Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography by Matthew Dennison

Book Review by Lindsay Powell

Who can forget Livia, the scheming villainess of BBC TV/PBS Masterpiece Theatre's I, Claudius? Based on Robert Graves’ bestselling novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Jack Pullman interpreted the author’s pastiche of Tacitus and Suetonius into entertaining television for a modern audience. Produced in 1976, remarkably, its influence still haunts students of the history of the early Roman Empire. Welsh actress Siân Phillips delightfully interpreted her role of Livia with her compelling and memorable performance. In a testament to the power of great acting and of mass media, the result is that in the popular imagination today, the wife of Augustus remains a role model for female wickedness, a Roman Lady Macbeth.

Matthew Dennison reminds us in his new book Livia, Empress of Rome, that throughout most of Roman and subsequent history, her reputation was quite different. A journalist by trade and author of a biography on Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, he states in his opening Note that his “intention has been to create a portrait that, no less remarkable than the scheming villainess of the Tacitus-Graves-Pullman triad, is more finely balanced, more equivocal – and less indebted to burlesque” (page ix). Livia’s story is important: her life straddled the end of the Republic and the first decades of the new Principate, which she, through her marriage to Augustus, may even have helped to shape.

The author divides his book into thirty-one chapters with an epilogue, bibliography and endnotes. Broadly Chapters 1-9 cover Livia’s birth and early life through to her divorce from Ti. Claudius Nero. Chapters 10-16 cover the years of her marriage to Octavianus the triumvir. Through Chapters 17-28 Livia’s fortunes change following her husband’s settlement with the Senate and his acclamation as Augustus; and with the ups and downs of the extended family, climaxing with Julia’s banishment and Tiberius’ eventual adoption. Chapters 29-31 describe Livia’s life as Augustus’ widow and mother of Tiberius, the new emperor. The book is illustrated with 21 black-and-white plates which put faces on many of the protagonists.

Dennison presents his subject in a hybrid of the thematic and chronological. The result, however, is the chronological flow is frequently interrupted as the author takes the reader on digressions, leading to repetitions. This approach can be a little disorienting at times.

For example, Chapter 14 (‘A charming view with minimal expense’) begins with a scene from Vergil’s Georgics and the pleasures of gardening, then discusses Livia’s penchant for nature, as exemplified by the decoration of the summer dining room at Prima Porta, and ends with 29BC and the publication of Vergil’s bucolic poem. No problem there. The very next chapter (‘A man and his family should live together as partners’), however, begins with Tiberius’ eulogy at Augustus’ funeral in AD14 and then goes on to discuss Livia’s aspirations for her sons. Chapter 16 (‘They compelled him, as it seemed, to accept autocratic powers’) starts in the year 23BC and the death of Marcellus, but lurches back to 27BC and discusses at length the concentration of powers in the man who became known that year as ‘Augustus’. The following chapter (‘Born of his sacred blood’) presents the events following the settlement with the senate through to 25BC: the supposition of rivalry and envy by Livia for her sister-in-law; Marcellus’ rise up the cursus honorum before his unexpected death; a quick ‘back to the future’ moment when Tiberius marries Vipsania Agrippa in 20BC, which seems to dash Livia’s hopes for advancement of her eldest son; wrapping up with a summary of her husband’s transformation since 31BC from triumvir to Augustus to princeps, and consecration of temples to him in Asia.

It is a fascinating, if dizzying, journey. Perhaps the way to best appreciate the book is as a series of interlocking but self-contained articles. Matthew Dennison was, after all, trained as a journalist.

There is a lot to like about the book. Dennison writes well and he has a surefooted command of his subject matter. He deftly weaves in quotations from ancient sources, showing his familiarity with contemporary Roman poets as well as the historians. The reader will learn about death masks, hairstyles, gardening, gods and goddesses, the stories of several famous and infamous women, and many other aspects of Roman life.

However, there are shortcomings. Dennison is selective and inconsistent in disclosing his sources. In Chapter 25 (‘Try not to guess what lies in future’), for instance, he quotes Vergil at length in the context of Marcellus’ death – which is actually covered earlier in Chapter 16 – citing Anthony Everitts’ bestselling 2006 book on Augustus as a source, but nowhere does he disclose the subsequent lines he quotes from the Aeneid (the reference for the so-called ‘Marcellus passage’ is 6.889-6.890). Yet on the same page he quotes Horace’s Odes Book I and discloses the source in full in the endnotes. Dennison is, alas, not alone in deferring to a modern author rather than going the extra mile and discovering the ancient source behind him.

There are minor errors too: Livia’s youngest son was not born Claudius Drusus Nero (page 69) – Claudius is his nomen genticulum not praenomen. He was actually named Decimus Claudius Drusus (source Suetonius, Claudius 1). He took Nero as his first name only later. According to Ovid’s Fasti, Drusus – almost certainly referring to his birthday – was celebrated on the Ides of January, hence the 13th not 14th.

As Dennison acknowledges “intermittently Livia disappears from the sources” (page 139). The result is that her whereabouts often have to be inferred in relation to her husband’s. Further, since her feelings and motives are not, for the most part, known or recorded, Dennison has to resort to rhetorical ‘would she be thinking this or thinking that?’ speculations. Thus, the narrative is peppered with the conditional tense – hardly a page passes without the words ‘if’, ‘presumably’, ‘probably’, ‘assume’, ‘speculate’ and ‘likely’, or the phrase ‘it is reasonable to assume’, appearing. That is the challenge for biographers of second-tier personalities of the Roman Empire, but Dennison’s is made harder because ancient writers often omit the role of women in their male dominated accounts of events. To his credit, Dennison clearly states where the evidence supports his assertions and where it does not. Nevertheless, the presence of so many such words leaves the reader frustrated and wondering what actually happened, and the persona of Livia remains just out of reach.

And what of that reputation for villainy and murder? The deaths of Marcellus and Germanicus seem suspicious. Augustus’ adopted sons and would-be successors Gaius and Lucius died pathetically young. Postumus Agrippa and Julia ended their lives miserably far from Rome in exile. Did Livia have a hand in these? Dennison is unconvinced by the evidence. “We cannot with certainty place the guilt of blood at Livia’s door”, he concludes (page 269). The phrasing is curious. By the same logic, neither can we with certainty dismiss the charges.

Overall, rated against his stated intentions, Dennison has largely succeeded. Livia emerges a more balanced and sympathetic figure than Tacitus’, Graves’ or Pullman’s: a woman of great loyalty to her husband and sons, who was politically astute – a princeps femina – within the tight bounds of her position as wife of Augustus; a strong character in keeping with her Claudian lineage, but temperate in her emotions; a devout believer and a charitable benefactor to underprivileged women; and one who appreciated natural beauty and the tranquil pleasures of a garden. “It was an accomplished balancing act,” writes Dennison in his Epilogue, “a puppetry of smoke and mirrors” (page 267). Yet by the end of the book she remains tantalizingly enigmatic nonetheless.

Dennison’s Livia inevitably invites comparison with Anthony A. Barrett’s Livia, First Lady of Rome (Yale, 2002). At 424 pages Barrett’s is longer and more comprehensive, with no fewer than 19 appendices, exhaustive end notes, 29 plates, four plans and a map. Barrett’s biography is a formidable heavyweight opus; Dennison’s is lightweight. Where Barrett is the academic, Dennison is the populist. The professor’s book is unequivocally the more authoritative and assured work; yet the journalist’s is – probably – more entertaining for the general reader.

Biography of the reviewer: Lindsay Powell is a historian, media communications professional and writer who has a passion for the military history of the Roman Empire. A veteran of the renowned Ermine Street Guard re-enactment society, he is the author of the ground-breaking biography Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania, published by Pen and Sword Books (2011). He is a regular contributor to Ancient Warfare, has written for Military Heritage magazine, and now makes his debut on UNRV.com. Born in Wales, he now lives in Austin, Texas. Visit him at www.Lindsay-Powell.com.

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