Notable Woman of the Roman Republic: Livia, the Wife of Caesar Augustus

Livia, the wife of Augustus Caesar

Livia Drusilla

Caesar Augustus’ wife Livia Drusilla was born in 58 BC during the closing years of the Roman Republic. Her father was Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, who was born Appius Claudius Pulcher but was adopted as an infant by Marcus Livius Drusus.


Rome, during Livia’s early years was marked by constant tumult and civil war. She was 14 years old when Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Senate House. At fifteen or sixteen she was married to Tiberius Claudius Nero and soon bore him a son, Tiberius. Nero was a supporter of the Republic and approved of the assassination of Julius Caesar. He survived the battle of Philippi and then sided with Marc Antony against Octavian, Julius Caesar’s designated heir. The couple and their small child fled from Octavian’s proscriptions and made their way to Sicily and then Greece. In 39 BC, however, Octavian declared an amnesty and Tiberius Nero, Livia, and their child returned to Rome.


Octavian met Livia soon after her return to Rome and was immediately smitten with her. Determined to make her his wife, he divorced his wife Scribonia, who had just given birth to their daughter Julia, and made Tiberius Claudius Nero the proverbial “offer he  couldn’t refuse.” Claudius Nero would divorce Livia and allow Octavian to marry her. He would be allowed custody of their children. (Livia was pregnant with their second son Drusus at the time), and he would be safe from further persecution by Octavian.


Some six years after Octavian married Livia, Tiberius Claudius Nero died and both sons came to live in Octavian’s household. Octavian was by now Princeps Senatus, governing Rome without opposition,


To all appearances Livia’s marriage to Augustus Caesar was a happy one. She advised him on matters of state and he seemed to consider her his partner. She set about to be a proper Roman wife and role model, cooking and making clothes. They never had children, her one pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Their marriage, however, was a long one, fifty two years, and Augustus, who had divorced at least two wives, never showed any inclination to divorce Livia, despite her failure to produce an heir for him.


Was Livia actually the monster she has been portray as in some histories and popular literature and media? The historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio both believed that she had a hand in eliminating the competition for Augustus’ successor so that her son Tiberius, by no means Augustus’ first choice, would rule after him. The historian Suetonius makes no such claim. The worst thing he says about Livia is that she was complicit in procuring virgins for Augustus to deflower.  In modern literature she is portrayed at the Queen of Poison by Robert Graves in his book I, Claudius.


Standing between Tiberius and the succession to emperor were Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’ close friend and son-in-law,  Agrippa’s sons, Lucius, Gaius and Postumus, Tiberius’ brother Drusus, Drusus’ son Germanicus and Germanicus’ sons Tiberius and Drusus. (No one considered the possibility of Drusus’ younger son, the lame, half-wit Claudius succeeding Augustus and Germanicus’ third son Gaius Caligula was too young to be considered a threat.) By the time Augustus died, all of these possible successors were dead except Postumus, and Germanicus’ sons Tiberius and Drusus. These three would be rapidly eliminated by the Emporer Tiberius. Young Caligula was a pet of the emperor Tiberius, and Claudius, considered harmless, was allowed to live.


The evidence of foul  play is circumstantial and I would not convict Livia of these crimes without better evidence. For one thing, compared to today,  life in those days was precarious. Between wars, disease, and accidents, living to a ripe old age was unusual. Deadly plagues were common and if you got an infection, there were no antibiotics. Medicine, by our standards, was non-existent. It is quite possible that the deaths of every one of these potential successors was from natural causes. One wonders what Livia might have seen in her dour son Tiberius, in any case, to commit such crimes. He hardly seems a likeable fellow.


If  Livia actually was arranging to eliminate all of Tiberius’ competition, Augustus apparently never had a clue. Suetonius portrays Augustus as a devoted husband to the end. His last word to his wife were

“Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell.”









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