Livia, Empress of Rome

This month is named for the first emperor of Rome, Augustus. Despite his willingness to regularly make family members divorce beloved spouses to forge new marital alliances, one of the fascinating things about Augustus was that he remained devoted to his (third) wife, Livia Drusilla, even though she produced no children. They remained together until his death, after 51 years of marriage.

When they met and married, actually, he still went by the name Octavian — it was about 10 years before he become emperor. Apparently, Augustus and Livia were both instantly and totally besotted with each other. Both she and Augustus were married to others, though. Livia was pregnant (with her second child) by her current husband. And Augustus was married to Scribonia, who was also pregnant at the time. On the day she gave birth to their daughter Julia, Augustus’ only child, he divorced Scribonia.  A few days after Livia gave birth, she obtained a divorce and married Augustus.

Livia was undoubtedly as cunning and sensitive to the intricacies of politics as her new husband. She was active in maintaining the Augustan propaganda that he so carefully cultivated — one of modest and moral living. Augustus famously did not like women who dressed or behaved in a promiscuous manner — including his own daughter Julia. Livia was known for weaving her own cloth, and running her household well.


Livia, in all her heavily draped modesty

Much portraiture conveys Livia’s modesty. Indeed, she looks a bit severe, usually with her hair in a tight bun. The portraits were not attempts to flatter her; even sculpture done later in her life shows a “properly” aging matron.

The famous bust of a mature Livia, with her hair tightly pulled back

Livia had a house on the Palatine Hill, where future empirical homes would also stand. When you visit the Coliseum, you can use the same ticket to visit the Palatine, too. Being above the crowds, it’s a very different environment — usually peaceful.

She also had a lovely villa outside Rome, known today for the magnificent frescoes of garden scenes.  These frescoes currently hang in the Palazzo Massimo.  Their scenes of a garden filled with birds are well worth a trip to this museum. Admission includes the three other terrific Roman museums that form the Museo Nazionale Romano: the Crypta Balbi, Palazzo Altempts, and the Baths of Diocletian.

One of the beautiful frescoes that once adorned Livia’s villa

The fact that Livia did not produce any children during her marriage to Augustus greatly affected royal succession.

Augustus initially planned to leave the imperial throne to his nephew and son-in-law Marcellus, whose mother was Augustus’ much-beloved sister Octavia. Marcellus was married to Augustus’ daughter, Julia — his cousin. However, Marcellus died before the long-lived Augustus. Julia was then married to Augustus’ right-hand general, Marcus Agrippa. If you visit the Pantheon, it’s his name engraved on the front. That marriage proved fruitful, producing three sons and two daughters. Two of these sons were “adopted” by Augustus as his heirs. But once again, Augustus outlived his heirs.

Enter Tiberius.  He was Livia’s older son by her first marriage. He would ultimately be adopted by Augustus. Against his will, Tiberius was also made to marry the much-married Julia, and would become Rome’s second emperor.

The young Tiberius

Legend has it that Livia may have paved the way for her son’s succession through murder, by feeding Augustus a fig from her garden that was smeared with poison. While she never gave Augustus a child, through her sons by her first husband, Livia is a direct ancestor of all of the Julio-Claudian emperors.