Livia Drusilla was arguably one of the most powerful women in the early Roman Empire, beloved by the people but hated by the enemies of the first Emperor Augustus. She has often been described as beautiful and loyal, yet at the same time constantly scheming and deceitful.
Was she a shadowy figure, who orchestrated the murders of people who stood in her way or was she a misunderstood character? We may never be able to say for certain, but she undeniably had a close relationship with her husband Augustus, becoming his closest confidant and advisor. Her involvement in court intrigue played a crucial role in securing the Imperial title for her son Tiberius, laying the groundworks for the turbulent Julio–Claudian dynasty following the death of Augustus.
Here are 10 facts about the first Roman Empress Livia Drusilla.
1. Her early life is clouded in mystery
Roman society was heavily male dominated, with women often ignored in written records. Born 30 January 58 BC, Livia was the daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus. Little is known about her early life, with more information emerging 16 years later with her first marriage.
2. Before Augustus, she was married to her cousin
Around 43 BC Livia was married to her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero, who was part of the very old and respected Claudian clan. He unfortunately was not as skilful in political manoeuvring as his wife’s future husband, aligning himself with Julius Caesar‘s assassins against Octavian. The civil war, which ravaged the weakened Roman Republic would become a watershed moment for the emerging Emperor, defeating his main rival Mark Antony. Livia’s family was forced to flee to Greece, to avoid Octavian’s wrath.
Following the peace established between all sides, she returned to Rome and was personally introduced to the future Emperor in 39 BC. Octavian was at that time married to his second wife Scribonia, though legend says that he immediately fell in love with Livia.
3. Livia had two children
Livia had two children with her first husband – Tiberius and Nero Claudius Drusus. She was still pregnant with her second child when Octavian convinced or forced Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce from his wife. Both of Livi’s children would be adopted by the first Emperor, securing them a place in the line of accession.
4. Augustus truly loved her
By all accounts Augustus greatly respected Livia, regularly asking for her council regarding matters of state. She would be seen by the people of Rome as a ‘model wife’ – dignified, beautiful and loyal to her husband. For Augustus’ enemies she was a ruthless intriguer, who exercised more and more influence over the Emperor. Livia always denied having any great impact on her husband’s decisions, though that did not quieten the whispers within the Imperial court. Her step-grandson Gaius described her as an ‘Odysseus in a frock’.
5. Livia worked toward making her son Emperor
The first Augusta of Rome is best remember for tirelessly working towards ensuring that her son Tiberius would succeed Augustus over his own biological children. Two of her husband’s sons died in their early adulthood, with some suspecting foul play. For centuries Livia has been suspected of having a hand in the demise of her husband’s children, though the lack of concrete evidence makes it difficult to prove. Interestingly, even though Livia worked to make Tiberius Emperor, she never discussed the matter with her son, who felt completely out of place in the Imperial household.
6. She possibly delayed the announcement of Augustus’ death
On 19 August 14 AD, Augustus died. Some contemporaries claimed that Livia may have delayed the announcement to make sure that her son Tiberius, who was a five day ride away, could make his way to the Imperial home. During the Emperor’s last days, Livia carefully governed who could see him and who could not. Some have even suggested that she caused her husband’s death with poisoned figs.
7. Augustus adopted Livia as his daughter
In his will, Augustus divided a large part of his estate between Livia and Tiberius. He also adopted his wife, making her known as Julia Augusta. This allowed her to maintain much of her power and status following her husband’s death.
8. The Roman Senate wanted to name her ‘Mother of the Fatherland’
At the beginning of Tiberius’ reign, the Roman Senate wanted to bestow Livia the title Mater Patriae, which would have been unprecedented. Tiberius, whose relationship with his mother continuously worsened, vetoed the resolution.
9. Tiberius exiled himself to Capri to get away from his mother
Based on ancient historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio, Livia seemed to be an overbearing mother, who would regularly interfere in Tiberius’ decisions. If this is true is up for debate, but Tiberius did seem to want get away from his mother, exiling himself to Capri in 22 AD. Following her death in 29 AD, he nullifies her will and vetoed all the honours the Senate had granted Livia after her passing.
10. Livia was eventually deified by her grandson
In 42 AD, Emperor Claudius restored all of Livia’s honours, completing her deification. She was thereon known as Diva Augusta (The Divine Augusta), with her statue being set up in the Temple of Augustulus.