Mudd’s (Studies in the Reign of Constantius II, 1989) laudatory biography aims to set the story straight on Livia Drusilla, Rome’s much-celebrated but historically reviled first empress.
For years following her death in A.D. 29, the devoted wife of Roman Emperor Augustus was revered as a subtly powerful, politically cunning arbiter of motherhood and feminism. At a time when women were predominantly uneducated homemakers and mothers, young, ambitious Livia demanded an education and later instilled that drive in her descendants, who included emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula and Nero. But thanks to various historical accounts that portray Livia as domineering and conniving, particularly regarding the suspicious deaths of individuals posing a threat to her son Tiberius’ reign, Livia is mostly remembered for her supposed malignance. Perhaps chiefly responsible for her infamy today is Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius (1934), which depicts Livia as a devious, power-hungry matriarch seemingly responsible for every act of malevolence surrounding Tiberius’ ascendancy. After taking issue with what she considers to be Graves’ inaccurate account, Mudd revisited whatever historical sources she could find to reveal the “inescapable discovery…that Livia could not have committed the crimes of which she has stood accused for two millennia.” While Mudd indeed delves deep to make her assertions, she doesn’t do so until nearly halfway through the book. The opening establishes historical context, often with a stream of commas: “His brilliant military strategies had won Octavian’s wars, against Sextus Pompeius, in Illyria, at Actium, and in Alexandria.” These painfully dry sections struggle to cement her thesis; readers might all but forget it until nearly 100 pages in. Frequent digressions, such as discrepancies related to the birthdate of Livia’s second son, further detract from the book’s intentions. But though the beginning suffers from disorganization, Mudd’s objective finally takes shape when she devotes an entire chapter to Livia’s significance as “an active and influential civil servant, the symbol of a new system of government, and eventually a divinity.” Another chapter breaks down each baleful act history credits to her and makes thoughtful suppositions as to why Livia is exempt of them all. In a particularly passionate chapter, “Explaining the Sinister Tradition,” Mudd addresses the widespread misconceptions surrounding Livia’s life, clarifying the credibility of available sources. With each chapter, Mudd’s earnestness snowballs, generating a sense of energy that should spark new interest in an old tale.
A corrective biography that starts off slow but eventually rights its wrongs.