Livia was a clever and dangerous political agent who eliminated those who stood in her way. Her ultimate goal: ensuring her son Tiberius succeeded Augustus.
Livia was born in 58 BCE and died in 29 CE. She lived a full life and made it into her eighties. She bore two sons: Tiberius and Drusus to her first husband. When she and Augustus married in 38/37 BCE, she became step-mother to Julia (Maior), Augustus’ daughter with his previous wife Scribonia.
As Augustus cemented himself as the leading politician in Rome, he adopted two of his grandchildren, Julia’s sons with Agrippa: Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar. So Livia was mother to two sons, had one step-daughter, and two adopted sons who were the children of her step-daughter (technically her step-grandchildren).
Part of the problem for Livia and her modern reputation is the way things turned out next. The Julio-Claudian household was a particularly unlucky one in terms of survival especially for those Augustus tapped on the shoulder for advancement. In the end, it was not a biological descendent of Augustus who inherited power, but Livia’s son Tiberius.
One may ask, was there a fox inside the chicken coop?
The literary tradition
Some of the earliest negative accounts we have of Livia come from literary sources writing after her death in the late first and early second centuries CE.
Tacitus, the author of The Annals, was born in 56 CE, or about 27 years after Livia’s death. We learn from Tacitus that (Annals, 1.3.3):
Lucius Caesar as he was on his way to our armies in Spain, and Caius while returning from Armenia, still suffering from a wound, were prematurely cut off by destiny, or by their step-mother Livia’s treachery
This is the very first mention of Livia in The Annals and it frames her in negative terms, but we need to be cautious before drawing conclusions. Why? Because of Tacitus’ use of the Latin term vel, which translates as “or”, to introduce the interference of Livia. The guile of Livia is a possibility; one Tacitus thought worth mentioning, but it is by no means a settled matter.
Perhaps the most sordid accusation Livia faces comes from Tacitus The Annals 1.6. Here Tacitus implies that Tiberius and Livia cooperated to have Agrippa Postumus murdered. Agrippa Postumus was Julia’s youngest child born to Agrippa. He and Tiberius were formally adopted at the same time by Augustus in 4 CE. If Augustus’ plan was to cultivate another direct grandson for leadership, his hopes were short lived. He exiled Agrippa Postumus in 6 CE. Agrippa Postumus then turns up dead just after Tiberius takes power.
Agrippa Postumus’ death is timely and the facts of the case are beyond our ability to reconstruct. Tacitus’ account is suggestive, but admits doubt (Annals 1.6):
More probably, Tiberius and Livia, actuated in the one case by fear, and in the other by stepmotherly dislike, hurriedly procured the murder of a youth whom they suspected and detested.
In comparison, Velleius Paterculus notes that Agrippa Postumus possessed (2.112.7):
a strange depravity of mind and disposition; and soon, as his vices increased daily, he met the end which his madness deserved.
While Tacitus offers the wicked stepmother trope, Paterculus focuses on a character marked as deficient. The truth of Livia’s involvement remains open to question.
Suetonius, (ca. 69 CE to 122 CE), born forty years after Livia’s death, explores the power dynamic between Livia and Augustus. Suetonius notes that “she had never any rival in his love and esteem” (Life of Augustus 60). On the surface, this could be read as a romantic statement, but Suetonius goes on to note that Augustus’ (Life of Augustus 69; emphasis mine):
amorous propensities never left him, and, as he grew older […] he was in the habit of debauching young girls, who were procured for him, from all quarters, even by his own wife.
This positions Livia as a pimp operating on behalf of her husband.
Livia’s obliging nature with Augustus is also picked by the later historian Dio Cassius (ca. 155-ca. 235 CE) in his Roman History (58.2.5):
When someone asked her how and by what course of action she had obtained such a commanding influence over Augustus, she answered that it was by being scrupulously chaste herself, doing gladly whatever pleased him, not meddling with any of his affairs, and, in particular, by pretending neither to hear nor to notice the favourites of his passion.
What we don’t get from Suetonius is any accusation that she was involved in the deaths of Gaius and Lucius Caesar. And if Dio’s account of Livia is to be believed, she stayed right out of anything that might upset Augustus.
Doth the lady protest too much?
Roman family systems
Roman family systems are at the heart of the accusations that Livia faces. Elite marriages were crafted political alliances built on patriarchal structures. This meant that Romans viewed power and legitimacy as passed through the paternal line. Julia was the natural-born daughter of Augustus and his only biological child. It’s no surprise that he invested a lot of time and energy into Julia’s strategic marriages.
Julia was born in 39 BCE. She was first betrothed to Antyllus, son of Mark Antony, but the wedding did not go ahead as the relationship between Antony and Augustus soured. At age fourteen, Augustus married her to her seventeen-year-old cousin Marcellus. When Marcellus died just two years into the marriage, some suspected Livia’s involvement. But nothing is quite certain, as Dio notes at 53.33.4:
Livia, now, was accused of having caused the death of Marcellus, because he had been preferred before her sons; but the justice of this suspicion became a matter of controversy by reason of the character both of that year and of the year following, which proved so unhealthful that great numbers perished during them.
Again the sources provide options: Livia as murderer or a disease that moved through Rome in 23 BCE? Tacitus (Annals 1.3.1), notes that Marcellus died as a result of disease. Suetonius (Life of Augustus 61) is even less explicit simply noting that Marcellus died. A more contemporary source, Velleius Paterculus (ca. 19 BCE to ca. 31 CE) is very matter-of-fact about Marcellus death (2.93). In this case, Livia’s reputation as an evil step-mother stops short of murder.
In 21 BCE Julia, then eighteen, was married to Augustus’ long-time friend Agrippa who was in his forties. Together they had five children. Julia’s role as a wife was now bolstered by her position as a mother. Augustus took the two eldest sons Gaius and Lucius Caesar under his wing.
According to Velleius Paterculus (2.102), Gaius Caesar died after sustaining a wound while on campaign in Armenia and Lucius Caesar died while travelling to Spain. In neither case does Paterculus implicate Livia in their deaths.
Things take a turn after Agrippa’s death with Julia’s marriage to Tiberius. Again, Velleius Paterculus (2.96) offers no suggestion that Livia was involved in any machinations. It is this union of Augustus’ daughter with Livia’s son that opens the way for stories of Livia’s manipulation of events to suit her own children. But the strategic union of Tiberius and Julia is equally suggestive of Augustus’ personal endorsement of Tiberius.
At some point, Julia became the centre of scandal and Augustus exiled her in 2 BCE. She was never recalled and died in exile in 14 CE.
The I, Claudius effect
The 1976 BBC television series I, Claudius generated lots of buzz at the time and cemented Livia’s place as a woman to watch out for. In the first episode she’s heavily implicated in the death of Marcellus. Episode two is even more shocking. It opens with Claudius accusing Livia of poisoning Agrippa and ends with strong suggestions that she also bumped off her own son Drusus!
I, Claudius also suggests that Livia engineered Julia’s exile, but there’s no evidence to support this claim. Our contemporary sources say little and the later sources are more interested in political invective directed at Julia herself. Dio 55.10.12 notes that Augustus learns that Julia has been engaged in some heavy partying, including drinking up a storm in the forum and even on the rostra. Suetonius Augustus 65 also provides details of Julia’s exile, but no details of an informant.
The television series sets the popular bar against which the historical Livia is measured. With the ambitious ruthlessness generated by Siân Phillips’ performance, it’s easy to see why this interpretation of Livia is so engaging. The series is an adaptation of Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935). Graves was a trained classicist so there’s an initial reason to believe he’s reviewing the evidence rather than dramatising it. However, the ancient sources suggest that Livia is a much more nuanced character.
What does this all mean for Livia?
The challenge with the claim that Livia is an evil stepmother lies in the sources available to us. Contemporary sources are silent about subjects like murder and even political intrigue. The negative source tradition emerges both after her death and after the lives of extremely visible imperial women, such as Messalina and Agrippina the Younger. These women shocked conservative Romans with their public lives and encouraged retroactive criticism of Livia.
The shift to imperial rule is a massive disruption to the Roman understanding of governance and self-definition. Part of this was obvious in the way that imperial women became pivotal to appreciating how familial rule operated. By the time Tacitus wrote The Annals, imperial women had important public roles. The shift into imperialism was mirrored by a shift in women’s public significance.
The Julio-Claudians were a union of families that ruled. One of those families was Livia’s. The negative source tradition that emerges after Livia’s death is important because it reveals a criticism of imperial rule and what it means for a Roman woman to be public and visibly involved in politics.
Family tragedy is the real central point. The failure of Augustus’ patriarchal line reveals that regardless of the ruthless nature of your politics or the power you might be able to secure for yourself, life is a force beyond any person’s absolute control. For Livia, she loses a son, she loses adopted children, and she presides over a family marred by internal conflicts. We may not ever be sure of the exact nature of her involvement, but we can appreciate the strength of the emotions that come with such events.
It is for these reasons that the claims that Livia was an evil-stepmother are rated as mostly false. The sources close to her life don’t implicate her, while the later sources have an understanding of imperialism and the roles assumed by imperial women that colour the way they present history. This negative tradition is then expanded upon in modern texts like I, Claudius.
- A. Barrett, Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome (2002).
- R.A. Bauman, Women and Politics in Ancient Rome (1994).
- E.D. Huntsman, ‘Livia Before Octavian,’ Ancient Society 39 (2009), pp. 121-169.
- M. Muss, I, Livia: The Counterfeit Criminal (2005).
- N. Purcell, ‘Livia and the Womanhood of Rome,’ Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society New Series 32 (1986), pp. 78-105.
- B. Severy, Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire (2004).