Peter Jones reviews EMPRESS OF ROME: The Life of Livia, by Matthew Dennison
(Quercus h/b 352pp £20)
Thanks to Freud and others, we possess a psychological language of character and personality—traumas, inhibitions, repression and so forth—that encourages biographers to probe deeply into their subjects’ lives, seeking that intimate understanding that makes them unique and therefore interesting.
Ancient writers knew nothing of such individual subjectivity. It was the celebration of great men and their achievements, emphasising their ethical stances—were they just, loyal, virtuous, prudent, wise and so on?—and the extent to which they met norms of acceptable communal behaviour, that counted, with plenty of moralising to ram the lessons home.
Further, women did not count. That is not to say they were individually undervalued, but that great public achievements were the business of the male. They alone held political office and led armies into battle. QED.
So the biography of a woman, even a long-lived, famous and influential woman like Livia, wife of the first and greatest Roman emperor Augustus, presents a serious challenge. First, her story emerges only around the edges of Augustus’s, and there is precious little of that (e.g. only 9 mentions in Suetonius’ biography of the emperor). Further, everything we know about her is set in the context of her relationship with Augustus and his world. So if we expect her to leap off the page and sparkle vibrantly in front of us like some nightmare Cheryl Cole, we shall be sadly disappointed (or, possibly, greatly relieved). It is almost impossible to discern the human being, let alone anything we could call a personality, behind the sources.
So the problem for a modern biographer of Livia is intense, and Matthew Dennison is well aware of it. The first two certain events to which the record gives us access, as he freely admits, are her birth (probably in 58 BC) and her marriage (probably in 43 BC). He bridges this gap with 36 pages of background information about typical Roman childhood, and speculation. I lost count of the number of times Dennison was forced to come up with a variation of the formula ‘we do not know, but’. But he has no other option.
In the circumstances, the book is something of a triumph. The entirely proper picture of Livia that emerges is of an attractive, determined woman, who exemplified the virtues of the traditional, self-disciplined, home-loving, hard-working Roman wife and mother by which Augustus set such store in his efforts to recall the Roman nation back to its better self after the bloody nightmares of civil war, but also achieved an unexampled position of respect and authority in the male political world. Not that this was trumpeted, feminist-style, abroad. But everyone knew it.
But this came at a price. Livia had had two sons by her first marriage, Tiberius and Drusus. Her marriage to Augustus yielded no further children. Augustus had a daughter, Julia, by his earlier marriage. Keen to establish a dynasty through his own blood-line, Augustus nominated a series of successors, usually via his sister Octavia’s or Julia’s children. But they all died, until there was only one left: Tiberius. How come? Obviously, our sources say—none more emphatically than the cynical near-contemporary Tacitus—it was Livia, the frustrated step-mother, doing what all step-mothers always do: getting rid of her rivals, one by one, with that old female stand-by, poison (and was she not a keen herbal gardener?), so that her boy could succeed.
D. treats this side of the tradition with admirable caution, while agreeing that the worldly-wise Livia was probably not above giving her son a leg-up when the opportunity presented itself. But sadly for Livia, the imperial throne was the very last thing Tiberius actually wanted, even more so when Augustus, for dynastic reasons, compelled him to divorce his beloved wife for (of course) Julia. Tiberius did, finally, succeed, but the relations between Livia and him did not improve.
And Livia as a living human being? Dennison knows the boundaries between story-telling and history, and sensibly restricts himself to asking the appropriate questions. So what does one make of Suetonius’ report that, in case he went too far, or not far enough, Augustus always ‘wrote out beforehand remarks and comments he was to make to individuals on serious topics—even to Livia’? Or that Augustus’s last words to his wife were reported as ‘Farewell, Livia; always live mindful of our marriage’ (Livia was seventy-two at the time and had lived a life of blameless rectitude)? How did Livia take Augustus’ constant rejection of her sons as successors? How did she react when Augustus’ daughter Julia—whom she had herself raised—was exiled by Augustus and completely cut off her for involvement in lurid sexual scandals?
That is the way to bring Livia to life, and Dennison does it tactfully and well.