Today is the (sometimes disputed) birthday (58 BCE) of Livia Drusilla, also known as Julia Augusta after her formal adoption into the Julian family in 14 CE, wife of the Roman emperor Augustus throughout his reign, as well as his political adviser. She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero. She was deified by Claudius who acknowledged her title of Augusta. In modern historical fiction she is usually portrayed as a Machiavellian presence throughout the early empire, but more analytic historians paint her as a strong woman in a time when men controlled politics.
She was the daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus and his wife Aufidia, a daughter of the magistrate Marcus Aufidius Lurco. The diminutive Drusilla, commonly used in her name, suggests that she was a second daughter. She was probably first married in 43 BCE. Her father married her to Tiberius Claudius Nero, her cousin of patrician status who was fighting with him on the side of Julius Caesar’s assassins against Octavian (later the emperor Augustus). Her father committed suicide in the Battle of Philippi, along with Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, but her husband continued fighting against Octavian, now on behalf of Mark Antony and his brother Lucius Antonius. Her first child, the future Emperor Tiberius, was born in 42 BCE. In 40 BCE the family was forced to flee Italy in order to avoid the Triumvirate of Octavian, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Mark Antony and the proscriptions they began. They joined with a son of Pompey Magnus, Sextus Pompeius, who was fighting the triumvirate from his base in Sicily. Later, Livia, her husband Tiberius Nero, and their two-year-old son, Tiberius, moved on to Greece.
After peace was established between the Triumvirate and the followers of Sextus Pompeius, a general amnesty was announced, and Livia returned to Rome, where she was personally introduced to Octavian in 39 BCE. At this time she was pregnant with a second son, Nero Claudius Drusus (also known as Drusus the Elder). Legend has it that Octavian fell immediately in love with her, despite the fact that he was still married to Scribonia. Octavian divorced Scribonia in 39 BCE, on the very day that she gave birth to his daughter Julia the Elder. Seemingly around that time, when Livia was six months pregnant, Tiberius Claudius Nero was persuaded or forced by Octavian to divorce Livia. On 14 January, the child was born. Augustus and Livia married on 17 January, waiving the traditional waiting period. Tiberius Claudius Nero was present at the wedding, giving her in marriage “just as a father would.” The importance of the patrician Claudii to Octavian’s cause, and the political survival of the Claudii Nerones are probably more rational explanations for the speedy union. Nevertheless, Livia and Augustus remained married for the next 51 years, despite the fact that they had no children apart from a single miscarriage. She always enjoyed the status of privileged counselor to her husband, petitioning him on the behalf of others and influencing his policies, an unusual role for a Roman wife in a culture dominated by the pater familias.
After Mark Antony’s suicide following the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian returned to Rome triumphant. On 16 January 27 BCE, the Senate bestowed upon him the honorary title of Augustus (“honorable” or “revered one”). Augustus rejected monarchical titles, instead choosing to refer to himself as Princeps Civitatis (“First Citizen of the State”) or Princeps Senatus (“First among the Senate”). He and Livia formed the role model for Roman households. Despite their wealth and power, Augustus’ family continued to live modestly in their house on the Palatine Hill. Livia would set the pattern for the noble Roman matrona. She wore neither excessive jewelry nor pretentious costumes, she took care of the household and her husband (often making his clothes herself), always faithful and dedicated. In 35 BCE Octavian gave Livia the unprecedented honor of ruling her own finances and dedicated a public statue to her. She had her own circle of clients and pushed many protégés into political offices, including the grandfathers of the later emperors Galba and Otho.
With Augustus being the father of only one daughter, Livia soon started to push her own sons, Tiberius and Nero Claudius Drusus, into power. Drusus was a trusted general and married Augustus’ favorite niece, Antonia Minor. They had three children including the future emperor Claudius. Tiberius married Augustus’ daughter Julia the Elder in 11 BCE and was ultimately adopted by his stepfather in 4 CE and named as Augustus’ heir.
Rumor had it that when Marcellus, nephew of Augustus, died in 23 BCE, it was no natural death, and that Livia was behind it. After the two elder sons of Julia by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, whom Augustus had adopted as sons and successors, had died, he adopted the one remaining son Agrippa Postumus at the same time as Tiberius, but later Agrippa Postumus was sent to an island and finally killed. Tacitus charges that Livia was not altogether innocent of these deaths and Cassius Dio also mentions such rumors. There are also rumors mentioned by Tacitus and Cassius Dio that Livia brought about Augustus’ death by poisoning fresh figs. Augustus’ granddaughter was Julia the Younger. Some time between 1 CE and 14 CE, her husband Lucius Aemilius Paullus was executed as a conspirator in a revolt. Modern historians theorize that Julia’s exile was not actually for adultery but for involvement in Paullus’ revolt. Livia Drusilla plotted against her stepdaughter’s family and ruined them. This led to open compassion for the fallen family. Julia died in 29 AD on the same island where she had been sent in exile twenty years earlier.
Augustus died on August 19, 14 CE, being deified by the Senate shortly afterwards. In his will, he left one third of his property to Livia, and the other two thirds to Tiberius. In the will, he also adopted her into the Julian family and granted her the honorific title of Augusta. These dispositions permitted Livia to maintain her status and power after her husband’s death, under the new name of Julia Augusta. Tacitus and Cassius Dio wrote that rumors persisted that Augustus was poisoned by Livia, but these are mainly dismissed as malicious fabrications spread by political enemies of the dynasty.
For some time, Livia and her son Tiberius, the new emperor, appeared to get along with each other. Speaking against her became treason in 20 CE, and in 24 CE he granted his mother a theater seat among the Vestal Virgins. Livia exercised unofficial but very real power in Rome. Eventually, Tiberius became resentful of his mother’s political status, particularly against the idea that it was she who had given him the throne. At the beginning of his reign Tiberius vetoed the unprecedented title Mater Patriae (“Mother of the Fatherland”) that the Senate wished to bestow upon her, in the same manner in which Augustus had been named Pater Patriae (“Father of the Fatherland”). (Tiberius also consistently refused the title of Pater Patriae for himself.)
The historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio depict an overweening, even domineering dowager, ready to interfere in Tiberius’ decisions, the most notable instances being the case of Urgulania (grandmother of Claudius’ first wife Plautia Urgulanilla), a woman who assumed that her friendship with the empress placed her above the law, and Munatia Plancina, suspected of murdering Germanicus and saved at Livia’s entreaty. (Plancina committed suicide in 33 CE after being accused again of murder after Livia’s death). A notice from 22 CE records that Julia Augusta (Livia) dedicated a statue to Augustus in the center of Rome, placing her own name even before that of Tiberius.
Ancient historians give as a reason for Tiberius’ retirement to Capri his inability to endure her any longer. Until 22 CE there had, according to Tacitus, been “a genuine harmony between mother and son, or a hatred well concealed.” Dio tells us that at the time of his accession Tiberius already heartily loathed her. In 22 CE she had fallen ill, and Tiberius had hastened back to Rome in order to be with her. But in 29 CE when she finally fell ill and died, he remained on Capri, pleading pressure of work and sending Caligula to deliver the funeral oration. Suetonius adds the macabre detail that “when she died… after a delay of several days, during which he held out hope of his coming, [she was at last] buried because the condition of the corpse made it necessary…”. Tiberius also vetoed divine honors for her and later he vetoed all the honors the Senate had granted her after her death and cancelled the fulfillment of her will.
It was not until 13 years later, in 42 CE during the reign of her grandson Claudius, that all her honors were restored and her deification finally completed. She was named Diva Augusta (The Divine Augusta), and an elephant-drawn chariot conveyed her image to all public games. A statue of her was set up in the Temple of Augustus along with her husband’s, races were held in her honor, and women were to invoke her name in their sacred oaths. In 410, during the Sack of Rome, her ashes were scattered when Augustus’ tomb was sacked.
While reporting various unsavory hearsay, the ancient sources generally portray Livia as a woman of proud and imperial attributes, faithful to her imperial husband, for whom she was a worthy consort, forever poised and dignified. With consummate skill she acted out the roles of consort, mother, widow and dowager. Dio records two of her utterances: “Once, when some naked men met her and were to be put to death in consequence, she saved their lives by saying that to a chaste woman such men are in no way different from statues. When someone asked her how she had obtained such a commanding influence over Augustus, she answered that it was by being scrupulously chaste herself, doing gladly whatever pleased him, not meddling with any of his affairs, and, in particular, by pretending neither to hear nor to notice the favorites of his passion.”
Livia’s image appears in ancient visual media such as coins and portraits. She was the first woman to appear on provincial coins in 16 BCE and her portrait images can be chronologically identified partially from the progression of her hair designs, which represented more than keeping up with the fashions of the time as her depiction with such contemporary details translated into a political statement of representing the ideal Roman woman. Livia’s image evolves with different styles of portraiture that trace her effect on imperial propaganda that helped bridge the gap between her role as wife to the emperor Augustus, to mother of the emperor Tiberius. Becoming more than the “beautiful woman” she is described as in ancient texts, Livia serves as a public image for the idealization of Roman feminine qualities, a motherly figure, and eventually a goddesslike representation that alludes to her virtue. Livia’s power in symbolizing the renewal of the Republic with the female virtues Pietas and Concordia in public displays had a dramatic effect on the visual representation of future imperial women as ideal, honorable mothers and wives of Rome.
In the popular fictional work I, Claudius by Robert Graves—based on Tacitus’ innuendo—Livia is portrayed as a thoroughly Machiavellian, scheming political mastermind. Determined never to allow republican governance to flower again, as she felt they led to corruption and civil war, and devoted to bringing Tiberius to power and then maintaining him there, she is involved in nearly every death or disgrace in the Julio-Claudian family up to the time of her death. On her deathbed she only fears divine punishment for all she had done, and secures the promise of future deification by her grandson Claudius, an act which, she believes, will guarantee her a blissful afterlife. However, this portrait of her is balanced by her intense devotion to the well-being of the Empire as a whole, and her machinations are justified as a necessarily cruel means to what she firmly considers a noble aspiration: the common good of the Romans, achievable only under strict imperial rule.
I suppose Graves’s portrayal is reasonably balanced, but it leaves out some important considerations. First, even if she carried out the nasty things she is accused of, she is no worse than most of the men who held power in Rome. Standard procedure for getting rid of enemies (real or imagined – including family members) was to have them killed, and there were many emperors who killed far more than she. Second, she was a woman in a man’s world. No woman before her had risen to her status before her, and she achieved this by strength of character alone. She had no right to be anything other than a subservient wife, yet she managed to become one of the most powerful people in imperial Rome (male or female).
In popular tradition Livia is assumed to be the killer of Augustus using poisoned figs, based largely on the account by Tacitus. There is no way of telling any more, but if she did serve him figs that were poisoned then they would have had to have been spiced, preserved fresh figs to mask the taste of the poison. Apicius in his De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking) has a rather rudimentary recipe for preserved figs, but a little interpolation from the previous recipe can help flesh it out.
The basic recipe is:
 to preserve fresh figs, apples, plums, pears and cherries
Select them all very carefully with the stems on and place them in honey so they do not touch each other.
Not removing the stems keeps the fruit intact so that air will not get inside the fruit and start fermentation. The preceding recipe calls for placing fruit in a vessel, and pouring over it honey and defretum. Defretum was new wine that had been spiced and then boiled down to half its volume.
If you can get fresh figs, you have a whole range of options. You can slice them in half and pack them in a pie shell. In northern Italy I was very fond of a sandwich made of sliced figs and Gorgonzola. All delicious, but hold off on the arsenic.