertness to all that made the career of his heroine authentically remarkable . . . His achievement, in this consistently entertaining biography, is to remind us that a politician with a clever and supportive wife is a fortunate man indeed.”—Mail on Sunday (UK)

“An engrossing and persuasive portrait of one of history’s most influential women.”—Independent (UK)

“Well-researched . . . full of delightful detail.”—Daily Mail (UK)

“Dennison excels at exploring the iconography of Livia . . . his analysis is exemplary . . . Balanced, scholarly and yet accessible, this is very good history indeed.”—Country Life (UK)

“A powerful new life of Livia . . . refreshingly free of cant.”—The Herald (UK)

Library Journal
In his own words, Dennison (The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter) did not seek out "undiscovered fragments, lost inscriptions or unknown papyri" for this biography, but he used the biased ancient texts and scholarly sources to compile a fuller portrait. Both vilified and deified, Livia (58 B.C.E.–29 C.E.)—wife of the Emperor Augustus and the mother of his successor, her son from her first marriage, Tiberius—was blamed by detractors for the deaths of those who would have inherited before Tiberius, though she was often hundreds of miles away when the supposed victims died. Livia presented a public persona of the virtuous Roman matron, which allowed her to accomplish significant goals by sidestepping the appearance of personal motivation within the masculine sphere of official activities. Readers are not left wondering at Dennison's own opinion: he describes Livia as something of a prodigy. VERDICT Dense with research, this book is at times difficult to wade through, yet the richness of detail gives readers a solid foothold for understanding the complex traditions, customs, and politics of the era. Perhaps not accessible to casual readers, but academics and aficionados of Roman history, social history, women's history, or biography will enjoy the wealth of information.—Crystal Goldman, San Jose State Univ. Lib., CA
Kirkus Reviews

Wife of one emperor, mother of another, Empress Livia proves a powerful tool with which to amplify on the "dog days" of the Roman Empire.

British journalist Dennison (The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter, 2008, etc.) deftly sifts the historical record for a portrait of a woman in the right place at the right time. Livia was the daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, who belonged to Rome's most distinguished senatorial families but backed the wrong side after Julius Caesar's assassination and was eliminated during the Second Triumvirate's Proscription. Nonetheless, Livia had been married off at age 15 to "turncoat" Tiberius Claudius Nero, had two sons quickly by him, living often in exile, before her affair with Octavian, the youngest of the Triumvirate, precipitated a hasty divorce and remarriage. Thus Livia allied herself with Rome's first citizen, and their marriage lasted more than 50 years. Although she had clear ambitions for her two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, Livia herself was not allowed to share power as Octavian's star rose over the next half-century—although "access...was arguably Livia's true patrimony." The first order of business was the necessity of defeating Mark Antony, who had broken off and allied himself with Cleopatra. After Actium, Octavian assumed the name "Augustus," revered one, and gradually Livia also became an archetype by imperial propaganda, becoming sacrosanct, as depicted in public statues—faithful, steadfast and chaste, as opposed to Cleopatra's exotic, promiscuous, beguiling depictions. Her childlessness with Octavian might have been troubling, had Octavian not truly loved Livia. He finally adopted Tiberius as his son, and Livia ultimately secured Tiberius's inheritance of power upon Octavian's death in 14 CE. Dennison does a nice job of defending this fascinating character from "demonization" through the centuries, and knowledgeably considers many facets of Roman history, including religion, the place of women and children, family life and iconography.

A deeply considered look at women and power in the late Roman age.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312658649
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/4/2011
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

MATTHEW DENNISON is the author of The Last Princess. A journalist, he contributes to The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Country Life, and The Spectator. He is married and lives in London and North Wales.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2013

    Disappointing

    This read like a book report. I kept waiting for the story of a powerful woman to emerge. All the book had to offer was rambling and conjecture on what Livia's chilhood must have been like. I gave up after page 98 waiting for something to happen.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2012

    A Good Read

    To the person who remarked about enjoying Greek and Roman mythology..........FYI, LoL! Livia was not a mythical person! She was a flesh and blood horror of womanhood! She was the power behind her husband, the emperer Augustus, she influenced, due to her strength of personality (not necessarily strength of character) the lives and reigns of her son Tiberius, grandson Claudius, great grandson Caligula and great, great grandson Nero. Though their reigns were not in order of their closeness in relationship to her. It was Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and finally Nero. Livia had her fingers in everthing. Her influence tainted lives long after her death. She was related to nearly everyone who was of Patrician stock in Roman society. To borrow and paraphrase a comment from "I, Claudius": Livia was primarily of the Claudians, and there were good Claudians and bad Claudians. Livia Drusilla was among the bad apples that fell from the Claudian tree.

    This author makes her out to be more sympathetic than most history actually recalls her. Even so, I found it an interesting read, since Ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian history is kind of my "thing". Though it does seem to be stylish these days to romanticise and portray more "gently" many of history's bad boys and girls.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2011

    Awsome

    My name is Livia too and i totally enjoyed this book zbecause i love greek and roman mythology.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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