Book Review Livia, by Anthony A. Barrett

Livia, the wife of Augustus Caesar

Livia Drusilla

If there is a message in Anthony Barrett’s scholarly and impeccably researched tome on Caesar Augustus’s wife, Livia, it may be that even the best of historical fiction literature should be taken with a grain of salt. Robert Graves’ novels, I Claudius and Claudius the God are classics, but should not be taken at face value. If you want facts, consult an actual historian.

“If the general public has any impression of Livia, the wife of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, it is of the character created by the Welsh actress Sian Phillips in the highly acclaimed BBC-TV series production of I, Claudius, first broadcast in 1976. This popular confusion between the historical and the fictional is hardly surprising, given Phillip’s riveting performance. Cunning and sinister, her Livia devotes every waking hour to her consuming interests: plotting, scheming, conniving, and the cheerful eradication of an assorted variety of fellow citizens, be they strangers, friends, or even close family.

“One of the burdens shouldered by the modern historian is that of correcting false impressions created by the popular media, particularly dangerous when a production is distinguished and the performances brilliant.”

In my pseudo-autobiography, Sempronia, the Sister of the Gracchi, I have Sempronia opining “If ever you are about to be born and the gods grant you the decision as to whether you want to be born into the most illustrious family in Rome, or to some poor family who is just part of the head count, I strongly recommend that you choose the head count family.” Sempronia was referring to her illustrious family, the Scipios, but this advice would go double for someone contemplating being born into the family of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The premature mortality among the members of this family is incredibly high.

But how much, if any of this was the doing of Augustus’ wife Livia? Anthony Barrett believes little or none. He dismisses the deaths Gaius and Lucius, the two elder sons of Augustus’ daughter Julia and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, as a war casualty and a natural death respectively. The death of the third son, Postumus Agrippa, is clearly murder. It occurred upon the heels of Augustus’s death, and was no doubt upon the order of someone high up in the power structure, but Barrett feels that there is not enough evidence to pin it on Livia.

Barrett sees no evidence of foul play in the deaths of Octavia’s son Marcellus, or in the death of Tiberius’ brother Drusus. Germanicus, the son of Drusus, clearly thought he had been poisoned and said so before he died. Some pin the blame upon Plancina, the wife of Germanicus’ rival, Calpurnius Piso, who was a close friend of Livia. Again, Garrett feels that there is not enough evident to implicate Livia.

Barrett blames the death of Tiberius’ son Drusus on his wife Livilla and her paramour Sejanus. He claims that Livia protected the lives of Germanicus’ widow Agrippina and her sons Nero and Drusus while she lived, and it was only after Livia’s death that they fell prey to the machinations of the scheming Seganus.

It is entirely possible that Livia exerted a moderating influence upon both her husband Augustus and her son Tiberius. It has been noted that as a young man, Octavian was bloodthirsty but became far less so after he consolidate his power. Might this have been somewhat due to Livia’s influence? Conversely, Tiberius seems to have become more murderous after Livia died. Barrett presents a lot of anecdotal evidence of Livia interceding on the behalf of Romans who had fallen out of favor with the Emperors, both Augustus and Tiberius.

Barrett’s book is not for the casual reader. It is a scholarly and heavily detailed tome of which nearly half the pages are appendices and footnotes. The reader must be motivated to plow through it, but one will find some fascinating information about the Julio-Claudian family and the Roman empire of that period of time.

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