The Mother of Rome? Livia Drusilla

A Statue of a seated Livia from the National Archaelogical Museum, Madrid. Not pictured is, next to her, a similar statue of her son, Tiberius. The presence of both of them in statuary implies the importance of the Augusta as a leading figure in Rome at the time (Credit: Richard Mortel CC-BY-2.0)

Despite the fact that I am a man, I cannot apologise for Romans having been so ludicrously sexist that just about the only information we can piece together about how Roman women lived their lives is who their dads were, how they wore their hair and how poisonous their make-up was.

I wasn’t there. I didn’t build that culture. I’m sure as hell no damn Pater Familias, and nor do I want to be. I studied biology, I know what humans do! Making my power of life and death over other things ‘legal’ does not make me agonise about it any more or less than knowing I am a contributor-member of a species that is effectively an exponential megafauna deathcult already does.

Roman life was sexist. Women were second class citizens. Even the big names on Forum were. I had nothing to do with that, so I’m not going to apologise for it.

As for today, all I can say is I support women, I do my best to ensure I do not actively discriminate against women and I try my hardest to ensure I am fair in my dealings with all people. I like women. I respect women. A lot of the coolest people I’ve been interacting with for ‘We Lack Discipline’ have been women. Most of the smartest people I’ve known have been women. So to all of you, happy International Women’s Day 2021.

HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY

I did want to find an image actually about ‘International Women’s Day’ but all of the Free-License ones were patronisingly pink and posied so I figured have an Artemis taming a stag, from a Roman statue now in the Louvre in Paris. Artemis is a woman and Artemis is the best. (Image Credit: Rodney CC-BY-2.0)

I’ll be honest, there’s a lot about the sex and gender thing that is off-limits to We Lack Discipline. Other people can talk about it better than I can and know more about it than I do.

Primarily we lean on academic knowledge which, frankly, means nobody likes what we have to say and we upset everyone!

But it would be ludicrous, factually incorrect, to suggest history has not been unkind to women – especially a lot of European history. There likely were matriarchal cultures out there, certainly cultures where the women were taken more seriously and given more respect but, going back thousands of years Europe did women a disservice.

Ancient Greece was a shithole for them, basically a bunch of bearded bastards who buggered boys decided women were barely worth a damn and rarely included them in important things like democracies, or thinking.

Rome, well, they were pretty shitty too, but if you go back to my articles on Roman sex, sexuality and gender you’ll know that it wasn’t all bad. You see women were presumed useless only insofar as they acted like women. Sewed tunics, made food, had babies, etc. If they acted like they had balls, then there was every potential they could go far. Today we will talk about just such a woman.

My Comfort Classics should make it abundantly clear that if there is a figure I admire most from Roman history it is Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. He and my second most admired figure have a few things in common.

One, they overcame the disadvantages of their birth (one being a plebeian and one being a woman) to reach high offices, two they were both very close to Octavian-Augustus (I can’t swear both didn’t fuck him) and three, they were both ruthlessly efficient and hard working.

You see I like Marcus Agrippa because he’s basically a working class lad who did good by himself. He gives me hope.

A basalt sculpture of the face of the Augusta, Livia. From the Louvre in Paris (Credit: Fould Collection; purchase, 1860 Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

My second favourite Roman, Livia Drusilla, though, well I have a healthy dose of respect for what she achieved too, making men look like worms in a political landscape dominated by the bastards. But there’s a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ about her, too. Maybe it’s just me and maybe I just have a thing for powerful women, who can say?

The woman who would be known as Diva Augusta (The Divine Augusta), deified, made a literal goddess, by her Grandson Claudius, started out, as far as we know, like any other Roman girl.

The daughter of senator Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus – His name suggests he was descended from the illustrious Patrician family the Claudii, but was adopted by the also illustrious Livii Drusi of Plebeian descent, so a man of both people and poshos – she was married off young (around age 14-15) to Tiberius Claudius Nero, her Claudii cousin.

It was a time of the civil wars of Caesar’s avengers, the ‘Populares‘, Marcus Antonius and Gaius Octavius (also known as Octavian, Octavian-Augustus, Augustus, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus and many others – Jeez, pick a name, dude!), against the ‘Optimates’ forces. These included Livia’s father, Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, as well as more famously Brutus and Cassius. Battles were ongoing, and after the optimates’ defeat at Philippi her father killed himself, Brutus and Cassius died or committed suicide also.

After the battle the triumvirate wavered, and her husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, who had fought at Philippi with Marcus Antonius’ forces continued the fight against Octavian on Marcus Antonius’ side.

One of the most important military battles in Roman history, Philippi finally ended the ‘Social Wars’ as we knew them, between the ‘optimates‘ – the party of rich senators, and the ‘populares‘ who favoured increased land-distribution, particularly to veterans, a division stretching back close to a century and the Gracchi. At Philippi, the forces of Brutus and Cassius, two leading optimates, were defeated by the combined forces of Marcus Antonius and Octavian. The in-fighting didn’t stop there, though, as Antony and Octavian would vie for total control of Rome. (Credit: Vikarna CC-BY-4.0)

Agreements were made and broken, battles were fought and won. It had been a long near-century of Romans fighting against Romans.

In amongst all this, in around 42BCE, Livia gave birth to her first son, Tiberius, but in 40BCE the family fled Italy to avoid Proscription (government mandated death) by the Second Triumvirate – Marcus Antonius, Gaius Octavius and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus – who were busy being friends again for a bit.

Livia and her husband had a brief joining of forces with Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey Magnus – the famous Pompey of ‘Pompey versus Caesar’ Pompey – but he was soon dealt with by the Triumvirs and their forces, and an amnesty was declared.

Tiberius Claudius Nero and his wife Livia were permitted back into Rome, and they were introduced to Octavian around 39BC and it is said he apparently immediately fell in love with the then pregnant-with-her-second-son Livia.

He was also still married to his first wife, Scribonia, and divorced her the same day she gave birth to their first daughter, Julia the Elder. How polite.

If it’s sounding a bit soap-opera now, just wait.

A portrait of Julia the Elder from Musée Archéologique de Toulose, Toulose, France. She would be exiled, disgraced, allegedly for sexual scandals. (Credit: Egisto Sani CC-BY-2.0)

Octavian, by means it is probably best not to think too hard about, persuaded Tiberius Claudius Nero that it would be a bloody good idea if he divorced his wife and Tiberius happened to agree. I am almost certain the man making this request being in charge of the most powerful army in Rome at the time played absolutely zero part in this decision.

Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia’s second son, Drusus, was born on the 14th January.

Octavian and Livia were married on the 17th of January.

Tiberius Claudius Nero gave away his ex-wife, 3 days removed from giving birth to their second child, as a father would give away a bride.

So, the next time you’re watching a soap-opera and you think the love-triangle is a little convoluted just remember the Romans already did it better.

The importance of this marriage could not be understated. Though still of respectable equestrian stock, Gaius Octavius was of the plebeian gens (or ‘family’) Octavia. Sure, he inherited the name Gaius Julius Caesar and, with it, the respect of the Patrician gens Julii, but his ancestry needed some posho-boosting and Livia was just the right sort of connection to do it.

Never mind the fact that if legend is to be believed he was madly in love with her, it was also a marriage of name and convenience, and the balance of power, and any shifts thereof, suited both parties just fine.

Unfortunately the only child they would share together allegedly miscarried.

So if ya know ya history;

Octavian goes on to win the civil wars; the Second Triumvirate dissolves; with a little help from (by which I mean wholly indebted to) Agrippa, Augustus defeats his only true enemy, Marcus Antonius, at the battle of Actium; his other Triumvir, Lepidus, is ‘exiled’, more likely he’s told to take his money and run; Octavian is now sole General of all the armies of Rome, and its ‘leader’; he is proclaimed ‘Augustus’ by the senate, a title he humbly accepts and means ‘the honourable’ or ‘revered’, becomes the Princeps Senatus or ‘first in the senate’ and is, de facto, Emperor-King of the Roman Territories.

This would usher in the age of the ‘Roman Empire’ as we know it, a period that would be called the ‘Principate’.

But as I also mentioned in my Comfort Classics, Augustus did not rule alone. In fact it is my belief he could not have; he was too weak, too prone to folly, at times too serious, at times too jovial. He needed the influences of people like Agrippa and, his other chief counsel, Livia.

The Imperial Family frieze from the Ara Pacis, the altar to the Roman Goddess of Peace, Pax. Livia is almost certainly one of the figures present although scholarly debate rages as to who, exactly, is who. (credit: Public Domain)

Now I cannot stress enough how revoltingly fucking sexist Roman society was. Do you notice how all the men have multiple names but the women only one? That’s because they were usually only given one name! That was usually a feminised version of their father’s name.

Livia is actually an exception. She was Livia Drusilla. This is, though, mainly because her dad was Livius Drusus – she only gets two names because he had them! The ‘-illa’ part at the end would also imply she was a younger daughter, so we can assume our Livia had an elder sister, a prior Livia Drusa, although I don’t believe there is any information or record to support this.

For Livia, as a woman, a mother, a wife, to be one of the lead counsels to the head of the Roman state at the time was, frankly, unbelievable. In the culture of the Pater Familias, the father of the family, the man in charge, her status in the Imperial household was – you could say unusual – I’d say groundbreaking and a testament to the value of her intelligence.

Her and Augustus remained married for 51 years, never had a child, indeed Augustus would adopt hers and her eldest son would go on to succeed him. Whether she had any extra-marital affairs is questionable, that he did almost undeniable, and yet he never divorced this woman, her children became his heirs and she always retained a status as a trusted counsel.

She must have been a fucking amazing woman.

At the same time as being a co-ruler she fulfilled all the wifely duties expected of her, setting a perfect example of a Roman matrona, just as Augustus’ mother, Atia, is said to have done. Livia was, as Augustus, unpretentious, modest of living and took care of the business of her household with as much dignity as possible. She was likely, unlike Augustus, faithful.

On top of already demonstrating the abilities of Roman womanhood to break boundaries and achieve beyond what was expected, she was also given control of her own finances, her own estates and mines. She, like Roman men, had her own clientes, clients, and she helped people obtain offices of state. Effectively she was running this double life as both Divine Matron and Roman Patrician Gentleman – Unbelievable!

The so-called ‘Tellus‘ frieze of the Ara Pacis, named after the Earth Goddess, Tellus, or Terra Mater (Earth Mother), is also argued by some scholars to be depicting Livia. (Credit: Chris Nas CC-BY-4.0)

Now sure, there are rumours that she killed some kids to ensure succession went to her sons, and sure there are rumours she got rid of any competition for Tiberius and sure there are rumours she killed Augustus with poisoned figs and sure she may have been involved in the poisoning of Germanicus, or at least assisted in the state cover up of the death of this popular figure. In fact there’s every possibility she was an absolutely terrible human being.

Do you know what?

More power to her.

This isn’t 2021, this is…21BC. Most women were happy to not be a slave getting sexually used because they were seen as less-than-human, most Roman women were sowing the tunics of their husbands and hoping he came home with enough sesterces that they can take care of paying the bills. Meanwhile if Marcus Agrippa is Augustus’ right-hand man then Livia is his left-hand woman and she didn’t just shatter the glass ceiling, she demolished the whole fucking building!

I mentioned it in my article about Roman sex – you weren’t a man unless you did some penetrating. You had to fuck people to be considered a man. If Livia fucked a few people, if she took some people out to get what she wanted, well then she was working with the tools she had, doing the best job she could, to try get what she wanted and – you know what? – She fucking did it!

She wasn’t doing anything the men of her time weren’t doing. Without the proscriptions of the Second Triumvirate, would her husband have been so able to take power? Likely not, those political murders were used not only as an excuse to enrich the triumvirs to pay for the loyalty of the army but to ensure the senate was filled with pliant, non-oppositional senators.

To get ahead in Roman life you had to crack some skulls. It just so happens Livia was better at it than a lot of men at the time.

Welsh actress Siân Phillips portraying Livia in the BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’. She plays Livia based mainly upon Tactitus’ rumour and innuendo, as a scheming Machiavellian. Here she is pictured in front of her husband Augustus (played by Brian Blessed) (© BBC – Used without permission)

Do you know who was a direct ancestor of every Julio-Claudian Emperor to take the title? Livia.

Do you know who wasn’t? Augustus – The only direct descendent of his to take the purple would be Caligula, and even he was related directly to Livia through her son Drusus.

It’s very incestuous, I know! I even had to stop and study to the family trees to make sure I got that right! Again, if you think soap-operas exaggerate, study Rome for five minutes!

For good or for ill it was the bloodline of Livia that kept the Empire running.

During the reign of Tiberius her influence would have to be deliberately curbed by him, she was so powerful. It is rumoured one of the reasons for his controversial sojourn to Capri was to escape the constant influence of his mother.

From what we know of Tiberius he was a traditional, conservative man. It is easy to see how such conservative Roman manhood could have been made insecure by the influence of his mother. For a while the Augusta was, in essence, as powerful as he was, effectively his co-ruler. We have discussed auctoritas in our article on the virtues of Rome. Generally a trait associated with Roman men there is no doubting Livia’s auctoritas, her aura of authority.

She became the first ever real woman to feature on Roman coinage and we see, in the evolution of these portraits, a morphing of Livia from beautiful girl to authoritative Queen.

A Roman Dupondius, issued during Tiberius’ reign by Drusus, son of Tiberius. The woman depicted is likely a veiled Livia, in the incarnation of Pietas – Roman Piety. She is the first known real woman to have featured on Roman coinage. (Credit: Panairjdde via Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com CC-BY-3.0)

She died in 29 AD living to a grand old age of 87 years. Tiberius did not return from Capri for her death or her funeral.

The honours the senate would have bestowed upon her were vetoed by Tiberius, including an honour beyond the likes of which a woman of Rome had ever seen – The title ‘Mater Patriae‘, Mother of the Fatherland.

His suggestion was she would have wanted it that way. Perhaps true, but Claudius ensured her legacy was secured, many of her posthumus honours bestowed upon Livia during his reign.

 A statue of the Augusta was placed in the Temple of Augustus, back with her husband at last, she was invoked by women in their sacred oaths, and she became Diva Augusta – A Goddess, the Divine Augusta.

A mid-1st century AD statue of the Diva Augusta, Livia, holding a cornucopia – a horn of plenty, signifying the prosperity (either literally or spiritually) she brings to the people from the Altes Museum, Berlin. (Credit: Anagoria CC-BY-3.0)

I made much, in my Comfort Classics, of how Agrippa, ducking and weaving through the obstacles placed in front of him by his class, by Roman society, still managed to elevate himself to a position of power otherwise thought impossible even if sometimes he had to bide his time, be patient, and manipulate the society around him into accepting him.

Livia did the same, and more. Roman women were to be seen and not heard, they were acted upon they did not act and they certainly did not run Empires. Livia said “Fuck that!” and did what she wanted.

Livia managed to find her way to a seat just as lofty as Augustus and Agrippa did, and, indeed, through her genetic influence on later Emperors, biologically above it. She is the true founder of the lasting legacy that was Imperial Rome and the Principate, and she would set a blueprint for how, even behind a sexist veil, a Roman woman could tug at the puppet-strings of power and change the course of history.

For a spoiler-free review of the Sky Original TV Series ‘Domina’ click here.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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