Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia

Published by Quercus on 1st April 2010

Second wife of the emperor Augustus, mother of his great successor Tiberius, grandmother of Claudius and great grandmother of Caligula, the empress Livia lived close to the centre 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.

In this rigorously researched biography, Matthew 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. In a society so assertively male that its historians avoided mentioning women save as exemplars of outstanding virtue or vice, Livia was unusual in creating for herself a public profile and a sphere of influence. The wife of one emperor, she became the mother of his successor after a series of unforeseeable deaths. In the early years of Tiberius’s reign she was acknowledged by several sources as almost his equal in power. But any power she exercised was circumscribed. She confined her visible sphere of influence to acceptable, traditionally female areas. That she won public plaudits for her contribution to Roman like was in itself enough to condemn her – not only in the eyes of contemporaries but also those of influential later writers.

Empress of Rome rescues the historical Livia from the crude caricature of popular myth to paint an elegant and richly textured portrait. The Livia who emerges from Matthew Dennison’s magisterial account is a complex, courageous and gifted woman, and one of the most fascinating and perplexing figures of the ancient world.