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Women of the Empire – Livia Drucilla
Raven Kamali

If Livia had harbored any doubt about her ability to have Octavian under her control, that doubt would have been put to rest by the following event as Cassius Dio narrates it:

“[…] the incident that happened to Livia caused her pleasure but inspired the rest with terror. A white bird carrying a sprig of fruited laurel had been thrown by an eagle into her lap. As this seemed to be a sign of no small importance, she took care of the bird and planted the laurel. The latter took root and grew, so that it amply supplied those who were afterward to celebrate triumphs; and Livia was destined to hold Caesar’s power in a fold of her robe and to dominate him in everything.” This story is confirmed by Pliny the Elder.

In 31 BC, on September 2, the battle of Actium decided Rome’s future and secured Octavian’s position as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. And in 27 BC, the title of Augustus was conferred on Octavian, who had previously adopted the name Gaius Julius Caesar after Caesar’s assassination as his adopted son. Livia was now the undisputed first lady of Rome. Given that Livia had already given birth to two healthy boys, Augustus had visions of having his own children by her. But to his great disappointment, Livia failed to bear any children, except for one miscarriage.

Livia was a healthy woman who lived to a ripe old age of eighty-six. There is no record of Livia ever being sick except for the one illness she suffered before her death. So why couldn’t she get pregnant again? The prevailing belief in this form of infertility was, as Pliny the Elder recorded, that some people are physically incompatible and incapable of having children with each other, but they are fertile with other people. He gives Augustus and Livia as examples. Secondary infertility caused by physical incompatibility is not backed by modern science, but genetic and immune incompatibility is. So, it is possible that Livia suffered from secondary infertility, but it is also equally possible that she took contraceptives.

Ancient cultures were not ignorant of contraceptives. An effective contraceptive used by both the Greeks and the Romans was drawn from the leaves of the plant silphium. According to Pliny the Elder, silphium was used to treat various illnesses, including purging the uterus of a dead fetus. He further says that it is given to females in wine and is used with soft wool as a pessary to promote menstrual discharge. It was also used in cooking.

Therefore, silphium would have been readily available to Livia, and she could have used it as a contraceptive without anyone knowing about it. It is possible that the miscarriage was self-induced and resulted from her taking silphium. Livia didn’t marry Augustus because she loved him and wanted children with him. She married him to elevate her son and herself to positions of power. Any biological son by Augustus would have certainly replaced Tiberius. Besides, this marriage was not of the kind that would have warmed up Livia’s heart to have children with Augustus.

Suetonius says that Livia was the one woman whom Augustus truly loved. And yet, he was never faithful to her. Augustus slept with a great number of women, all of whom were wives of prominent men. His excuse was that he wanted to learn from them what their husbands, presumably his enemies, were up to. Suetonius goes on to say that Mark Antony accused Augustus of hauling an ex-consul’s wife from her husband’s dining room into the bedroom before his eyes. And when he brought her back, says Antony, she was blushing to the ears and with her hair in disorder. This event would have taken place before the battle of Actium. We have no idea who the ex-consul was. It couldn’t have been Nero since he was never a consul.

We may reject this story as pure spite on the part of Mark Antony, but the following letter, which Suetonius mentions, cannot be dismissed as it was written before their fallout:

What has come over you? Do you object to my sleeping with Cleopatra? But we are married, and it is not even as though this were anything new – the affair started nine years ago. And what about you? Are you faithful to Livia Drucilla? My congratulations if, when the letter arrives, you have not been in bed with Tertullia, or Terentilla, or Rufilla or Salvia Titisenia or all of them. Does it really matter so much where or with whom you perform the sexual act?

According to Dio, Augustus had a great passion for Terentia, too, who was the wife of Maecenas, his closest friend. She was so beautiful that he once entered her into a beauty contest with Livia. Who won, we don’t know. What we do know is that he had to leave Rome for a while as there was much gossip about him and Terentia. Augustus’s womanizing ways did not wane even in his old age. According to Suetonius, he had a passion for deflowering girls, who were collected for him from every quarter, even by his wife. A woman who accommodates her husband’s lust for other women cannot be that interested in her husband, either sexually or emotionally.

Moreover, Livia was not the maternal type. Not a single source mentions that she was fond of her step-daughter, Julia, or her other step-grandchildren, except for one who died young. In the life of Caligula, Suetonius says that Germanicus and Agrippina had a son who was so beautiful that Livia made an effigy of him in the character of Cupid and put it in the Temple of Venus in the Capitol. Suetonius tells us that Augustus used to kiss it every time he entered the apartment. But one case of affection for a beautiful child is not proof that Livia was maternal. She even betrayed her son, Drusus, to Augustus.

When Drusus wrote a confidential letter to Tiberius, asking him that the two of them should convince Augustus to restore the Republic, Tiberius showed the letter to Augustus. It would be incredible if Tiberius did this on his own initiative, as Suetonius suggests. Tiberius loved his brother. When Drusus died, Tiberius brought his body from Germany to Italy, traveling all the way on foot before it. Tiberius would have only shown that letter to Augustus at Livia’s insistence. Restoration of the Republic would have robbed Tiberius of his destiny as emperor.

However, Tiberius’s path to the throne would be blocked by many obstacles that Livia was yet to remove. When Julia was fourteen, Augustus married her to her cousin, Marcellus, who was eighteen. The match was perfect. And Augustus was very fond of his nephew. According to Dio, Marcellus was given the right to sit in the Senate among the former praetors and the right to stand for consulship ten years earlier than the normal age, which was thirty-seven. Tiberius, who was a year younger than Marcellus, was given the right to stand for each office five years before the normal age.

Seneca describes Marcellus as a young man of keen intelligence and firm character, frugal and moderate in his desires to an extent which deserved special admiration in one so young and so wealthy, strong to endure labor, averse to indulgence, and able to bear whatever burden his uncle might choose to lay on him. And Paterculus describes him as a youth of excellent natural qualities, happy in temper and ability, and capable of filling the high station for which he was educated. In 23 BC Marcellus was at once elected aedile and Tiberius a quaestor.

According to Suetonius, Augustus’s affection for Marcellus was to such a degree that made Agrippa, his closest friend and general, jealous, so he went into retirement in Mitylene. There was also a rumor that he had a private dispute with Marcellus. However, this story might be an exaggeration, if not a fabrication. During the two years that Agrippa was away, he brought back from Parthia the standards that Crassus had lost at the Battle of Carrhae. Thus, it is more than likely that he was actually sent on a mission.

Unfortunately for Augustus, the marriage did not produce any children. Considering that Julia did not suffer from a fertility problem, we are left once again wondering why she didn’t get pregnant. It could be that she was too young. It could also be that the problem was with Marcellus. Or it could be that Livia had a hand in it. If Livia was using contraception herself, she could have easily given it to Julia without her knowing about it. Silphium could have been added to her food or wine or even given to her as a health drink.

In 23 BC, Augustus fell violently ill. Thinking that he would soon expire, Augustus put his affairs in order. Dio informs us that he gathered around him his officers and the most prominent senators and knights and spoke to them about matters of public policy. He gave Calpurnius Piso, his co-consul, the list of the forces and the records of the public revenues written in a book and handed his signet ring to Agrippa. To everyone’s surprise, he didn’t indicate a successor. Suetonius says that Augustus thought of restoring the Republic twice. The first time was after Antony’s defeat since he had accused him of being the only obstacle to such a change. The second time was when he fell gravely ill.

According to Dio, there was astonishment that he had not named Marcellus as his successor and instead had chosen Agrippa. Dio is of the opinion that Augustus might not have had enough confidence in the young man or wanted to restore people’s liberty. Though both suppositions have their merits, there could have been another reason for choosing Agrippa. The Senate might have viewed Augustus’s early death as an opportunity to restore the Republic, in which case Marcellus’s life might have been in danger. Thus, Agrippa was the only logical choice for a safe and bloodless transition from the Principate to the Republic.

In all events, Augustus did not die. His personal doctor, Antonius Musa, restored him to health. According to Dio, upon recovery, Augustus wanted to bring his will into the Senate with the intention of reading it aloud that he had chosen no successor to the Empire. However, this never took place because no one consented to it.

Who were the ones who did not consent to it? The senators? Or Livia? In her capacity as his adviser, she could have dissuaded him from doing it. Suetonius says that on reconsideration, Augustus decided not to divide the responsibilities of government among several hands as it would jeopardize not only his own life but the nation’s security too. Suetonius’s explanation is more accurate as it fits in with why Augustus did not choose a successor when he thought he was dying. Most likely, his death would have brought about another civil war if he had chosen a successor, and that successor would have been Marcellus, who was too young to control a hostile Senate. The ghost of the Republic was still hovering over Rome.

Shortly after his recovery, however, Marcellus supposedly fell to the same illness, but Musa failed to save him despite using the same treatment he had used on Augustus. Marcellus died at the age of twenty. His death devastated Augustus. Dio says that Augustus delivered a eulogy in the traditional manner, gave him a public burial, and placed his body in the tomb he was building. He also completed as a memorial to the young man the theatre whose foundations had already been laid by Julius Caesar and which was now named the theatre of Marcellus in his honor. He also gave orders that a golden image, a golden crown, and a curule chair should be carried into the theatre at the festival of the Roman Games and should be placed in the midst of the magistrate who officiated at these.

We are told that suspicion fell on Livia for Marcellus’s death. And we have to ask why. According to Seneca, Octavia raged against Livia with special fury over her son’s death. If we accept Seneca’s view, Octavia couldn’t endure her grief with grace the way Livia would do when she lost her son, Drusus, in 9 BC. Seneca tells us how Livia, not being allowed to receive Drusus’s last kiss and gather his last fond words from his dying lips, followed the remains of Drusus from Germany to Italy and all the way seeing the funeral pyres on the way and with each one her grief was renewed as though she lost him so many times. However, when she, at last, laid him in the tomb, she left her sorrow there with him and grieved no more. But she did not cease to make frequent mention of the name of her Drusus, to set up his portrait in all places, both public and private, and to speak of him and listen, while others spoke of him, with the greatest pleasure.

Different people deal differently with grief. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Seneca makes further claim that Octavia hated all mothers upon her son’s death. But this does not ring true. In the life of Mark Antony, Plutarch describes Octavia as a wonder of a woman. He further states that people viewed her as a woman who not only possessed beauty but also great dignity of character and good sense.

Octavia was never easily raised to anger. When Antony insulted her by sending her away when she arrived in Athens with supplies of clothes for Antony’s troops, pack animals, money, and presents for Antony’s staff and friends, she still remained faithful to him and prevented her brother from waging war against Antony on her account. In Rome, she still lived in Antony’s house and raised his children, not only theirs, but Fulvia’s too with truly noble devotion and generosity of the spirit, as Plutarch states, until he kicked her out. Later, she would raise Antony’s children by Cleopatra too.

If Octavia was raging against Livia, she must have had good reasons to do so and not just on account of the throne now being passed to Livia’s son, as Seneca claims. Julia was only sixteen and would remarry. It would be her son who would be heir to Augustus, not Tiberius.

Since we have no idea of the nature of Augustus’s illness, we can’t possibly know of Marcellus’s. Dio blames the unhealthy climate that plagued Rome for two years, during which time there was a high mortality rate. Thus, Marcellus’s death could have been nothing but the unfortunate result of an illness. However, Livia would have seen this as a piece of good fortune and wouldn’t have shed any tears over it. And that might have caused Octavia to rage against her. Livia was not grieving. And if Octavia had truly believed that the throne was going to be passed to Tiberius, then she wouldn’t have based that belief on Marcellus’s death alone.

If Octavia knew about the prophecies surrounding Tiberius, then she would have had a justifiable reason to rage against Livia. For regardless of who Julia would marry or how many sons she would produce, the ultimate successor to her brother would be Tiberius. It is difficult to believe that Augustus was unaware of these predictions. If he were, he certainly wouldn’t have been after seeing Octavia’s hostility towards Livia. He would’ve inquired about it, and Octavia would have informed him of the reason. And Augustus would have believed the prophecies as he was a highly superstitious man, so much so that once a year, he would dress in disguise and pose as a beggar because he had a dream that told him to perform it. Both Suetonius and Cassius Dio have recorded this story.

It is curious to note that Augustus was never fond of Tiberius despite him being a great general. It could be that those predictions unsettled him and made him dislike the man. Suetonius suggests that it was Tiberius’s dour personality that irritated Augustus. Perhaps. But the impact of the prophecies cannot be dismissed.

After Marcellus, Augustus had to find a husband for Julia. And he chose his best friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. According to Dio, since Augustus couldn’t devote all his time exclusively to Rome but wouldn’t dare to leave it without a head either, he judged Agrippa as the best choice to govern Rome in his absence. But to make his position more prestigious so he could govern people more easily, he decided to marry Julia to him.

Agrippa, however, was married to Marcella, Augustus’s niece. But Augustus managed to convince Octavia to let Agrippa marry Julia and Marcella to Iullus Antonius, the son of Mark Antony, whom she had raised. This solution, according to Dio, might have been partly on the advice of Maecenas, who remarked, ‘You have made Agrippa so powerful that he must either become your son-in-law or be killed.’

This anecdote need not be taken seriously. It could have been made in jest. The trio, Augustus, Agrippa, and Maecenas, were childhood friends. According to both Dio and Suetonius, Augustus was so trusting of both men that he gave them his signet ring so they could read his letters to the Senate and various officials and make whatever changes they saw fit. After the battle of Actium, Augustus bestowed upon Agrippa a golden crown adorned with beaks of ships, a decoration given to nobody before or since. And it was later ratified by a decree that at any time when someone celebrated a triumph, Agrippa would always wear the laurel crown. He also distinguished Agrippa with the dark blue symbol of naval supremacy.

Julia bore Agrippa five children: Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, Julia, Agrippina the Elder, and Agrippa Postumus. Augustus adopted Gaius and Lucius as his sons shortly after birth and appointed them as his successors to his office. In 12 BC, at the age of 52, on his return to Italy from the Pannonian campaign, Agrippa fell ill in Campania and died. According to Dio, Augustus was presenting some gladiatorial contests at the Panathenaic festival in the name of Agrippa’s sons when he learned of his condition. He left immediately for Campania, and there he found him dead. We are not told about the nature of his illness nor of its length, but it is safe to assume that he did not suffer from a prolonged illness and his death was sudden.

Dio says that Augustus felt Agrippa’s loss for a long time. It can never be known whether Livia played a part in his death, but she wouldn’t have mourned his death. It was just another stroke of good luck. If she had any doubt about all those predictions about Tiberius’s glorious future, those doubts were fast fading. Julia, a widow again with two small boys, who had a long way to go before reaching the throne, was the key. In Livia’s mind, the choice of husband for Julia was clear. It would have to be Tiberius. The throne was within the grasp of a Claudian, provided that Tiberius married Julia. However, Tiberius was married to Vipsania, the daughter of Marcus Agrippa, with whom he was very much in love. Moreover, he had a son with her, Drusus, and one was on the way. But to Livia, such things were only minor problems and easily resolved.

Once again, Augustus was faced with the dilemma of finding the right husband for Julia. Since he already had his heirs, he probably didn’t want to jeopardize Gaius and Lucius’s lives by choosing someone who had his eyes on the throne. As such, he wouldn’t have considered Tiberius for his daughter. Thus, he was looking for someone from a humbler station. According to Suetonius, he considered several matches from the equestrian order. But this would not have been acceptable to Livia.

As his adviser, Livia would have told him that he would need to marry Julia to someone who could be trusted and was experienced both in military and politics because he would need to fill Agrippa’s position. Augustus was old, and his grandsons, Gaius and Lucius, were too young at nine and seven, respectively, for official duties. She would have enumerated Tiberius’s impressive military and political achievements to convince him that the right match for Julia was Tiberius.

Dio tells us that it was with much reluctance that he chose Tiberius. His reluctance wouldn’t have been based purely on Tiberius’s dour disposition, as Suetonius suggests, but rather on the knowledge that Livia wanted him as his successor. However, there was little he could do. It is quite possible that Augustus was afraid that any rift or dissension in his family would play into the hands of his enemies who wanted to bring an end to his Principate and restore the Republic.

However, the marriage was catastrophic, and Tiberius decided to retire to Rhodes despite Livia’s pleas and Augustus’s open complaints to the Senate that this was an act of desertion. Augustus wouldn’t have been pleased by Tiberius’s sudden desertion of Rome, which meant the sudden desertion of his daughter too. But Tiberius would not be budged from his position. After a four-day hunger strike, he got permission to leave. Tiberius stayed in Rhodes for seven years, but after hearing that his wife was banished, he asked permission to return. According to Suetonius, he made it out that the sole object of his retirement was to avoid the suspicion of rivalry with Gaius and Lucius. Now that they were fully grown and acknowledged heirs of the throne, his reason for staying away from Rome was no longer valid. He had done nothing different from what Agrippa had done when he retired to Mitylene. Augustus rejected his request and refused to let him back to Rome.

Augustus would have had good reasons for being reluctant to let him back in. In the first place, he would have viewed Tiberius as a threat to Gaius and Lucius. In the second place, he might have held a grudge against him for what happened to Julia. Had Tiberius not abandoned her, she might not have gone astray and would have never suffered banishment. Tiberius had no choice but to stay in Rhodes and live as an exile now. Though, through his mother, he managed to obtain the title of Augustus’s lieutenant – legatus.

It may be argued that if Livia had so much power over Augustus, why couldn’t she secure his return? There could be a couple of reasons for this. Tiberius left Rome against Livia’s explicit wishes. It is possible that Livia wanted him to stew a while longer. Moreover, his return would serve no purpose as long as Gaius and Lucius were alive.

Tiberius’s anxieties increased when he went to Samos to visit Gaius, now governor of the East. Gaius and Lucius would have grown up resenting Tiberius as their stepfather. No doubt, Julia would not have said a single kind word to her sons about Tiberius. She had no reason to. And the boys would have seen Tiberius as the reason for their mother’s banishment. Thus, the reception Gaius gave him was a chilly one. However, Suetonius blames this on Marcus Lollius, Gaius’s companion and guide – comitis et rectoris eius.

Tiberius’s situation now grows worse, for he soon fell under suspicion when some of his own centurions returned from their leave and spread secret messages to some persons inciting them to revolt. Suetonius states that when Augustus informed Tiberius of this, he begged Augustus to send responsible men of whatever rank to spy on him in everything he did and spoke.

Tiberius continued living as an exile for another two years and became the object of odium. Suetonius tells us that the people of Nismes pulled down all his images and statues in their town. On another occasion, a companion of Gaius said that he would sail over to Rhodes immediately, if Gaius so desired, and bring him the head of the exile. For he was now given the name exile.

Tiberius would have found his situation intolerable as his life might have been in serious danger. He sent urgent messages to his mother to convince Augustus to let him return to Rome. Augustus decided to consult Gaius instead, for he would not let Tiberius back without Gaius’s consent. According to Suetonius, Gaius agreed but on the condition that Tiberius should take no part whatsoever in administrative affairs. Gaius’s demands would not have gone down well with Livia and Tiberius. And it clearly shows that Gaius knew that Tiberius wanted the throne.

Tiberius returned from exile in AD 2, the same year that Lucius died. He died suddenly from an illness. He was nineteen. Two years later, Gaius succumbs to an illness as a result of a wound. According to Dio, Gaius did not enjoy strong health in the first place, and this affected his mental activity, and this illness weakened his faculties still further. In the end, he begged for leave to retire into private life, and it was his intention to settle somewhere in Syria. Augustus was highly distressed and urged him to return to Italy. So, Gaius immediately resigned all his duties and sailed in a cargo vessel to Lycia, and there he died in AD 4 at the age of twenty-four. Not surprisingly, Dio says the suspicion fell on Livia.

We may assume that this was nothing but another stroke of bad luck for Augustus and good luck for Livia. Gaius had a weak constitution and didn’t want to be heir to Augustus. The same Gaius who demanded that Tiberius must not take part in matters of the state. More peculiar is that he didn’t even want to return to Italy but wanted to go and live somewhere in Syria in private. In effect, he wanted to live like an exile. This is highly strange, though we are told that his mental faculties were affected due to his illness which might explain this bizarre request, so perhaps he was not of sound mind when he asked for this. At any rate, Augustus had other ideas and wanted him in Rome, but Gaius never made it to Rome.

Are we really to believe that fortune so favored Tiberius that it killed off every single heir to Augustus so he could succeed him as the next emperor? Gaius might have had a weak constitution, but so did Augustus, who lived into his seventies. Augustus spent half his life in bed sick. And if Gaius suffered from a weak constitution, was it by design or bad luck? Julia was a healthy young woman. Agrippa seemed to have been of excellent health until he died mysteriously of an illness. Julia’s youngest son, Postumus, is described as a brute physically. No doubt he had taken after his father.

Agrippa took his wife and children with him everywhere; thus, Livia’s hands couldn’t reach them, but this was not the case with Gaius and Lucius since Augustus adopted them when young and raised them. Of the five children Julia bore to Agrippa, only Gaius and Lucius suffered from a weak constitution and died young. Is it possible that Gaius and Lucius were given poison to weaken them physically since childhood? Livia could have given them some concoctions supposedly to strengthen them but in secret to weaken them. And we can never know of what illness Lucius died since there is no mention of the nature of the illness from which he died, only that he died at the age of nineteen on his way to the Spanish armies.

While we can leave Gaius and Lucius’s deaths unresolved, the death of the next heir to the throne cannot be ignored. With Gaius and Lucius dead, Augustus adopted forty-six-year-old Tiberius and fifteen-year-old Postumus in AD 4. Tiberius was now heir apparent. He was paraded through all the armies as Augustus’s adopted son and colleague. Tacitus states that no longer was this due to his mother’s secret machination as previously, but this time she openly requested it. Tacitus further says that Liva had the aged Augustus – he was sixty-seven – firmly under control, so much so that he exiled his only surviving grandson to the island of Planasia.

In part three of Women of the Empire, the death of Augustus, the murder of Agrippa Postumus, and the relationship between Livia and her son, Tiberius, will be examined.

About the author

Raven Kamali is a multi-genre novelist and poet with a degree in Ancient History and Latin. She also writes historical essays on ancient Rome.

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