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Livia - First Lady of Imperial Rome by Anthony A. Barrett

Book Review by The Augusta

That Anthony Barrett’s biography of Livia, wife of Augustus, is the first to appear in the English language is justification enough for its publication. That it attempts to provide a more favourable portrait of Rome’s first empress than that to be found in the pages of Tacitus is understandable. Outside the academic world, Robert Graves’ fictional account of Livia is still used as the definitive portrait of the woman; perhaps hardly surprising given the dramatic influence ‘I, Claudius’ has had over the last thirty years on television audiences. As Barrett mentions in his preface, his task of rescuing Livia from the popular malignant tradition surrounding her is made all the more difficult because of the distinction of the BBC-TV production and the brilliance of Sian Phillips’ performance. Ask a man in the street today who the Empress Livia was and he would no doubt tell you that she was ‘that Roman woman who poisoned everyone in I, Claudius’. Such is the power of the popular media in informing the ill informed.

Citing the popular media in the Preface then, Barrett would seem to address this biography to a general readership, rather than to the scholar or serious student. Thankfully, the book will appeal to both. Written in a lively, uncluttered prose, the work is presented in two halves: the first a linear account of Livia’s life, as much as we can glean it from the extant sources; the second an examination of ‘Livian themes’, which deal with how the empress wished herself to be perceived and how her influence helped to shape the government of the early Principate. A series of appendices then examines in some depth the more contentious issues surrounding the events of Livia’s life, her persona and her reputation.

‘Rescuing Livia’ is nothing new. As long ago as 1934 M. P. Charlesworth, writing in Volume 10 of the Cambridge Ancient History (1st Edn.) dismissed the poisoning charges against Livia as a ‘farrago of nonsense’. There are probably few serious scholars today who, while perhaps not acquitting Livia of all the charges laid at her door by Tacitus, would readily accept the charge of poisoning. Barrett is merely following a long line of tradition, and therefore, thankfully, the work does not have that ‘apologist’ overlay that books of this nature can sometimes fall prey to.

So, if Barrett’s stance is not new, what does the present work add to the latest scholarship of the Julio-Claudian main players? A clue may lie in the book’s subtitle, ‘First Lady of Imperial Rome’. This subtitle was chosen to echo the modern American perception of ‘First Lady’, i.e. the President’s wife who has a role to play but exercises no power; a woman who must be seen to embody certain virtues of home and family, but is not recognised in a political capacity. Octavia, Barrett argues, had this role until her death, and only then was it assumed by Livia. In fairness to Barrett, the modern analogy sits well with the role of women in the late Republic; it certainly echoes the role Augustus himself saw for his wife and sister. In 35BC both women were awarded sacrosanctity, and thus clearly marked out by the future Princeps as occupying a special place in the state. That Livia also wished to be perceived in this way is examined in depth in the second half of Barrett’s book.

After the death of Octavia, Livia is from that moment on ‘the First Lady’ and Augustus is happy for her to have this role until his death in 14AD, when her own position through testamentary adoption is enhanced even further. And this is where the fun begins! Barrett, while managing to offer many a persuasive argument throughout the book against her scheming to put Tiberius on the Curule Chair, does not even try to deny the constant bickering between the new Princeps and his mother. That Livia felt slighted by Tiberius’s continued refusal to allow her a greater position of influence than she already enjoyed is treated as uncontested fact. That she tried to force her advice on him in matters of policy, he also admits. However, he generously attributes Tiberius’s reticence to a genuine Republican desire not to allow women any untoward power within the state, but the relationship between mother and son is colourfully told, and is an inevitability of their individual personalities. Barrett, in a lengthy appendix that deals with the sources, draws our attention to the fact that even Livia’s ‘affability’ was considered a negative for Tacitus. Given that her son was the exact opposite of ‘affable’ one would expect this alone to cause a clash. But whatever their differences, Tiberius hurried to his mother’s side in 22AD when she was struck by a serious illness. This was in sharp contrast to his actions at her eventual death in 29AD, when he did not leave Capreae to attend her funeral. Clearly, relations had reached an irretrievable position by then. Barrett’s theory seems to be that whereas Augustus could control Livia’s ambitions, and she was willing to play the dutiful wife, she expected her son to bow to her wisdom. Lurking behind the scenes and in between the lines of the narrative, lies a very strong-minded lady who is just biding her time. There also lurks a lady who fully realises that any power she wields can only come through men. She is happy to accept this, as long as she receives due recognition of her influence as the law allowed it at the time.

Barrett also explores the private Livia and presents a fuller picture than we have hitherto seen outside of popular literature. Drawing on an extensive range of sources, both literary and material, as well as an enormous bibliography, he examines the evidence of her generosity as a friend, patroness and benefactress. She was a keen viniculturist and horticulturist; she was obsessive about health, longevity and alternative medicine. He even quotes recipes attributed to Livia: one, that she seems to have cribbed from her sister-in-law Octavia, for toothpaste; and one of her own: a proven remedy against inflammation of the throat and chest in winter. She cultivated her own vineyards and her own special fig-tree, the ‘Liviana’ (perhaps, whimsically suggests Barrett, the source of the later rumour of the poisoned figs in Dio Cassius’s history). She had a sense of humour; she was highly superstitious on the one hand, yet very well-educated on the other. She deliberately cultivated a simple couture, but the enormous list of her personal slaves and freedwomen prove that much effort was put into attaining this image. She had scores of women to attend to her hair, her jewelery, her clothes; the fact that she employed several goldsmiths suggests that she perhaps enjoyed a more flamboyant lifestyle in private than she did when on public display by Augustus’s side. She received an early form of bereavement counseling from the philosopher Areus after the death of Drusus, and sought the philosopher’s company regularly thereafter. She not only sent allowances to both Julias when they were in exile, but may have loaned them her own slaves too.

In the largest of the appendices dealing with contentious issues, Barrett examines the primary literary sources and spends much time – as would be expected – on Tacitus’s portrayal. Even this argument is not entirely new. Barrett follows Michael Grant, among others, in suggesting that the intrigues and crimes of the younger Agrippina in securing the succession for Nero had coloured his view of the earlier empress.

The lasting impression is of a Cornelia, ambitious for her sons but a dutiful matron of the Republic, rather than an Agrippina Minor, blatantly interfering in imperial policy and demanding her due from the public. It is an image which Livia cultivated as meticulously as she cultivated her vineyards and gardens. It may not bring anything new to our reading of Livia, but it does help to sharpen the picture somewhat. I would recommend the book to anyone who wishes to gain an overall view of the empress, and to the more serious student of the Julio-Claudian period who wishes to explore the arguments for and against the popular ‘wicked step-mother’ stereotype of ancient Roman literature.

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Book Review of Livia - First Lady of Imperial Rome - Related Topic: Augustus


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