Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Livia Drusilla

Episode Summary

Livia Drusilla (58 or 59 BCE-29CE) was one of the most powerful women in the Roman Empire. As Emperor Augustus’ wife and most important political advisor, she wielded considerable influence on the workings of the empire even while living in the shadow of her powerful husband. She used her considerable skills and potentially a significant amount of scheming and treachery to ensure that her descendants rose to power.

Episode Notes

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s legend was one of the most powerful women in the Roman Empire. As Emperor Augustus’ wife and most important political advisor, she wielded considerable influence on the workings of the empire even while living in the shadow of her powerful husband. She used her considerable skills and potentially a significant amount of scheming and treachery to ensure that her descendants rose to power. Please welcome Livia Drusilla.

Livia Drusilla was born on January 30th in either the year 58 or 59 BCE, probably in the city of Rome. Her father, Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, was a senator in the Roman Republic and a member of the powerful Claudii family. Beyond this, very little is known about Livia’s early life. 

When Livia was 15 or 16 years old, her father arranged a marriage between Livia and her cousin, the Roman politician Tiberius Claudius Nero. A year later, in 42 BC, she gave birth to a son named Tiberius. 

At this time, much was going on in Rome and particularly in Roman politics. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, there were a number of players fighting for power. Livia’s husband and father sided with Julius Caesar’s assassins against the forces of Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, soon to be known as Augustus, and Mark Antony. This fighting culminated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE with a victory by Octavian and Marc Antony’s forces. Livia’s father committed suicide at Philippi, but her husband continued fighting. 

In order to avoid punishment for supporting the losing side, Livia and her family fled Rome in 40 BCE, first living in Sicily before moving to Greece. A year later, a general amnesty was declared, allowing Livia, her husband, and young son Tiberius to return to Rome. 

Upon her return, Livia met Octavian for the first time in 39 BCE. The story goes that Octavian fell in love with her at first sight. Octavian, who was already married, quickly divorced his wife the day after she gave birth to his daughter Julia. Livia’s husband was also forced into a divorce, even though his wife was six months pregnant with their second child. 

At the beginning of 38 BCE, the newly divorced Livia gave birth to a son named Drusus. Only a few days later, she and Octavian were married. In a weird twist, her first husband played the role of father and gave her away at the wedding. Whether or not this was truly a love match, it was certainly a politically savvy marriage as it united two of the most powerful Roman families. 

Three years into the marriage, Octavian gave Livia the power to rule over her own finances, which at the time was unprecedented in Rome and an incredible show of trust and respect. This allowed her to form her own political alliances and help proteges and favorites to rise through the political ranks. Octavian also had a public statue erected and dedicated to his new wife.

Following a triumphant victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE over his once-ally Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian finally consolidated singular power over the Roman Empire. On January 16, 27 BCE, the Roman Senate gave Octavian the honorary title of Augustus, the name by which he would be known going forward, and handed him unlimited governing power over Rome under the title “First Citizen of the State.” To be clear, Augustus was the first Roman emperor but because of political sensitivities surrounding the death of the Roman Republic, he chose not to use any title that might suggest a monarchy. 

From the start, Livia was a highly supportive partner to Augustus, both as a wife and as a political strategist. Augustus respected her opinion and it was well-known amongst the Roman political class that she wielded significant influence over affairs of state. She was also considered to be generous, and convinced Augustus to be the same, particularly when it came to the treatment of his opponents. 

The Roman public saw her as the epitome of a proper Roman lady and role model. She and Augustus made a point of modeling approved behavior by living and dressing relatively modestly, and maintaining a proper Roman household. 

As supportive as Livia was of her husband, her primary concern was ensuring that one of her two sons from her first marriage succeeded Augustus as emperor. She and Augustus had no children together. Augustus did have one child from his previous marriage though- his daughter Julia- and Julia had three sons who were in line for the throne ahead of Livia’s sons since they were direct blood descendants. 

Livia was ultimately successful in this endeavor, but whether it was a matter of good fortune or of outright scheming and intrigue is somewhat murky. First, her second son Drusus died in battle in 9 BCE. Then in 2 CE, one of Augustus’ grandsons died from an illness while in Gaul, and just two years later, another grandson died in battle. Finally, Augustus’ last grandson was exiled when he was still young and eventually executed, leaving Livia’s eldest son Tiberius as the lone heir. Though Augustus’ grandsons died abroad, rumors spread that Livia had arranged their deaths.

While Livia’s eldest son Tiberius had distinguished himself on the battlefield and in Roman politics, he did not have a good relationship with his stepfather Augustus and always felt that he was treated poorly by him. Part of this may have been a result of Tiberius’ extremely stormy, forced marriage to Augustus’ daughter Julia, a move made by Livia to ensure Tiberius’ legitimacy as heir. The marriage was so bad, in fact, that Tiberius self-exiled himself to Rhodes in 6 BCE supposedly to get away from his wife, returning to Rome 8 years later.  

In 4 CE, Livia finally saw her work come to fruition when Augustus officially adopted Tiberius, who was in his 40s at the time. With the adoption, Tiberius became the official heir to the throne. 

On August 19th, 14 CE Augustus died while he and Livia were away from Rome. Some dispute this date of death, believing that Augustus had died days earlier but that Livia put off making the announcement until Tiberius could return to Rome to ensure his ascent. Like with her stepsons, historians over the years have suggested that Livia may have also had a hand in her husband’s death, claiming that she fed him poisoned figs. 

Following Augustus’ death, Tiberius became emperor. He quickly tired of his mother’s influence and meddling and removed her from politics. Some believe that when he eventually left Rome to live in Capri, it was in order to get even further away from his mother. 

Livia died in 29 CE. She was 86 years old. 

Whether or not Livia was involved in the deaths of her stepsons or husband remains unclear. What is clear is that Livia wielded considerable influence over Augustus and the formation of the early Roman Empire. She used her power and political skill to help her husband rule Rome with great success, all while working diligently to ensure it was her own line who would succeed him. 

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