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.