Born Livia Drusilla in 58 BCE, she rose to become the first Empress of Rome and an example of womanly virtue and simplicity. However, in later years, she has been painted as treacherous and power hungry as well as a deadly foe. How much of this is true?
Her father was M. Livius Drusus Claudianaus, and carried the blood of the both the Livii and the patrician Claudii families. No one is sure if she was an only child, the name “Drusilla” indicates she was a younger daughter, but there is no record of an older one. Her family did adopt Marcus Drusus Libo as a son and heir.
She was married to her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero around 43 BCE. Her husband was a patrician who fought on the side of the assassins of Julius Caesar against Marc Antony and Octavian. Her father fought with the assassins as well, and committed suicide at the Battle of Philippi. Her husband joined the Antony side against Octavian, and was forced to flee Rome in 40 BCE when Antony and Octavian came to terms. The Second Triumvirate with Antony, Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus heralded proscriptions and wealthy families who fought on the wrong side ran to save their lives and their fortunes. They threw in with Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey, who was fighting the Triumvirate. In that time, Livia bore Tiberius a son, another Tiberius, and they moved from Sicily to Greece. In 39 BCE, peace was established between the Triumvirate and the followers of Sextus Pompeius and Livia returned to Rome where she was introduced to Octavian. Livia was altogether on the wrong side of the war, married and pregnant to boot, but Octavian fell head over heels.
Or at least that is what the propaganda says. It probably didn’t hurt that Octavian needed an in with the patrician faction and Livia had blue blood to spare. However, the road to true love never runs smooth. Octavian was married to Scribonia, who was pregnant with his child, as well as Livia still being married and by this time six months pregnant. Octavian waited until Scribonia gave birth to a healthy girl, Julia the Elder, and filed for divorce the same day. Sensitive guy. He persuaded or forced, nobody is quite sure which, Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce Livia. As soon as her child was born, Octavian and Livia were married. So much for Roman family values.
The omens of their marriage were said to be especially fortuitous. The tale was that, while traveling to her country estate, an eagle, the sacred bird of Jupiter, had dropped in her lap a laying hen holding a sprig of laurel in its mouth — three potent omens occurring simultaneously obviously marked Livia for a special job. As her husband climbed the cursus honorum, Livia rose with him. Her two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, came to live with her along with Octavian’s daughter Julia. Octavian took the name Caesar Augustus and became Rome’s first emperor. Instead of Livia’s sins, he declared his sister’s son, Marcellus, his heir and married her to Julia. People grew suspicious when Marcellus died young. In the end, she was accused of working with a poisoner to murder Augustus’ grandsons Gaius and Lucius Caesar, while mixing tonics for her own good health. She was also accused of having a hand in the banishment of his grandson Agrippa Postumus and his daughter, Julia. Suetonius reports that to sate her husband’s lusts, Livia procured virgins for him to deflower. She was even accused of murdering Augustus by poisoning all the fruit on a tree so whichever one he picked would be fatal.
However, as with most things, this was a lot of rumor and innuendo. Augustus valued Livia to take her advice on political matters as well as adopting her into the Julian gens. She henceforth assumed the name of Julia Augusta. The senate also elected her chief priestess of the college founded in honor of the deified Augustus. She also endowed the “Portico of Livia” between the Opian and Cispian Hills in Rome as a public recreational area consisting of a large courtyard with a shrine to Concordia, dedicated to marital concord and harmony. At the time of its dedication, she gave a large banquet for the respectable matrons of Rome. This was odd as it was in public, whereas women usually retired to the background. However, Livia managed to step forward without causing to many raised eyebrows.
More tellingly, Augustus stayed married to her for fifty years, even though she did not provide him with a male heir. Eventually, her son Tiberius would inherit the empire and co-rule with his mother. Some said left Rome and went to the Isle of Capri to escape her. Livia finished her life quietly in Rome. Tiberius took the news of her death indifferently and did not attend her funeral.
Even after her death, Livia remained the gold standard for noble women in Rome. She was so revered, most European royalty claimed her as an ancestress.
Sources available on request