Livia Drusilla: The Most Powerful Woman in Rome

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Podcast Transcript

If you go through the history of ancient Rome, you will find the stories of many important men. 

What you won’t find are the tales of many great women. Women in Roman history are given little to no mention.

There is one major exception to this, however: Livia Drusilla. 

Learn more about the most powerful woman in Roman history, and determine if she was one of history’s most shrewd Machivelliean characters or if she was just misunderstood on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get into the details of Livia Drusilla’s life, I should address the bigger topic of women in Roman society. 

Egypt had several female rulers. England has had many significant female rules. China had a female emperor named Wu Zetian, which will probably have to be a future episode. 

Rome, however, had no female emperors before the collapse of the Western Empire. Some women ruled over the eastern Byzantine empire, but there were no women who even came close to power in the west. 

Why was this the case?

You have probably all heard of the term patriarchy. However, ancient Rome was quite literally a patriarchy. 

The term patriarchy comes from the Latin word “pater,” which means father. In Rome, the head of a household, known as the paterfamilias, had the literal power of life and death over everyone in his family, known in Latin as patria potestas. The literal meaning of “patriarchy” means “rule of the father,” which was the case in Rome.

Women in Rome were not expected to take part in public life. They couldn’t attend political assemblies or vote and certainly not be members of the Senate. Their marriages were arranged by their fathers, and they could have been married off as young as the age of 12, although being married off at that age wasn’t that common.

The domain of women was expected to be in the home, raising children, and making clothing. 

However, this was more of an ideal than a reality. For very poor families, women would often have to work. Very rich women would often be involved in the political machinations of their husbands or sons. 

Within the confines given to them by Roman society, women in the right families could potentially exercise an enormous amount of influence from behind the scenes. 

Enter Livia Drusilla. 

Livia’s father was Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus. The name Livia Drusilla is the feminized version of her father’s name, Livius Drusus, which was the Roman naming convention at the time.  She was born in the year 59 BC.

The important thing to note here is that Livia was a member of the Claudii clan.  

The Claudii were one of the oldest and most esteemed families in Rome and, until the rise of Julius Caesar, were probably higher in status than the Julii. 

She was married to a distant cousin by the name of Tiberius Claudius Nero, who was also a member of the Claudii. 

Her family picked the wrong side in the various Roman civil wars. Her father sided with Julius Caesar’s assassins and was killed at the Battle of Philippi. 

Later, Livia and her husband joined the side of Mark Anonty, who was fighting Julius Caesar’s great nephew and posthumously adopted son, Octavian. 

Livia and her husband had a son named Tiberius and had to flee to Greece for a while before a peace treaty was signed, and they could return to Rome.

When she returned to Rome in 39 BC at the age of 20, she met Octavian. 

At the time they met, Livia was pregnant with her second child, who would be named Drusus, and Octavian was married to a woman named Scribonia, who was also pregnant. 

According to legend, Octavian immediately fell in love with Livia. He divorced Scribonia on the day she gave birth to his daughter Julia, and then he pressured Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce Livia. 

Three days after she gave birth to Drusus, Octavian and Livia were married, with Tiberius Claudius Nero giving away the bride as if he were the father. 

It isn’t known how true the story is about Octavian falling in love with Livia. Roman marriages weren’t about love, but then again, Octavian was the most powerful man in the city of Rome at that time and could pretty much do what he wanted. 

Obviously, he found Livia a far better match for what he wanted to do than Scribonia. Livia was smart. She could grasp the complex web of politics, which was Rome, and advise Octavian.  

She proved herself to be fertile, which was also important in a Roman marriage. However, that being said, she became pregnant only once with Octavian and miscarried. Despite being married for 51 years, they never had a child together. 

Probably the most important thing to Octavian was that Livia was Claudii. Not only were they held in high esteem, but her husband and father had fought against him, and there was a great way to turn an enemy into an ally. 

Octavian eventually defeated Mark Antony, becoming the world’s most powerful and richest man. He was given the name Augustus by the senate. 

Augustus and Livia would be called in modern parlance a power couple. In addition to actually ruling the empire, Augustus and Livia had to perform as the perfect Roman husband and wife. 

Augustus had a platform of traditional Roman values he wanted everyone to get behind, so he and Livia had to play the part of Rome’s first family, embodying Roman virtue. 

Behind the scenes, however, they were anything but. This is a family-friendly podcast, but let’s just say what August did in private didn’t match what he said in public. 

In 35 BC Augustus gave Livia the legal right to manger her own money, which most women weren’t allowed to do. She ran and managed her own financial empire, which included copper mines in Gaul, papyrus manufacturing in Egypt, and palm groves in Judea. 

Like many powerful Roman men, she had her own system of clients and patronage where she sponsored and funded men who were running for elected office. 

So far, other than being married to the most powerful man in the world, and having certain legal rights other women didn’t have, what I’ve described doesn’t necessarily make her the most powerful woman in Roman history. 

Where things really started to become a soap opera was when the issue of who would be Augustus’s successor came up. 

Remember, Augustus and Livia each had children, but they didn’t have any children together. Augustus had a daughter, Julia, and Livia had two sons, Tiberius and Drusus. 

Augustus planned to have one of his male heirs from the Julii Clan take over after him. 

In 23 BC, Augustus fell ill, and everyone thought he was going to die. He gave his signet ring to his best friend and number two man, Marcus Agrippa, who was the subject of a previous episode. 

Augustus didn’t die, and after he got better, he shifted his attention to his nephew and son-in-law, Marcellus. (yes, his nephew married his daughter)

Marcellus had no experience in politics or the military. Later that same year, after Agustus recovered, Marcellus had a mysterious fever and died at the age of 19.

Julia got remarried to Agrippa, and they had three sons. Three grandsons of Augustus, who were all candidates to succeed him. 

The oldest of the three was named Gaius. Gaius was raised to be a leader. He went into the army and became a general at a young age. He received what was considered a minor wound while trying to subdue the Kingdom of Armenia. 

However, he died from this seemingly minor wound within a year at the age of 23.

Next up was his brother Lucius. He died of a sudden illness that struck him while traveling through Gaul on the way to Hispania. He was 18. 

The final grandson was Agrippa Posthumus, who was named as such when he was born after the death of his father, Agrippa. 

Agrippa Posthumus was actually adopted by Augustus but was later banished from Rome because of his wild nature. He was murdered soon after Augustus died. 

Livia’s youngest son, Drusus, was an accomplished general and served in Germany. He fell from his horse, fell ill, and died from his wounds at the age of 29. 

Basically, there were a whole lot of very suspicious deaths of young, healthy men who were all in line for the throne and who all died of either fevers or complications from minor illnesses. 

Who benefited from all of these deaths? 

Livia’s eldest son Tiberius. Who did Augustus’s only daughter Julia marry after her husband Agrippa died? Tiberius. 

The Roman historian Tacitus basically points the finger at Livia and says she was responsible, at least partially, for these deaths. 

This has resulted in two very different pictures of Livia, which have developed over the years. 

The first paints Livia as a Machiavellian puppet master who was pulling the strings behind the scenes, angling to make her son emperor. One by one, she killed off all of the rival claimants to the imperial throne by poison. 

I saw a great meme that says “Livia killed everyone” and has her statue in places like the Grassy Knoll and Ford’s Theater. 

The other version paints Livia as a woman who was maligned by historians who were looking for a scapegoat. The wives of emperors have often been painted as villains, and Livia was just the first to get such treatment. She was blamed for a series of unfortunate events over which she had no control.

The problem is that both of these arguments have a valid point. 

Were women maligned by early Roman historians? Yes. That very easily could have happened to Livia.

On the other hand, because women were shut out of Roman public life, the only option they had was to exercise power through their husbands and sons. The only way Livia could remain relevant was if her son was to succeed Augustus as emperor, so she made that happen. 

Once Tiberius was the heir apparent, Augustus himself was the only thing standing in the way. Legend has it that when he was close to death, he was so paranoid of being poisoned that he would only eat figs he picked from the tree himself… Livia put poison on all the figs in the garden. 

Again, two thousand years after the fact, there is no proof of this, and it could just be a malicious rumor…..or maybe she actually poisoned the figs. 

When Augustus died in the year 19, he left two-thirds of his estate to Tiberius and one-third to Livia. He posthumously granted Livia the title of Augusta and adopted her into the Julii Clan. 

Her new name until her death was Julia Augusta. 

With her son now Emperor, Julia Augusta received even more honors and wielded even more unofficial power. 

Whereas she was a confidant and advisor to Augustus, she now appeared to be domineering over her son. 

Tiberius began to resent and despise his mother. The constant rumors that she was the one who put him in power weakened him.  He began by doing small things such as vetoing a senate resolution that named her Mater Patriae, or mother of the country. The title Pater Patriae had been given earlier to Augustus. 

Tiberius eventually became so fed up with his mother that he left Rome entirely and moved to the island of Capri. 

If you remember back to my episode on the worst Roman Emperors, it was this move that changed Tiberius from being one of the better emperors to one of the worst. 

When Livia became sick, Tiberius refused to come to Rome. 

Finally, in the year 29, ten years after the death of Augustus, Livia Drusilla, aka Julia Augusta, passed away at the age of 87. 

Tiberius did not come to Rome to attend the funeral. 

After the death of Augustus, the Senate deified him and declared him to be a god. 

Deification was Livia’s last wish. However, her son refused to sanction it. His successor, Caligula, her grandson, also refused to deify her. It wasn’t until her grandson Claudius became emperor that he made it happen. 

Livia Drusilla had a lasting legacy. After her deification, all Roman women would have to swear their oaths to her name. All empresses who came after were ultimately compared to her. She was the first woman to appear on a Roman coin. 

The first Roman imperial dynasty is called the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. The Claudian part all came from Livia. All of the emperors in that line were descended from her, not necessarily Augustus. 

Both of her historical interpretations have appeared on television. 

The Machiavellian version is portrayed masterfully by Siân Phillips in the 1976 BBC miniseries “I, Claudius.”  If you haven’t seen I, Claudius, you have to do so. 

The other version of her appeared in a 2021 TV series called Domina, where Livia is the central character. In this version, Livia is more heroic and not as scheming. The show has been renewed for a second season which should be out in 2023. 

Regardless of what side you happen to support in the Livia debate, the one thing you cannot deny is that she was unquestionably the most influential and significant woman in the history of the Roman Empire. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Gas Guy 1979  over at Apple Podcasts in Canada. They write, 

The best Podcast

This is the best podcast. If you haven’t listened to it yet, you are missing out! It’s the perfect blend of interesting topics mixed with the perfect duration and dictation. Gary never fails to surprise me with super informative topics that I would never have thought to look into. This pod has started so many google search rabbit holes after I’ve listened! It’s truly the best! Thanks Gary!

Thanks, Gas Guy! Whoops, sorry about that. You are from Canada, so I should pronounce it correctly. Gas Guy. 

Creating the perfect blend of topics isn’t easy. It comes from an ancient recipe I found on the back of a clay tablet: take one heap of history, mix in a dash of science, and a pinch of mathematics. It is best shaken, not stirred. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.