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Research Essay on The Life of Augustus and His Wife Livia Drusilla

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“Livia Drusilla, a manipulative, power-hungry killer or a victim of gendered history? How accurate are the primary sources in their depiction of Livia Drusilla and how have they affected how she is perceived today?”

Sophie Lee (z3373017)


Livia Drusilla (58BCE~29CE) is a character of great mystery and controversy. She was the 3rd wife to the Roman Emperor, Augustus Caeser, and mother to Tiberius, the emperor that came after Augustus Caeser. Much of our knowledge on her character is reliant on the primary sources available to us today such as Suetonius’, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, and Tacitus’, the Annals. Primary sources depict Livia in a negative light and imply that she was conniving and manipulative, using any means she could, including murder, to achieve her goals. This essay will analyze the details primary sources available to us today while drawing on secondary sources in order to answer the thesis question. Livia Drusilla was a woman of noble birth and was one who possessed a significant amount of power and authority in a time where very few women could do the same. During a time where women “couldn’t vote, hold public office, or appear in public without a guardian”, Livia was capable enough to use her situation to gain access to “unprecedented freedom” (Kleiner, 2000). Despite her controversial image in history, it is well accepted that she was a woman of great intelligence and was very influential as Augustus’ wife. While some argued that Livia was the living embodiment of what was considered to be the ideal picture Augustan modesty and womanhood, there were several others who argued that she was a manipulative woman who used, not only her power and influence but the people around her to achieve her goals (Button, 2009). Primary sources such as Suetonius and Tacitus allude to the rumors that surround Livia and the questionable timing of the death of those around her. It was rumored that she not only poisoned her husband, Augustus (Button, 2009), but also the chosen heirs of Augustus who stood in the way of her son, Tiberius, ascending to the throne (Lightman, 2008). As mentioned above, the coincidental and untimely deaths of Augustus and his heirs allowed for her own son and Augustus’ stepson, Tiberius, to succeed Augustus. When considering these primary accounts of Livia, it is vital to understand that these sources were written in a time where the ideal woman was pictured to be submissive and domestic, playing a heavier role at home than in politics, and how such values would have had an impact on her portrayal.

Research essay

When studying ancient primary sources there are several problems that may arise, ranging from the prevalent use of fictional history to the bias and the inaccurate depiction of specific characters. Livia Drusilla is a notorious character depicted in ancient sources as evil and corrupt. However, it is important to consider that this so-called power-hungry and murderous woman, as well as the sources we have available about her, are both coming from a time where it was “strictly curtailed” for women to be involved in the political scene (Hillard, 2013). In addition to this, the sources available to us today by the historians and writers of the time are all males, meaning that we are only provided a singular perspective into a world where there was a strict restriction on women and their role in society (Zager, 2014). These contemporary values were male-centric and therefore, would have led to contemporary sources to possess a predisposition to view women like Livia, who went against traditional values, in a negative light (Zager, 2014). This is likely to be a strong catalyst behind the contradictions within the accounts and their portrayal of her. When considering Livia’s true character, the role as a woman, wife, and mother all need to be taken into consideration and compared to what was believed to be socially ideal and appropriate at the contemporary time. Barret contributes to this argument, claiming that during this time, it was inevitable that writers were “preoccupied with the central figure of the emperor” which, in turn, imposed problems on secondary figures surrounding these central figures (Barrett, 2002). This was particularly the case for women such as Livia as they, despite their own accomplishments and character, would have been subject to bias because the focus of their depiction was not on themselves as individuals within history but on their relation to the emperor and/or the men around them (Zager, 2014). This biased depiction of not only Livia, but the contemporary women of the time, makes it difficult to say that the contemporary depictions we have today are accurate and fair.

Suetonius is a contemporary source that many historians refer to in their pursuit of determining Livia’s character. Barrett’s (2002) argument that the portrayal of women was heavily dependent on the depictions and story of the male presence around them can be perceived in Suetonius’ writings. Suetonius had a noticeable tendency to focus his writing and his portrayal of women against “standardized rubrics (ancestry, marriage, the birth of children)” (Pryzwansky, 2008), which reflected the moral and marriage laws of the time (Kleiner, 2000). This indicates that it is likely that he possessed a specific standard that he considered to be appropriate when it came to the role and behavior of women, looking to fit them into “pre-defined” types that reflect the contemporary beliefs and values of the time (Pryzwansky, 2008). This approach in his depiction of Livia is most likely the reason behind his inconsistent image of her character. This inconsistency can be seen when he depicts Livia as a wife compared to when he depicts Livia as a mother. As a wife, in The Life of Augustus, he portrays her as a “good and ideal”, a loyal wife who assists her husband in any way she can. However, in The Life of Tiberius, she is portrayed as a bad woman, a mother who meddles and tries to manipulate her son into doing what she wants (Pryzwansky, 2008). It is in these instances that the problems of primary sources become obvious. As the illustration of women is not focused on themselves but on the male presence around them, it is inevitable that the depictions would vary, leading to an unreliable final picture.

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As a wife, Suetonius considered Livia to be “good”. Like other imperial women, he focused his depiction of Livia through the lens of marriage. Livia was an ideal wife who did her duty to her husband. Unlike Augustus’ first wife, Scribonia, Livia was depicted in a favorable light. While Suetonius claimed that Scriobonia was abandoned by her husband because of her “shrewish disposition”, he states that Livia, despite the fact that she was not yet divorced and even pregnant by her then-current husband, was “loved and esteemed … without rival” (Suetonius, n.d.). It is from this varied depiction that he implies what was ideal and desirable at the time and what was not, further implying that Livia’s successful marriage came down to the fact that she was not like Scribonia. This positive depiction of her allowed for Livia, despite being the catalyst behind, not only her divorce but Augustus’ as well, to be seen as a loving wife rather than a seductress (Pryzwansky, 2008). She is depicted as having to be obedient and under the control of her husband, the emperor, and completing her duties as a wife, making his clothes and doing as she was told. Suetonius’ stance, unlike other contemporary sources, was that her dutifulness would have allowed her to be loved and have a level of influence and a chance to contribute to Augustus’ thoughts and decisions, but was never the one to have the final say. This portrayal of Livia is depicted in a light that is societally appropriate to the contemporary belief and values of the time, showing her to be a dutiful and ideal wife who is obedient and submissive to her husband’s words. However, it is important to note that this positive portrayal of her would most likely have come in the interest of portraying Augustus in a positive light, not Livia. Suetonius’ aim was to promote Augustus as an emperor and husband who was capable of controlling his own wife and resisting manipulation (Pryzwansky, 2008).

In contrast to this, Suetonius’ depiction of Livia is negative in his account of Tiberius. This, again, likely fell to the fact that Suetonius’ opinion of Tiberius was not positive and his depiction of Livia was instrumental in his portrayal of Tiberius. Livia, as a mother, is shown to be meddling and domineering, often interfering in her son’s decisions and rules (Pryzwansky, 2008). Suetonius’ depiction of Livia in this account contradicts his own portrayal of her in his previous account because his portrayal of her is dependent on the emperor he is writing about. For instance, in his previous account he mentioned that although she was given a voice when speaking to her husband, ultimately, the person in authority was Augustus (Suetonius, n.d.). However, in his second account, he mentions that Tiberius warned his mother that the freedom she had possessed while Augustus was emperor would not be allowed while he ruled (Suetonius, n.d.). Tiberius, unlike Augustus, is depicted as being unable to “control” his mother and was incapable of ruling without Livia’s interference. This “uncontrollable” and “meddlesome” behavior was likely emphasized in this account in order to bring emphasis to Tiberius’ inferiority. His entire life, from his return to Rome after his exile to his succession as emperor, was made possible by his mother. Suetonius’ negative depiction of Livia as a mother was done with the purpose of bringing attention to Tiberius’ incompetence in mind.

Similar to Suetonius, Tacitus is another literary source that historians refer to in order to create a picture of what the Julio-Claudian period was like (Zager, 2014) and, likewise, also holds a predisposed standing as a contemporary historian. Tacitus adhered to the values of the lost republic and held a deeply rooted abhorrence towards the Principate. This bias is noticeable in his writings and, in addition to this, shows his disapproval towards women who went against what was characteristic of the “traditional Republican ideal” (Zager, 2014). The Republican ideal image of a woman was one was submissive and focused on her husband and children (Treggiari, 2005). Livia’s well-known active role in politics completely went against this ideal image which likely lead to Tacitus’ negative depiction of her. Furthermore, Tacitus Is well known to have openly detested Tiberius who, despite being an uncompelling leader, was characteristic of the Principate and imperial rule (Dunstan, 2010). This detest is evident in his portrayal of Livia and she is portrayed as a “scheming murderess who promotes the interests of her younger son by systematically destroying all those who stand in his way” (Kearsley, 2017). According to Kearsley, Tacitus is the one who paints Livia in the most negative light but, like all other contemporary sources, relies heavily on rumors to do so. Like Suetonius, he too possesses a strong view on what is the ideal image of the world, and this world for him was characterized by Republican values. This is mirrored in his distaste towards the Principate and his writing focuses on emphasizing the flaws within the Principate and the Imperials (Zager, 2014). He equivalates Livia’s presence to “noverca” which translates to “stepmother”, an image that is viewed negatively in Roman culture as an individual who was driven to promote her own biological children no matter the damage that may occur to her stepchildren (Brannstedt, 2016). For instance, in his writing, Tacitus states that this “stepmother” nature and hatred is what caused the death of Agrippa Postumus (Tacitus, n.d.). The fact that this feature is not mentioned in any other source again points to the fact that this portrayal of Livia as a representation of the evil “stepmother” was due to his own opinion and not coming from a reliable source.

This sort of bias in his writing is the reason many historians such as Kearsley and Gorman to view him as unreliable. Kearsley (2017) states that Tacitus can be seen as a “political commentator” rather than a historian which is supported by O’Gorman’s (2000) statement that Tacitus’ writing is more of a comment on the failings of the Principate rather than an observation of history itself. Livia was not only a symbol of the Principate’s ideals that went against his own Republican belief, she was the mother of the “hated” Tiberius who endorsed the values of the Principate. This is visible in the fact that his disapproval towards independent and opinionated women like Livia did not apply to other women such as Agrippina. This, similarly to Suetonius, was due to his tendency to write about women in accordance to their male counterparts. Although Agrippina, as per his own words, had a temper with “fire” and was “rebellious”, she controlled this with “purity of mind and wifely devotion”, which supposedly kept her “rebellious spirit on the side of righteousness” (Tacitus, n.d.). Despite having similar qualities to Livia, her relation to her husband, Germanicus, who was said to wanted to restore the Republic similarly to Tacitus (Dunstan, 2010), probably spared her from the scorn Livia faced. Livia’s corruption and evil nature is, therefore, not so much a comment on her but on the society that is the result of the imperial age (Brannstedt, 2016).

Despite the unreliability of the primary sources available, popular culture chooses to adhere to their depiction of Livia in order to create a depiction of a murderous and scheming woman who was willing to murder her own husband as well as anyone else who stood in her way, even if they were children. She is depicted as cruel and evil in her interactions with others and calculating in nature. This can be seen in the television series, I, Claudius, which is an illustration of how the primary sources depict her. Despite this, many historians recognize the limitations of the contemporary literature available and attempt to provide a different interpretation of her character. However, without the presence of unbiased primary evidence, it is difficult to do so accurately as they instead have to rely on the inconsistencies and faults within the current sources to draw a conclusion. Although every contemporary source mentions accusations against her, no single source mentions all the accusations (Kearsley, 2017). Her portrayal is inconsistent and full of bias but the one thing each source has in common is that they all indicate that in a world that was male-centric, filled with restrictions on women, and written about by male historians and writers, it is undeniable Livia was a woman who exercised an abnormal amount of influence and authority. Her negative portrayal is based on a questionable combination of a kind of fictional history that was made on the backs of rumors and a version of counterfactual history that focused on drawing attention to the flaws of the Principate rather than on providing an account of her character as a singular individual. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Livia was a public figure that rose above the limitations of her time to become the most powerful woman in her time.


Primary sources

  1. Suetonius. (n.d.). The Life of Augustus. Retrieved from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars:*.html
  2. Suetonius. (n.d.). The Life of Tiberius. Retrieved from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars:*.html
  3. Tacitus. (n.d.). The Annals. Retrieved from

Secondary sources

  1. Barrett, A. A. (2001). Tacitus, Livia and the Evil Stepmother. Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, 171-175.
  2. Barrett, A. A. (2002). Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
  3. Brannstedt, L. (2016). Femina Princeps: Livia’s Position in the Roman State. Lund: Lund University.
  4. Button, M. (2009). Livia Drusilla: Deciphering Between Traditional Views of Rome’s First Lady. Oregon: Western Oregon University.
  5. Dunstan, W. E. (2010). Ancient Rome. Washington: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  6. Gorman, E. O. (2000). Irony and Misreading in the ANnals of Tacitus. Cambridge: Campbridge University.
  7. Hillard, T. (2013). Livia Drusilla. Groniek, 5-22.
  8. Kearsley, Rosalinde. Livia: wife, mother, And daughter [online]. Ancient History: Resources for Teachers, Vol. 46 (2017), p.102-116.
  9. Kleiner, D.E.E. (2000) Review: Livia Drusilla and the Remarkable Power of Elite Women in
  10. Imperial Rome: A Commentary on Recent Books on Rome’s First Empress. International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Spring, 2000), pp. 563-569
  11. Lightman, M. L. (2008). A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women. New York: An Imprint of Infobase Publishing.
  12. Pryzwansky, M. M. (2008). Feminine Imperial Ideals in the Caesers of Suetonius. North Carolina: Duke University.
  13. Treggiari, S. (2005). Women in the Time of Augustus. In K. Galinsky, Age of Augustus. Austin: Cambridge University Press.
  14. Zager, I. (2014). The Political Role of Women of the Roman Elite, with Particular Attention to the Autonomy and Influence of the Julio-Claudian Women (44BCE to CE68). South Africa: University of South Africa.

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