Episode 81 – Livia Drusilla

Would any Ancient Roman podcast hosted by two women be complete without a very special episode on one of the most famous women in the City’s history, Livia Drusilla? Obviously not and here we are 🙂

We’re taking a detour from our usual primary source focus to start with the depiction of Livia in the seminal I, Claudius BBC series (1976). As we get further into the topic we move backwards through the material. Finally we’ll hit at the ancient sources.

I, Claudius: Livia Just Another an Evil Woman?

Doctors R and G jump in with the depiction of Livia by Siân Phillips. Her performance really sets the tone for budding historians growing up in the later twentieth century (Who us? *Never*). But the script for I, Claudius didn’t come from nowhere. This sends us on the trail of Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935). Where did Graves get the inspiration for these novels? We’ve got your back.

The connection to Claudius is apparent in the title of the series and this colours the representation of Livia. Find out about the challenges Claudius faced with his family and how this sets the tone the for the ‘evil woman’ trope.

The Ancient Material: How does Livia stack up?

Well, it really depends on the source you read. Dr R notes the problematic account of Dio Cassius, where Livia does not fare so well. Dr G takes a turn through Tacitus’ Annals (and, yes, Dr R is right about Agrippa!). While Livia is up for criticism, she also seems to garner some back-handed praise from Tacitus …

We dig into the prosopography of Livia, her family connections and her important first marriage in which she bears her two children. Livia’s liaison with Octavian begins controversially at a dinner party when Livia is six months pregnant with her second child. Suetonius (hilariously) claims to have access to some of the personal correspondence between Mark Antony and Octavian from this period. Antony lambastes Octavian for his moral scruples in this moment. But what can we learn about Livia amidst this kind of source material that tend towards political invective?

Reading Livia Between the Gaps

We peer between the pieces of evidence to see what else can emerge. The longevity of the marriage between Octavian (aka Augustus) and Livia speaks to the connection they shared. Livia’s public role in Augustus’ moral reform program and her legacy speaks to her significant position and her influence, which while not measured in magistracies leaves its mark in the developing principate.

Ultimately we’re left with a complex woman living in the public gaze in complex times. The enduring Livia continues to fascinate us even today.

Find out all the details here: 

Episode 81 – Livia Drusilla

Livia Drusilla Augustus

Empress Livia Drusilla, AD 14-19, from Paestum, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Carole Raddato

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!

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