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Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography

Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography

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by Matthew Dennison

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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


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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Livia, Empress of Rome

A Biography

By Matthew Dennison

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Matthew Dennison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8919-0



The walls of the atrium were lined with wooden cupboards, a honeycomb of boxes, each with its own door. Open or closed, there was no secret about the contents of the cupboards. Nor could there be, in this the most public room of the house, accessible to every visitor, invited or unknown. In time, the atrium or main hall would all but disappear from Roman houses, re-imagined as little more than a passageway from the elaborate doors on to the street, closed only in times of mourning, to the private realm within. In the dying days of the Republic, the atrium continued to extend its welcome.

That welcome was more a matter of form than of comfort. This busy room was sparsely furnished. Many objects distracted the eye; few offered respite to tired limbs or indeed the anxious petitioner.

On festival days, when the household altar shone red with the blood of animal sacrifice, the doors of the wooden cupboards stood open. A label, the titulus, marked each one, explaining the precise nature of its contents. Or perhaps, not so much its nature as its achievements. For the atrium's wooden cupboards, called armaria, contained the past – moments frozen in time, like the blown birds' eggs and preserved butterflies of Victorian naturalists.

Roman armaria displayed the wax ancestor masks of the city's patrician nobility, each a cross between a portrait bust and a death mask, framed inside its box. These were the imagines maiorum of ancient Rome, recorded in the second century BC by the Greek historian Polybius and described two hundred years later by Pliny the Elder as the archetypal example of traditional Roman domestic art. Today no trace of them remains, except in the written sources. Each mask personated a significant member of the family in whose atrium it stood. Its wooden cupboard was by way of a shrine.

Inclusion within the gallery of imagines was a question of hurdles successfully jumped. The subject must be dead; must in its lifetime have held public office above the rank of junior magistrate or 'aedile' – and must, of course, have been a man. We cannot know the quality of craftsmanship, whether the wax was tinted, how the hair was treated or the masks made. All that survive are the complementary accounts of Polybius and Pliny and the less fragile record preserved in stone portrait busts, which presumably shared predominant characteristics with their wax counterparts. Worn or carried by the actors employed in Roman funeral processions, imagines maiorum were at the same time realistic in appearance and functional, with holes for the eyes and breathing. They were a public face of Rome's oldest love affair, its romanticizing of its own noble and strenuously masculine history. In Rome, history and legend merged. Even politicians, once dead, became masks for actors, the makers of history mere ciphers in a pageant, reputation a matter for a strolling player. In the Roman Republic, immortality was a reward for public service. The records of the tituli were businesslike, impersonal. It was not a sentimental society. Daily, domestic animals – chickens and lambs – found their throats slit in appeasement of gods who offered no lifeline of eternal redemption. A dish of blood spilt on the altar was enough to hold heavenly ire at bay.

What did he see, the visitor to the atrium of this Roman townhouse on a January day in 58 BC? He glimpsed the populous rollcall of honour of one of Rome's greatest families. A fire had been lit – for today a child was born. Slaves would tend the fire for eight days, until the child received its names in a ceremony of purification known as the dies lustricus. For eight days the flames of the symbolic fire would lick reflections across the waxy contours of the ancestor masks so proudly displayed in their wooden cases. In vain the armaria sought to shield their splendid contents from the heat of the day and the fire's dark smoke. The ancestor masks in question represented the family immortalized by Livy as 'superbissima', 'excessively haughty', a family almost as old as Rome itself and, like Rome, by turns savage and cruel, distinguished and beneficent: the family of the Claudii.

Its newest member would never be commemorated by a waxen image. She was a girl. Instead, within a century, her cult would be worshipped across the breadth of the Mediterranean world and beyond; her features chiselled from marble and basalt in temples remote from Rome; her name invoked in marriage ceremonies and written histories and inscribed on provincial coinage alongside the legend 'Mother of the World' her likeness affiliated to personifications of an empire's chosen virtues. At the dies lustricus she received from her family two names: Livia Drusilla. For much of her life – and by history – she would be known by the former.

The name of Livia has survived through two millennia, even into generations unfamiliar with ancient history and Rome's written sources. It resonates beyond the confines of any armarium or noble atrium, bolder but less easily read than the soft translucency of a portrait carved from wax. It is spiced with accretions of legend and malice ... sharp-tasting ... contentious ... perhaps even dangerous. Its associations embrace good and bad: synonymous with lust for power or the exemplary virtue Romans prized in their women. Livia is a villain; Livia is a victim.

Ancient historians set no store by childhood. Even the contemporary biographies of great men divulge few details of their subjects' earliest years. Since the ancients believed that character was static – it emerged fully formed and neither developed nor altered over time – they had recourse only to their subjects' active years. Childhood simply reflected in a distant, smaller mirror adult truths, as when Suetonius tells us of the Emperor Tiberius, 'His cruel and cold-blooded character was not completely hidden even in his boyhood.'

The whole picture as it appeared to ancient historians is to modern eyes frustratingly incomplete, little more than the terse statements of public office contained in the tituli of the aristocratic atrium. How much less, then, do we know of the lives of Roman women. They were excluded by Rome's constitution from holding public office and by extension – as well as by custom – from the ranks of the ancestor masks. Restrictions on their public role inevitably limited what writers could know about them. As the commentator Asconius indicated as early as the first century, it was often impossible simply to identify, let alone elaborate, the wives of even the most prominent men. Across the gulf of two millennia, Roman women's early lives have mostly disappeared from view. Livia's is no exception.

Neither the time nor the place of Livia's birth is known to us. Since no other city of the Roman empire afterwards claimed her as its daughter, it seems safe, in the absence of contradictory information, to assume that she was born in Rome. Modern opinion fixes that event in the year 58 BC, though the ancient sources also offer the previous year, 59, as a possibility. Although the Roman calendar differed significantly from our own, the date 30 January can be stated with reasonable certainty.

The atrium was a place of business, a room of passage and of display, the 'great grand hall' that Vitruvius insisted upon for 'gentlemen who must perform their duties to the citizenry by holding offices and magistracies'. Here the citizenry and a senator's clients – those to whom, as patron, he owed a moral and legal obligation – came to call, to petition or entreat in a morning ritual called the salutatio. Aristocratic Roman townhouses of the Republic, unassuming in appearance, lined the city's streets and thoroughfares, and opened directly upon the public way. Only one door admitted entrance from the outside, open throughout the hours of daylight. Inside, at the end of a passage, lay the atrium, flooded with light on account of its open roof and lined with ancestor masks, labelled in their boxes like latter-day portraits or the stuffed natural-history specimens of country-house corridors. Painted family trees, also displayed on the walls of the atrium, made clear the relationships of those eyeless forebears. Somewhere near at hand stood a mighty chest, bound with metal and apparently immoveable. The arca contained family papers, some no doubt relating to the faces in the cupboards. It may also have symbolized, and indeed contained, the family's riches. An altar served to honour the lares, the spirits of dead ancestors which, like the imagines, benignly looked down on the household.

The nature of the visitor's business mattered little. He could not doubt where he stood, nor the source of authority of those he visited. At a glance he absorbed twin concerns of Rome's governing elite: family pride and a microscopic view of Roman history seen through the prism of family greatness. Under the Roman Republic – an oligarchy of office-holding aristocratic families – these galleries of pallid likenesses perpetuated the human scale of politics. They provided too the backdrop of aristocratic childhood.

Beyond the atrium unfolded more private regions of the house, accessible to intimates: friends and family, favoured clients and colleagues. The master of the house conducted public business in the atrium or the adjoining tablinum, a shop window of a room displaying records of official transactions. Here clients requested favours or payment in return for votes – or, like one disaffected poet, presented themselves in their smartest clothes to bolster the master's prestige: 'You promise me three denarii and tell me to be on duty in your atria, dressed up in my toga. Then I'm supposed to stick by your side ...' Private dealings were reserved for the cubiculum, which combined the functions of bedroom and study. It lay beyond the tablinum, on the other side of the peristyle. Privacy meant remoteness from the street – from the clamorous, odoriferous tumult of Rome that lapped about the ever-open doors of the grandest houses.

There could be no work on a day like this. Outside, Rome the colossus pursued an unceasing roundelay. The streets rang with innumerable noises: the continuous clatter of building work and that seething, vociferous mass that later drove Martial the epigrammatist to the country – in times of plenty, schoolmasters, bakers, coppersmiths and gold beaters, exchange clerks, soldiers and sailors with bandaged bodies, begging Jews and bleary-eyed matchsellers, all at loose in the crowded city. In times of famine, intermittent through the years of Livia's childhood, the baying of crowds bent on slaughter, arson and mischief jack-knifed through busy streets. Inside, a semblance of calm prevailed. We do not know the whereabouts of Livia's father at the time of her birth. A supporter of Rome's new governing trio of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus – the First 'Triumvirate' – he may have been sent in 59 BC on a fundraising journey to Alexandria on Egypt's Mediterranean coast. Had he returned by the end of January of the following year, he would have found himself at home, in a room near to that in which his wife was confined, awaiting the birth of their child.

His was not a lonely vigil. At the onset of labour, slaves carried messages to relatives and political associates. Their presence alongside Livia's father fulfilled a traditional requirement that senatorial births be witnessed – though from their non-vantage point in a neighbouring room, none of the watchers witnessed anything but the prospective father's nerves. Five years before the birth of Livia, Suetonius records that Gaius Octavius, the father of Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus and Livia's second husband, arrived late for the Senate's debate on the Catiline Conspiracy. The confinement of his wife Atia had detained him. Since Octavius felt able to miss so critical a debate, at a moment when not only Rome but a number of Italian towns were threatened with armed insurrection, it is safe to assume that childbed attendance by fathers was common practice, at least among Rome's senatorial class.

A father's place, however, was not in the labour room itself. There, the expectant mother toiled in a women's world, attended by slaves, her midwife and often her mother and female relatives. If she was a woman of means, as Livia's mother was, the slaves who ministered to her would have belonged to her personally, not part of the joint marital property, just as her husband owned outright his valet and secretaries. Their faces at least would have been familiar to their mistress. In anticipation of a happy outcome, it is likely that a wet nurse was also to hand.

The newborn baby was placed on the ground, ideally in a beam of sunlight. Romans embraced ritual and superstition: they welcomed natural signs which could be interpreted as good omens. Suetonius records a birth in AD 37 that occurred at dawn. 'The sun was rising and his earliest rays touched the newly born boy almost before he could be laid on the ground, as the custom was.' This crowning by nature proved an accurate foreshadowing. The boychild was Nero, who afterwards, by a roundabout route, inherited Rome's imperial throne.

Admitted at last to the birthing chamber, the father lifted up his newest infant. Symbolically he raised the child – an acknowledgement of paternity and a statement of intent: the child would be allowed to live. For Roman fathers who were the senior living male of their family possessed by ancient acquiescence a power of life and death. That ability, sanctioned by society, was to decide whether a baby should be tended and cared for or exposed at birth, abandoned to certain starvation. Livia's father chose life. Among those who made a different decision for the offspring of their family were the Emperors Augustus and Claudius.

It was cause for moderate rejoicing. In Roman society a daughter could not bestow on her family the prestige a son might bring – even if she became a Vestal Virgin and enjoyed, in addition to a blameless reputation, the highest legal protection of the Roman state, that of sacrosanctity. But daughters had their uses politically, through the agency of marriage. Roman history abounds with fathers and brothers who exploited the marital careers of their daughters and sisters to advance, or even revive, family influence. Daughters as well as sons inherited the right to own and display ancestor masks. Into the atria of other powerful, noble houses Roman daughters carried the symbols of their forefathers' greatness. It was part of belonging to the special club that was Rome's governing elite. In the century before the birth of Christ, the last of the Roman Republic, blood and ink would be spilled to ensure that club's survival. The sacrificial victims in this instance were fellow Romans.

More precarious in January 58 was the survival of the infant Livia Drusilla. Mortality rates in ancient Rome were alarmingly high. One in three babies died before the end of their first year, while half of all Roman children failed to reach their fifth birthday. Overcrowding and the waves of visitors who flocked to Rome as the centre of a far-flung trading network led to frequent epidemics in the capital. August was the cruellest month, followed by September, weeks of searing heat and flourishing ailments. Aqueducts carried fresh water to parts of the city but standards of sanitation were low. The living conditions of the rich ought to have mitigated these endemic scourges: cooking and bathing were separate in the houses of Rome's first citizens, which also included private lavatories. Despite this, ignorance of the role of human waste in the spread of disease remained widespread. Food poisoning, too, regularly exacted its tariff. The case of Cornelia, celebrated mother of the Gracchi brothers in the second century BC, illustrates the fragility of infant life in Rome: of Cornelia's twelve children, only three survived to adulthood. Infant mortality was simply a fact of life. It is this which provides the context for an otherwise brutal-sounding letter by Seneca. The philosopher counsels a father to grieve moderately at the death of his young son. The boy, Seneca indicates, was too small to be of any social importance; his loss is less significant than would be that of a friend. Possibly Seneca's view of small boys was shaped by his experience as boyhood tutor to the Emperor Nero.

For the moment, all was happiness, signalled by the lighting of the symbolic fire in the atrium. Later, Livia's 'witnesses' would light similar fires on the altars of their own household gods. As soon as news of the birth was widely known, other guests arrived, their purpose curiosity and congratulation. In his miscellany of excerpts, Athenian Nights, the Latin author Aulus Gellius recorded one such visit. Friends embraced the new father, asking him for details of his wife's labour and its outcome. 'It had been protracted, and the newly delivered young mother was asleep, so they could not see her. Her mother was also present and clearly in charge of the practicalities, for she had already decided to engage wet nurses to spare her weakened daughter the strain of breastfeeding.'


Excerpted from Livia, Empress of Rome by Matthew Dennison. Copyright © 2010 Matthew Dennison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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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.

Matthew Dennison is the author of The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter and Livia, Empress of Rome. 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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