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Review of I Am Livia

I Am Livia - Phyllis T. Smith

“If his oddity and mine did not take precisely the same form, still the edges of one seemed to fit those of the other, like two sides of a split piece of pottery.”

Caesar Octavianus Augustus and Livia Drusilla were the original power couple. During the course of a marriage that lasted 52 years, Augustus seized and consolidated power from the crumbling Roman republic to become Rome’s first Emperor. He defeated his rivals, ending the civil wars that took place after Julius Caesar’s assassination, and extended the Empire through conquest. He also squashed any hopes of Rome returning to a Republican government. The Senate that rejected the idea of Julius Caesar as a dictator eventually gave Augustus unprecedented power, deeming him “First Citizen,” a title that now seems more than a little ironic. 

Caesar Octavianus Augustus - just a citizen like everybody else

Throughout all of these events, Livia was by his side. She was around fourteen or fifteen when she married her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, a man she divorced five years later to marry the up-and-coming young Octavian. By all accounts she was as much a trusted adviser to Octavian Augustus as a wife, exerting tremendous influence behind the scenes.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that this woman, who managed to convince her first husband to attend her second wedding, even giving her away in the ceremony, has had a dubious reputation. She is probably best known from Robert Graves’s wonderful novel and later miniseries I, Claudius, much of which is based on Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars. Graves depicts her as something of a villain, a scheming and heartless she-wolf who wields the real power behind the throne. There is also a nagging little question as to whether or not she poisoned Augustus when she was ready for her son Tiberius to take over. She’s not exactly the most sympathetic character in history. 

Livia Drusilla

In I Am Livia, Phyllis T. Smith gives a very different view of Rome’s first Empress. She lets Livia tell us her story. Make no mistake, this Livia hasn’t suddenly become a shrinking violet. Intelligent and analytical, she knows what she wants,

“Of course I wanted to control Tavius - to an extent. And to our mutual benefit, and the benefit of Rome. Any woman who says she does not want to guide the actions of the man she loves is, in my opinion, lying.”

But this Livia is human, too. She suffers doubts about marrying Augustus, fears for his safety in war, and the personal grief of being unable to bear a living child with him. She wants what she thinks is best for Rome, but at times this puts her on the wrong side of her husband, not the safest place to be. Her position and influence make her a target of gossip and innuendo during her lifetime (and in the nearly 2,000 years afterwards). The politics of the early Roman empire are a dangerous game, one even harder to play as a woman who isn’t supposed to be playing at all. 

I Am Livia is a thought-provoking exploration into the mind of one of history’s most fascinating women. In I, Claudius, the fearsome Livia warrants a certain grudging respect. Here she earns sympathy. Her vulnerability makes her more likable, but she is above all a survivor.


Two thousand years later, the paint may be chipping, but the house of Augustus and Livia still stands (Rome - Palatine Hill)