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Mare Nostrum

Livia Drusilla: A Woman for the Ages

By M. O.

A Woman for the Ages

In ancient Rome, in an age when women were valued for little more than their family connections, property, or the proper public image they were able to display, Livia Drusilla emerged as one of the most significant women in Roman history. Livia's stature in the Roman world was unsurpassed. Most scholars believed that Livia conformed to the accepted, traditional role of women and gained influence in an acceptable way; (Huntsman par.1) her reputation as one of the world's most powerful and influential women has remained unparalleled.

Livia's Early Years

Livia was...

  • born in 58 BCE.
  • the daughter of a Roman noble named Marcus Livius Drusus Claudius
  • depicted in statues as having "a commanding presence, features of perfect regularity, enormous eyes and thick, wavy hair" (Payne 161).

At the age of 15 or 16, Livia was married to Tiberius Claudius Nero, her cousin and rival to Octavian. Livia had her first child, Tiberius, in 42 BCE. While Livia was pregnant with the couple's second child, Octavian became attracted to the beautiful Livia. Octavian forced Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce Livia.

Livia and Octavian

Octavian married Livia Drusilla with "indecent haste" (Earl 39) on January 17, 38 BCE. This marriage was important for the following reasons...

  • was politically astute.
  • By marrying a woman whose lineage (Claudian family) was so important, Octavian would attract the support of ambitious aristocrats who judged that he might be able to carry them to power (Earl 39).
  • was "perhaps the most important single event in all the long rise of Octavian to supreme power" (Earl 39) but it was also "for love and for life" (Hooper 345).

A scandal arose over the union of Octavian and the pregnant, divorced Livia. In order to lessen the effects of the scandal, Octavian manufactured an omen designed to gain support for his marriage to Livia.

It was said that as Livia rode to her country estate, she recieved a divine gift. An eagle, messenger of Jupiter, dropped a pregnant hen with a laurel sprig in her mouth into Livia's Lap.

This symbol was to indicate that "the new race of triumphatores" (generals who added to the wealth of Rome) would result from his marriage to Livia (Flory).

Livia proved to be a suitable wife, practicing "the virtues of chastity, obedience and silence" (Payne 161). But although she was silent, Livia's influence on Octavian was great. He relied on her "critical intelligence" (Payne 161), and it is said that Livia's "greatest service to the Romans lay in her devotion to Octavian and in the civilizing influence she brought to bear on him" (Payne 160).

Later, with Livia's counsel, Octavian completed his quest for control of the Roman state and won the battle of Actium. Then, in 27 BCE, Octavian recieved the honorary title "Augustus," which acknowledged his position of supreme prestige and his protection by the gods.

While exercising restraint in creating lavish tributes for himself, Augustus "carefully crafted the public display, honors and status given to his wife" (McManus)...

  • Public statues honored Livia.
  • State protection (sacrosanctity) gave her the right to sit in a special place with the vestal virgins during public performances.
  • She dedicated public buildings and sponsored charities.
  • All of her "public images and actions were closely connected with marriage, the family and traditional Roman morality" (McManus).

Livia's public image was carefully cultivated by Augustus.

Livia After Octavian

In 23 BCE, Augustus became gravely ill. Because he feared that he was dying, "Augustus made no secret of his intention that the descendants of Julia [his daughter from his previous marriage to Scribonia] were to be his political heirs" (Africa 26). After the health crisis passed, Augustus adopted Gaius and Lucuis (Julia's sons) as his legal heirs, thwarting Livia's desire for Tiberius to succeed Augustus.

But by 4 AD, both Gaius and Lucius died unexpectedly so Augustus sought to preserve the direct line by looking to Germanicus, son of Tiberius' brother Drusus. However, Germanicus was "too young and inexperienced to rule" and Augustus "reluctantly" turned to Tiberuis (Seager 36), who was "compelled to adopt his nephew germanicus, who would thus, when Augustus adopted Tiberius, become the princeps' grandson" (Seager 37). Livia's son Tiberius was adopted as Augustus' heir, and her plans for the succession of her son were complete (Africa 28).

On August 19, 14 AD, Augustus died, and Tiberius assumed power. "In his will, Augustus adopted Livia into his own Lineage, giving her the name Julia Augusta, and the title Augusta was to become a special honorific for subsequent empresses" (McManus).

As widow of Augustus anf mother of Tiberius, Livia enjoyed unprecedented status and was honored with statues associating her with:

  • Ceres, goddess of fertility and abundance,
  • and Cybele, the Great Mother (McManus).

Livia and Tiberius

Tiberius' reign was characterized by peace and prosperity, but he suffered personally. His adopted son Germanicus caused him trouble through "unruliness and ambitious seeking of popularity" (Payne 195).

Both Livia and Tiberius were jealous of the popularity enjoyed by Germanicus; they feared he would come to power and restore the old republican constitution (Africa 168).

Germanicus soon met a mysterious, untimely death. It was rumored that Livia and Tiberius plotted to poison Germanicus, but the rumor was never proven. It was no secret, though, that both Livia and Tiberius were "delighted" by Germanicus' death (Africa 172).

Livia Livia continued to have a strong influence in the reign of Tiberius...

  • "Tiberius did not like to cross her [Livia] in matters where she had strong feelings..."
  • Livia "...never ceased to remind him what he owed her" (Hooper 367).
  • In a possible attempt to escape Livia, Tiberius left Rome, never to return.

Livia's power and ambitions were so embarrassing to Tiberius that he refused to attend her funeral in 29 AD and failed to carry out the terms of her will (Bonenkamp, et al.).

Livia's Legacy

Despite Tiberius' negative feelings for his mother, Livia's generally popular reputation survived, and she was deified by her grandson Claudius in 41 AD.

Livia's reputation has remained largely untainted. In her nearly seventy years as a public figure she...

  • quietly shaped the rule of two Roman emperors
  • and served as a model for Roman decorum.

Livia's prominence in her lifetime was unmatched, and she has remained an important, admired figure through 2000 years of history.

Works Cited

  • Africa, Thomas W. Rome of the Caesars. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1965
  • Bonenkamp, Jan, Mathija Horathuia and Marloea Mentink. "Livia Drusilla." The Forum Romanum. 6 November 1999.
  • Bonenkamp, Jan, Mathija Horathuia and Marloea Mentink. "Tiberius." The Forum Romanum. 6 November 1999.
  • Earl, Donald. The Age of Augustus. New York: Exeter Books, 1980.
  • Flory, Marleen B. "The Deification of Roman Women." The Ancient History Bulletin. 1995. Gustavus Adolphus College. 29 October 1999.
  • Hooper, Finley. Roman Realities. Detroit: Wayne State U.P., 1979
  • Huntsman, Eric D. "The Sources of Livia's Prestige and Influence." Shaw, Brent D. 1997. 6 November 1999. <>.
  • James, Simon. Ancient Rome. New York: Penguin, 1992.
  • McManus, Barbara F. "Livia: Princeps Femina." June 1999. The College of New Rochelle. 29 October 1999.
  • Payne, Robert. Ancient Rome. New York: American Heritage Press, 1970
  • Seager, Robin. Tiberius. Berkeley: U of C Press, 1972.
  • Tacitus. Annals. I 10, pp. 35-36. Translated by Michael Grant, The Annals of Imperial Rome. Baltimore: Penguin, 1959.

History and Thought of Western Man
Rich East High School * Park Forest, Il 60466

This page was created by M.O. Last revised 3/30/00.

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