Rome's first Empress Livia Drusilla has long been demonised as a murderous villainess. But as a new TV drama about her premieres, Daisy Dunn tries to separate fact from fiction.
"Livia: a blight upon the nation as a mother, a blight upon the house of Caesar as a stepmother". That was Tacitus's damning assessment of Livia Drusilla, first empress of Rome. The ancient historian elaborated that Livia put her husband, Emperor Augustus, under her control, and banished or had killed every potential heir to the throne in order to promote her own son – Augustus's stepson – Tiberius, as his successor. The first lady was even suspected of foul play when the emperor finally dropped dead in AD14 in his seventies.
Tacitus' account – and others like it – is so jaw-dropping that it's hard to know what to make of it. Was what this highly respected historian reported a fiction? He and his younger contemporary, Suetonius, were writing almost a century after Livia died, and other historians who described her were writing later still. Or might their books contain elements of truth? Suetonius was head of the libraries in Rome and had access to the imperial archives. Surely it was in his interest to draw on the material he had to hand rather than resort to mere fabrication.
The novelist Robert Graves drew on both their accounts when he wrote I, Claudius, his gripping novel about the family, told from the perspective of Livia's stuttering grandson, Emperor Claudius. The empress emerges from his book as a scheming and jealous busybody with an expensive wardrobe and acid tongue. Playing the role in the 1976 TV adaptation, Siân Phillips captured magnificently the ease with which this icy materfamilias was said to have manipulated the men around her. The Livia of Robert Graves and Siân Phillips was in some ways even crueller than the Livia of the ancient history books.
Now Livia is the subject of a new drama series, Domina, which premieres on Sky Atlantic in the UK next week. However, in the first episode, we meet a very different kind of Livia from that of I, Claudius. For a start, she is, at 15, considerably younger than the woman of the world we've come to picture. In the opening scenes the doe-eyed teen (Nadia Parkes) is busy making preparations for her wedding day. Her father, scion of the powerful Claudii family, has matched her with a cousin almost three times her age named Tiberius Nero. So far so true.
What new interpretations such as Domina have the power to do is to reframe Livia's involvement in public affairs as evidence of her intelligence and keen political engagementThe wedding plays out against the backdrop of impending civil war following the assassination of Julius Caesar. The so-called Liberators, who saw themselves as rescuing the Roman Republic from the hands of the dictator, are now on the run. Among those leading the campaign to avenge Caesar's death is his adopted son Octavian. Livia's father, meanwhile, supports the Liberators' cause.
Playing fast and loose with the known historical facts, the young Octavian (Tom Glynn-Carney) turns up at Livia's wedding, where they secretly enjoy a passionate kiss. A little while later, as Octavian's forces pour into Rome, Livia and her husband (cast in this series as a charmless brute with a lingering STI) flee with their baby, Tiberius. The historians record that the young family sought refuge in Sicily and Greece. Tragically for Livia, the Liberators were defeated, leaving her father, who fought on their side, to take his own life.
A marriage twist
In a peculiar twist of fate, Livia later returned to Rome with her husband, young Tiberius, and a second son growing in her womb, only to get divorced and marry Octavian. The ancient sources suggest that Octavian took her away from her husband, despite her being pregnant, because he was struck by her beauty and tired of his own wife, Scribonia, and her hostile manner. Refreshingly, Domina gives Livia rather more agency in this episode of her life by having her pursue Octavian, while he sits pining for her dreamily: "Her family connections… she's obviously fertile. I don't even mind that she's clever," he muses. As Livia reminds him, they each have something to gain from a partnership, in his case a connection to her illustrious family, in hers a chance to re-establish her wealth and status following her flight from Italy.
The real Livia must have had a similar strength of character. She was, after all, a woman who had to give up raising her two sons (they went to live with their father until his death six years later) to marry a man who had fought on the opposing side from her father in the war. Whether she accepted this situation, or actively encouraged it, is uncertain. According to Suetonius, Octavian loved and approved of Livia alone throughout his long life, despite having numerous affairs. Theirs was apparently more than a marriage of convenience.
Domina is by no means a documentary account of the empress. The first three episodes feature some curious inventions and passages of storytelling, including an elaborate plot involving Livia's former slave, a madam, and the murder of some terrapins. But for the most part it captures well the spirit of the age, its values, and with some authenticity (observe Livia's saffron-coloured wedding apparel) the fashions and architecture, too. Especially accurate is the fear of dictatorship and monarchy that rumbles beneath the story. That fear became a reality when, allegedly with Livia's contrivance, Octavian became "Augustus", the first emperor of Rome.
As the series progresses (the adult Livia is played by Kasia Smutniak), we are likely to see more of the Livia we are familiar with. She will necessarily be shown immersed in matters of state. In the ancient sources, we read of her making requests for the granting of citizenship to favoured non-Romans, and of her saving the lives of individuals condemned to death. Such was the frequency with which she entered the conventionally male sphere that her own great-grandson, Caligula, called her "Odysseus in a woman's stole".
For Robert Graves, as for the ancient historians, Livia's interest in her husband's work amounted to interference and control: "Everyone knew that Livia kept Augustus in strict order and that, if not actually frightened of her, he was at any rate very careful not to offend her," reports Claudius in I, Claudius. What new interpretations such as Domina have the power to do is to reframe Livia's involvement in public affairs as evidence of her intelligence and keen political engagement rather than evil meddling. There are good signs that the series will be doing just that.
We should take with a large pinch of salt any suggestion that Livia acted to remove rivals to her son TiberiusRegardless of what we see on screen, we should take with a large pinch of salt any suggestion that Livia acted to remove rivals to her son Tiberius and hastened Augustus' death when she feared he was favouring his grandson as his successor. More credible is the theory that Livia helped to persuade Augustus to adopt Tiberius as his son and heir. Since Livia had no surviving children by Augustus, it was down to Tiberius to ensure that her blood flowed through what would become the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Historically, the relationship between Livia and Tiberius has been characterised as an ugly power struggle, with the historians claiming that the mother longed to be co-ruler, while the son resented her influence. We might instead picture a woman seeking to impart her wisdom and experience to a son who yearns only to do things his own way. No doubt, as the historians relate, Livia held long meetings with Tiberius and offered him advice. And no doubt, as several sources attest, Tiberius reminded her that she was a mere woman, with no authority to wade into the politics of men. In Domina, Livia states that "the first rule of power is survival". A woman she may have been, but by the time the first empress passed away in AD 29, at the age of 86, she had shown that there was nothing "mere" about her.
BBC CULTURE By Daisy Dunn