Interviewed by Lindsay Powell
Lindsay Powell, a historian, media communications professional and author of Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germani, conducted the following interview with Matthew Dennison author of the recently reviewed book, Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography.
UNRV: Thanks for giving us this interview. First, congratulations on your book, Livia, Empress of Rome. Your first biography was an account of the life of Queen Victoria’s ninth and last child, Princess Beatrice, and of their extraordinary relationship. What attracted you to Livia, a personality from 1,800 years earlier?
MATTHEW DENNISON: At first glance the subjects of ‘The Last Princess’ and ‘Livia, Empress of Rome’ appear widely divergent. Closer inspection shows that both are concerned with the nature of power, in particular access to power and the exercise of power. Both Livia and Princess Beatrice occupied positions close to the centre of power, Livia as the wife of Rome’s first princeps, Beatrice as the favourite child of Queen Victoria (whose power, in real terms, was circumscribed in ways unimaginable to Augustus). Beatrice suffered during her lifetime as a result of sibling, courtiers’ and politicians’ jealousy of her privileged access to the Queen. Similarly, revisionist ancient historians, writing after Livia’s death, would vilify Livia on account of her supposed influence over Augustus, Tiberius and Roman politics. The challenge in writing about both women has been to return to the primary sources to reach an assessment of the grounds for such calumnies.
UNRV: Livia had an adventure-filled life as a teenager, largely on account of her fateful marriage to Tiberius Claudius Nero. Yet she was loyal to him until the triumvir Octavianus proposed to her. What would her life have been like had she not married the man who became Augustus?
MD: So long as they remained married, the nature of Livia’s day-to-day existence would surely have been determined by the trajectory of Tiberius Claudius Nero’s life. In this way, Livia’s lot is the same as that of any of her contemporaries: a degree of powerlessness linked to the severely limited independence of Roman women.
UNRV: In your book, you portray Livia as a dutiful and loyal wife to Augustus. How happy was their marriage?
MD: I chose to interpret Augustus’s decision to remain married to Livia, despite the childlessness of their marriage and his previous history of broken engagements and marriages, as evidence of his dependence upon her. This dependence could, of course, have taken many forms: for their relationship to survive for so long without attracting adverse comment presupposes at the least a degree of amicability between them.
UNRV: You describe how Livia showed her grief at the loss of her son Drusus the Elder. What kind of mother was Livia?
MD: Both Augustus and Livia chose to present Livia as the quintessence of Republican Roman womanhood. This served Augustus’s domestic policies as well as strengthening Livia’s own position over time as an increasingly visible element of Augustus’s Principate. What is undoubtedly true is that for the most part Livia had an instinctive understanding of what Rome expected from her – in her role of mother as much as that of wife.
UNRV: How much has the depiction of her by Tacitus as a schemer and villainess distorted her actual personality and role in history?
MD: Tacitus is the author of Livia’s double life and such is the charisma and bravura of his particular brand of history that it has proved hard for readers to resist his insinuations. As historians, however, we need to balance Tacitus’s version with verifiable fact insofar as we are able.
UNRV: Based on the novels by Robert Graves, the BBC/PBS television series I, Claudius portrayed Livia as fixated on securing her eldest son Tiberius’ position as successor to Augustus. How true is that portrayal?
MD: Graves’s portrayal of Livia simultaneously invests her with a ghoulish immortality and reduces her to a single impulse: that of unbridled maternal ambition. It is not a characterisation substantiated by the sources, as I demonstrate in ‘Livia, Empress of Rome’, but it makes for very good story-telling, which was Graves’s primary impulse.
UNRV: You describe Livia as “Rome’s first, best-known and greatest empress.” How does she compare to Cleopatra, the last but best-known queen of Egypt?
MD: Even after such an interval of time, we remain in thrall to Octavian/Augustus’s version of Cleopatra, a propagandist demonization which reimagined Cleopatra as a personification of unRoman ‘otherness’: Eastern, female, incontinent in her appetites, an absolute monarch. Livia, by contrast, clearly did not possess these inherently inflammatory attributes. Her triumph was to learn from Cleopatra’s example something of what was acceptable for an intelligent woman in a position of unprecedented, unconstitutional prominence within the tight boundaries of Roman conservatism.
UNRV: Is there a remaining mystery about her life that you still seek an answer for?
MD: The impossibility of fully knowing another person, for example, exercised the novelist Virginia Woolf throughout her career. Some American reviewers have been quick to disdain my account of Livia’s life on the grounds that, when not writing biography, I also write journalism – as if the journalistic skills of investigation and analysis preclude any legitimate approach to the ancient world. In Livia’s case, the paucity of surviving primary sources, the corrupt nature of some of those sources, the distance of time and the nature of male commentators’ responses to Livia over two millennia inevitably render impossible any attempt to reach watertight conclusions about Livia’s life. We are repeatedly forced to rely on conjecture. But if mysteries did not survive, the interest of writing and reading about Livia’s life would be considerably less.
UNRV: Thanks for your time.