Livia Drusilla: Imperial Wife of Rome and Emperor Maker
Livia Drusilla was the third wife of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Prior to her marriage to Augustus, she was married to a Roman politician by the name of Tiberius Claudius Nero. Through this first marriage, Livia had two sons, Tiberius, and Drusus. Whilst the former succeeded Augustus as emperor, the latter’s descendants also became emperors. As a matter of fact, all the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, apart from Augustus, are descended from Livia. It was through his mother’s influence that Tiberius became Augustus’ heir, and there has been much speculation that she was responsible for eliminating her son’s rivals to the throne. Following Augustus’ death, Livia continued to exert her influence, though this brought her into conflict with her son. Livia Drusilla died in 29 AD, but only received posthumous honors much later, during the reign of Claudius.
Portrait bust of the empress Livia Drusilla, wife of Rome's first emperor Augustus and also maker of more than a few future emperors. (George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Livia Drusilla: 3rd Wife of First Roman Emperor Augustus
Livia Drusilla was born on the 30th of January 58 BC and was the daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus and his wife, Alfidia. The former was a Roman senator, and the adoptive son of Marcus Livius Drusus, the tribune of 91 BC. Around the time of Julius Caesar’s assassination, i.e., in 44 / 43 BC, Livia married Tiberius Claudius Nero, who is said to have been her cousin. In 42 BC, Livia gave birth to her first son, Tiberius.
In 39 BC, Livia was pregnant with her second son, Drusus. At the same time, Octavian (who later became known as Augustus) arrange for her to divorce her husband, so that he could marry her. Augustus himself was married at that time, to his second wife, Scribonia. In any case, after Livia gave birth to Drusus in January 38 BC, she divorced her husband, whilst Octavian divorced his wife. Apparently, Octavian arranged this marriage as he needed the political connections of Livia’s family.
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Marble statues of Livia Drusilla (left) and her son, Emperor Tiberius, in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Source: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta / CC BY-SA 4.0
Livia’s children, Tiberius and Drusus, continued to live with their father. When he died in 33 BC, however, the boys went to live with their mother and Octavian. In 27 BC, Octavian was granted the title Augustus by the Roman Senate, which, indirectly, marks the beginning of his reign as emperor. Livia, therefore, was now the Empress of Rome, and she was honored with statues and public displays.
Nevertheless, with regards to the issue of succession, Augustus chose to side-line his adopted children, i.e., Livia’s children, favoring his own biological descendants instead. Incidentally, Augustus and Livia did not have children of their own. Instead, the emperor had a daughter, Julia the Elder, with his second wife, Scribonia.
This Julia, who was Augustus’ only biological child, was first married to Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, and a popular choice as heir to the throne. In 23 BC, however, Marcellus fell ill, and died. The Roman historian Cassius Dio reports that Livia was accused of having a hand in Marcellus’ death, because Augustus favored his son-in-law more than her sons. Dio, however, also casts doubt on these accusations, noting that there was a plague in Rome that year, and that many people died of it.
Two years after Marcellus’ death, Livia was married again, this time to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a close friend of the emperor, and his right-hand man. Agrippa was another a popular choice as Augustus’ heir. This marriage produced three sons, Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, and Agrippa Postumus, as well as two daughters, Julia the Younger, and Agrippina the Elder. Gaius was born in 20 BC, and Lucius three years later. When Lucius was born, the two brothers were adopted by Augustus, and made co-heirs to the throne. Unfortunately, Gaius and Lucius died at a young age, the former in 4 AD and the latter in 2 AD.
Dio records that Gaius died at Limyra, whilst he was journeying back from Armenia, after falling ill from a wound. Lucius, on the other hand, died of a sudden illness whilst he was in Massilia. Once again, Livia was suspected of having a hand in the deaths of Augustus’ heirs. Dio, for instance, reports that “In connexion with both deaths, therefore, suspicion attached to Livia, and particularly because it was just at this time that Tiberius returned to Rome from Rhodes.” Another Roman historian, Tacitus, also entertains the idea that Gaius and Lucius were victims of Livia’s plotting, “untimely fate, or the treachery of their stepmother Livia, cut off both Lucius and Caius Caesar, Lucius on his road to the Spanish armies, Caius — wounded and sick — on his return from Armenia.”
Livia Drusilla’s Son Tiberius Becomes Adopted Heir
As a consequence of the deaths of Gaius and Lucius, Tiberius was finally adopted by Augustus as his heir in 4 AD on the condition that Tiberius in turn adopt Germanicus, his brother’s son, as his heir. Prior to this, in 11 BC after Agrippa’s death, Tiberius was forced by Augustus to divorce his first wife, Vipsania Agrippina, so that he could marry Julia. Although this was intended to strengthen relations between the emperor and his adopted son, it seems that it was an unwanted and unhappy marriage for both Tiberius and Julia.
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Bronze statue of the Emperor Tiberius with head veiled (capite velato) preparing to perform a religious rite, found in the theater in Herculaneum. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY 4.0)
When Augustus adopted Tiberius as his heir in 4 BC, he also adopted Agrippa Postumus, the only surviving son of Agrippa and Julia’s only surviving son, and therefore Augustus’ only remaining biological grandson. Later on, however, Agrippa Postumus fell out of favor, and was banished. According to Tacitus, it was Livia who orchestrated Agrippa Postumus’ banishment,
“For so firmly had she riveted her chains upon the aged Augustus that he banished to the isle of Planasia his one remaining grandson, Agrippa Postumus, who though guiltless of a virtue, and confident brute-like in his physical strength, had been convicted of no open scandal.”
Dio, on the other hand, provides the following reason behind Agrippa Postumus’ banishment,
“The reason why he sent Germanicus and not Agrippa to take the field was that the latter possessed an illiberal nature, and spent most of his time in fishing, by virtue of which he used to call himself Neptune. He used to give way to violent anger, and spoke ill of Livia as a stepmother, while he often reproached Augustus himself for not giving him the inheritance his father had left him. When he could not be made to moderate his conduct, he was banished and his property was given to the military treasury; he himself was put ashore on Planasia, the island near Corsica.”
In any event, Agrippa Postumus, being Augustus’ biological grandson, was considered a threat to Tiberius’ position. Therefore, around the time of Augustus’ death in 14 AD, Agrippa Postumus was murdered. The murder of Agrippa Postumus is described by Tacitus as the “opening crime of the new principate.” Tacitus mentions that Tiberius’ excuse for Agrippa Postumus’ murder was that it had been ordered by Augustus. The historian, however, not entirely convinced, casts doubt on this, and presents his own hypothesis, which is as follows,
“More probably, Tiberius and Livia, actuated in the one case by fear, and in the other by stepmotherly dislike, hurriedly procured the murder of a youth whom they suspected and detested.”
Both Tacitus and Dio report that prior of Augustus’ death, the emperor had gone to visit Agrippa Postumus on Planasia, and the two were almost fully reconciled. Both authors also wrote that shortly after that, Augustus fell ill, and died, and that Livia was suspected of having a hand in the emperor’s death.
According to Dio, there were rumors that Livia was afraid that Augustus would soon bring his grandson back, and therefore she plotted the emperor’s death. Dio also provides a colorful story of how Livia poisoned her husband,
“and so smeared with poison some figs that were still on trees from which Augustus was wont to gather the fruit with his own hands; then she ate those that had not been smeared, offering the poisoned ones to him.”
A reconstruction of the Villa Jovis in Capri, where Emperor Tiberius went to get away from his manipulative mother, Livia Drusilla. (Carl Weichardt / Public domain)
Tiberius Becomes Emperor But Falls Out With Livia Drusilla
With the death of Agrippa Postumus, Tiberius’ position as emperor was secured. As mother of the new emperor, Livia was able to exert a strong influence on her son, though relations between to two became increasingly unstable.
According to Tacitus, Tiberius and Livia were genuinely on good terms in the early years of the latter’s reign, though the historian also cynically remarks that the hatred between the two may have been concealed. Dio, on the other hand, notes that Tiberius had hated Livia from the very beginning of his reign. Dio also records a story that he heard about Livia and Tiberius,
“when it began to be said that Livia had secured the rule for him contrary to the will of Augustus, he took steps to let it appear that he had not received it from her, whom he cordially hated, but under compulsion from the senators by reason of his surpassing them in excellence.”
Dio also wrote that since Livia took credit for making Tiberius emperor, “she was not satisfied to rule on equal terms with him but wished to take precedence over him.”
Although Tiberius tried to get rid of his mother’s influence on him, he was unsuccessful in doing so. Livia also used her influence over her son for the benefit of her friends. One of the most famous examples of this abuse of power is the case of Munatia Plancina, the wife of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria. The couple was tried for the murder of Germanicus, but Plancina was acquitted, thanks to the pressure placed on Tiberius by Livia. Following Livia’s death, however, the trial against Plancina was renewed, but she committed suicide before that could happen. According to Tacitus, another of Livia’s friends, Urgulania, was above the law, thanks to her friendship with the emperor’s mother.
The only things that Tiberius was able to do to get away from his mother’s grasp was to retire to the island of Capri. Indeed, according to both Tacitus and Dio, it was because Tiberius could no longer stand his mother that he left Rome for Capri.
In 22 AD, Livia fell ill, and Tiberius rushed back to Rome to be by her side. Livia survived this illness and lived for several more years. In 29 AD, Livia fell ill again and died. This time, however, Tiberius remained at Capri, and did not attend his mother’s funeral, allegedly because he was busy with the affairs of state. Instead, he sent Caligula, the son of his nephew, Germanicus, to deliver the funeral oration.
According to Dio, Tiberius did little to honor his mother after her death,
“nor did he himself lay out her body; in fact, he made no arrangements at all in her honor except for the public funeral and images and some other matters of no importance. As for her being deified, he forbade that absolutely.”
Another Roman historian, Suetonius, adds that following Livia’s death, Tiberius persecuted his mother’s associates as well,
“He further disregarded the provisions of her will, and within a short time caused the downfall of all her friends and intimates, even of those to whom she had on her deathbed entrusted the care of her obsequies, actually condemning one of them, and that a man of equestrian rank, to the treadmill.”
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It was only in 42 AD during the reign of her grandson Claudius that Livia’s honors were restored, and she was finally deified. In honor of this event, coins were minted depicting the Diva Augusta (the Divine Augusta), as Livia became known, with a scepter in her hand, and seated on a throne.
It was really only after Tiberius's death that his mother, Livia Drusilla, was "raised" to high standing in Rome. Here, in this marble statue, she is depicted as Ops, the Roman earth goddess. (Louvre Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Livia Drusilla Was a Manipulative Mother Like No Other
To conclude, Livia, if the ancient historians are to be believed, was a manipulative individual who placed her son Tiberius on the throne by eliminating all his rivals. In spite of all that she had done for him, Livia domineering nature eventually alienated her from her son.
On the other hand, Livia may be credited with the continuation of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, if she did not play a role in the deaths of Augustus’ biological descendants.
Apart from Augustus, all the emperors of this dynasty were her descendants – Tiberius was her son; Caligula, her great-grandson ( via Drusus and Germanicus); Claudius, her grandson ( via Drusus); and Nero, her great great-grandson ( via Drusus, Germanicus, and Agrippina the Younger).
Top image: Livia Drusilla became known as an emperor maker by maneuvering her sons into power. Source: burnel11 / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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