Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography
By Matthew Dennison
St. Martin’s Press
A few years ago I read a biography of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, and loved it. I moved on to a biography of Cicero but never finished it; my interest in ancient Rome waning slightly on the non-fiction front. My husband, knowing I enjoy reading about this time period, brought home this biography for me and in an effort to read more non-fiction this year, Livia, Empress of Rome made it to the top of pile quickly.
Livia’s life is told through the men in her life. Starting with her father, then her first husband, the affair she has with Octavian, the man who would become Augustus, and then her sons. For ancient Romans, who could be meticulous when it came to noting things of importance, weren’t so good about record keeping when it came to women. Even the date of Livia’s birth is speculation but easy enough to pin down to a year or two. Her first marriage is rather undocumented much like her birth but it’s when she meets and begins an affair with Octavian that her life seems to become more definitive. Divorcing her first husband, and merely three days after giving birth to her second son, Livia marries Octavian and she embarks on the journey of becoming one of the first women in ancient Rome to be called empress.
Constantly accused of being manipulative and power hungry, her marriage to Octavian, who is on a path of power himself, surprises no one. In fact, the descriptions of Livia are less than flattering but that doesn’t stop her husband from portraying her as the pious, divine, and picture of goodness he wants her and every other woman in Rome to be. The marriage of Livia and Octavian was probably based on love considering Livia never gave birth to a child of Octavian’s and he could have easily divorced her in favor of a woman who could bear him sons. Apparently though, it didn’t stop Octavian from having affairs which considering his pious public persona, was quite amusing to read about. Octavian, now Augustus, dies without a son or heir but being ancient Rome, the act of adoption is not unknown and he adopts Livia’s son Tiberius in order keep a line of succession. For a man who planned everything, not having an heir had to be distressing considering each time he named someone they died. Rumors abounded that it was Livia who was scheming to put her son Tiberius in line and poisoned the others. These rumors of poisoning actually followed her throughout her life and beyond but nothing was ever proven.
I have to say for a book that in parts felt dry, and I found myself somewhat annoyed at times when I wanted the book to more about Livia and not the men she was surrounded by, I have so much to say about it. It wasn’t the best book I’ve read or the best biography, but it was good. Obviously, writing about someone whose life took place in ancient times is difficult and though this one wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, it was interesting enough.