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Women of the Empire – Livia Drucilla
Raven Kamali

Suetonius describes Agrippa Postumus as vulgar and brutal but does not provide an example of his brutality. Tacitus describes Postumus as physically tough, indeed brutish, and devoid of every good quality, but says that he had not been involved in any scandal. So, he probably resembled his father physically since Agrippa was also tough-looking. Dio says that he was violent towards Livia and often blamed Augustus for withholding from him his inheritance from his father.

Was Postumus aware that upon adoption, his inheritance would come under the control of his adopted father? It would be incredible if he didn’t know, for that was the law. Perhaps he was angry that now with no money, he wouldn’t be able to mount a successful opposition if such an undertaking was deemed necessary. But why was he violent towards Livia? We know of what he accused Augustus, but what about Livia? Of what did he accuse her?

Dio tells us that Augustus sent out Germanicus to take command of the eight legions of the Rhine and not Postumus because the latter possessed a disposition that was unfit for command as he spent most of his time fishing. The very reason for which he dubbed himself Neptune. Germanicus took command of the armies of the Rhine in AD 13 at the age of twenty-eight. Postumus was sent to exile in AD 7. How could he possibly take command of any armies when he was in exile? Moreover, Germanicus was four years older than Postumus and had military experience.

Tacitus says that Augustus placed Germanicus in command of the eight armies of the Rhine and ordered Tiberius to adopt him, even though Tiberius had an adult son. This clearly shows that Augustus preferred Germanicus to Tiberius but was forced to name Tiberius as his successor due to pressure from Livia, emphasizing Tiberius’s seniority and experience in political and military affairs.

Much is made of Postumus’s appearance as if he had any control over it. He has received hostile treatment by both ancient and modern historians over his appearance and conduct. But in reality, he would have looked completely different from how he has been portrayed. Julia was quite a beautiful woman. Agrippa was not ugly either. There is no mention of Gaius or Lucius not being handsome. And Agrippina the Elder was also beautiful. Postumus would not have looked any different from them. However, given that much is made of his body being tough, he must have had a solid and athletic body just like his father. Agrippa’s statues and busts show a physically strong man.

In AD 7, when Postumus was eighteen, he was exiled to Surrentum, then to Planasia in permanent exile under military guard. Are we to believe that a supposedly tough-looking vulgar youth, who spent most of his time in harmless fishing activity with no ambition for military glory, was sent to permanent exile under military guard for no serious offense other than insulting Livia?

Postumus was Julia’s youngest son and probably the most neglected. His father died before he was born, and his mother, who would have been neglectful of him, was sent to exile when he was nine. His elder brothers, Gaius and Lucius, were the adopted sons of Augustus and were given royal treatment. Augustus was tutoring them himself. Suetonius informs us that he gave them reading and swimming lessons. Augustus even wanted them to model his handwriting. He had them sit at his feet whenever they dined in his company. They were being groomed to take over the government after his passing. With no father, Postumus wasn’t being trained for anything. Perhaps this was the reason he spent his time fishing. According to Dio, Agrippa Postumus was enrolled among the youths of military age at the age of seventeen but was not granted any of the same privileges as his brothers. One has to wonder if he received any military training whatsoever.

Moreover, Postumus would have grown up with all the gossip circulating Livia and how she had a hand in killing even his father. When his brothers died so suddenly, he would have become most definitely suspicious of Livia. Perhaps this was the reason for his anger towards her. We are not told why he was angry with Livia. It is doubtful that Augustus, on his own volition, would have sent Postumus, his only surviving grandson, to exile, particularly one so young. Livia would have filled his ears with all sorts of nonsense about Postumus, using even his nickname, Neptune, against him that he was going to raise a revolt against Augustus.

Augustus granted Marcus Agrippa the right to fly a blue ensign in recognition of his naval victory in Sicily when he defeated Sextus. Did Postumus entertain any idea of a revolt? Perhaps. But not against his aging grandfather. It would have been against Tiberius. And Livia must have suspected that too. It wouldn’t have been wise to allow Augustus’s only surviving grandchild to remain free when she knew that Augustus was not fond of Tiberius. Augustus could change his mind at any time. After all, Postumus was not convicted of any offensive crime other than rudeness towards Livia. Postumus might have been just an idle youth, but perhaps he would have taken a greater interest in military and political affairs when he was older.

According to Tacitus, a few months before his death, Augustus visited his grandson, accompanied by one person, Fabius Maximus. Augustus confided his planned visit to no one but a few chosen friends. We are told there was such a tearful display of affection from both sides that the young man seemed very likely to be received back into the home of his grandfather. Why suddenly, after seven years, Augustus chose to visit his grandson, we will never know. Perhaps it was because those few chosen friends were the ones who convinced him to reconcile with his only grandson. Or maybe Augustus by himself finally learned that Livia might have had a hand in killing his heirs. We do not know, and we can never know.

Unfortunately, Maximus revealed this secret meeting between Augustus and Postumus to his wife, Marcia, who told Livia about it. Shortly after, Maximus dies, presumably by his own hands. At the funeral, his wife, sobbing, was heard to reproach herself for being the cause of her husband’s destruction.

If this story is true, and there is no reason to believe that it is not, then Livia was the one who forced Maximus to commit suicide, and now she would have no choice but to go after Augustus too. If he were to be reunited with his grandson, he would change his will and nominate Germanicus as his successor and have him adopt Postumus as his son. Postumus did not have the necessary training to be his immediate successor, but under Germanicus, he would learn. According to Dio, Livia smeared poison on some figs that were still ripening on trees from which Augustus used to pick with his own hand. She then ate those that were not smeared and gave the poisoned ones to Augustus.

One might ask if Augustus changed his mind about Postumus, why didn’t he act sooner and bring Postumus back from exile and change his will. It may be that Maximus’s suicide was a harsh reminder to Augustus that his life was in danger and the matter required careful handling. If that were the case, he wouldn’t have done anything until he had more time to deal with the situation.

Suetonius does not mention the story of the poisoned fig or Augustus’s visit with Postumus. The following is a summary of Suetonius’s account of Augustus’s death:

“When Augustus dispatched Tiberius to Illyricum, he planned to go with him as far as Beneventum. However, he was detained by several persons who applied to him with a long list of cases, at which point he cried out: ‘Not all the business in the world shall detain me at home one moment longer.’ This comment was regarded afterward as an omen for his death. He then set out upon his journey and went as far as Astura, whence, contrary to his custom, he put to sea at night, as there was a favorable wind. His malady proceeded from diarrhea – profluvio alvi. After coasting past Campania and the adjacent islands, he spent four days in his villa on Capri, where he rested.

“He then sailed through the Gulf of Puteoli where he encountered the passengers and the marines aboard an Alexandrin ship, all clad in white, with chaplets upon their heads, and offering incense, loading him with praises and joyful acclamations which greatly pleased him. He spent several days in their company. Back at Capri again for a few days, he distributed gifts and attended the boys’ gymnastics. He also invited these young men to a banquet at which he presided and indulged himself in all manners of amusement he could contrive. He next crossed over to Neapolis, where he sat and watched the gymnastic games performed in his honor every five years while his stomach disorder worsened. Finally, he started off with Tiberius and said goodbye to him at Beneventum.

“Feeling worse on his return, he took to bed at Nola and sent for Tiberius. Tiberius returned, and they spent a whole day together in private talks. Upon the day of his death, he now and then enquired if there were any disturbances in the town on his account. He then called for a mirror and ordered his hair to be combed and his lower jaw propped up. Then asked his friends who were admitted into the room, ‘Have I played my part in this farce of life credibly enough? If I have, applaud, please.’

“He then dismissed them all and saw new visitors arriving from Rome and inquired about Drusus’s daughter, who was in a bad state of health. He then expired suddenly amidst kisses of Livia with these words: ‘Livia, live mindful of our union and now farewell.’ Augustus died in Nola at 3 pm on August 19 during the consulships of Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Appuleius (AD 14).”

Several questions need to be asked regarding this version. Why did Augustus want to accompany Tiberius to Beneventum and say goodbye to him? Tiberius was fifty-six, and this was not his first command. Thus, it would hardly require his “father” to accompany him to Beneventum. Could it be that Livia contrived this trip to get Augustus away from Rome? And why was he not accompanied by his physician? Among his companions, there was Tiberius’s astrologer, Thrasyllus, with whom Augustus quipped about the Land-of-Do-nothings referring to the residential area of Capri. But no doctor.

We don’t even know of what illness he died. Diarrhea is caused by a lack of sanitation and unsafe water or bad food. However, if Augustus were living under such poor living conditions, which is not likely, then the people around him would have gotten sick too. Certainly, Livia would have. Dehydration also could have killed him. But Augustus wouldn’t have suffered from lack of water either. We do not know of what other symptoms Augustus suffered, but we do know that induced diarrhea can kill. Emperor Nero killed his aunt by giving her excessive laxatives.

Moreover, are we to believe that an old man suffering from a bad bout of diarrhea is sailing around for several days, enjoying himself with various sporting entertainments? And then, on his deathbed, he has enough energy to spend a whole day with Tiberius in private talks? And how did Tiberius get there so quickly? And if Tiberius could travel that fast, why didn’t Livia get a doctor for him just as fast? This marvelous piece of fiction is only surpassed by Paterculus, who says that Augustus hastily recalled his son, Tiberius, who hurried back to the father of his country and arrived earlier than was expected. Augustus then declared that his mind was at ease. He was even revived a little at the sight of Tiberius. And then he died in his embrace.

Dio says that his death was not made public immediately because Tiberius was still in Dalmatia. And Livia concealed the news until he arrived back since she feared that there might be an uprising. Dio further states that his accounts are given by most writers, including the most trustworthy ones.

Tacitus provides us with the most credible account of Augustus’s death. According to him, Tiberius had hardly set foot in Illyricum when he was recalled by an urgent letter from his mother. And he says that it is not known that when he got to Nola, whether Augustus was alive or dead, for Livia had enclosed both the house and the streets with guards while hopeful notices were published at intervals.

It would have been unwise to announce Augustus’s death before Tiberius’s arrival. As Tacitus points out, Livia would have known that the senators were divided on the matter of succession and even monarchy itself, which also makes the whole story of visitors all the more implausible. If Augustus had any visitors, the news of his death would have reached Rome before Tiberius could get there, giving opportunity for those who wanted a change in the government to act quickly. And Tiberius did not announce Augustus’s death until Postumus was eliminated.

According to Tacitus, the opening crime of the new Principate was the murder of Agrippa Postumus, who was without guard or weapons and thus easily dispatched by a resolute centurion. In the Senate, Tiberius made no reference to the subject. He pretended that it was an order from his father, instructing the tribune in charge to lose no time in making away with his prisoner once he himself was dead. All modern historians agree that this was done by Augustus’s order. But is that true?

Tacitus says that while it was beyond question that by his frequent and bitter strictures on the youth’s character, Augustus had procured the senatorial decree for his exile, at no time did he harden his heart to the killing of a relative. And it remained incredible that he should have sacrificed the life of a grandchild to diminish the anxieties of a stepson. Tacitus suggests that more probably, Tiberius and Livia, actuated in the one case by fear, and in the other by stepmotherly dislike, hurriedly procured the murder of a youth whom they suspected and detested.

Livia’s dislike of Postumus would have been more than just a stepmotherly dislike. Leaving Postumus alive was not a wise decision to make. Postumus was the biological grandson of Augustus. After his grandfather’s death, Postumus would not be sitting idle, and he would have had his supporters. After all, an attempt was made by two people to rescue him and his mother when Augustus was alive.

According to Suetonius, Asinius Epicadus and Lucius Audasius planned to rescue Julia and Postumus and take them to the legions abroad. Audasius, whom Suetonius describes as a feeble old man who had been indicted for forgery, was also part of a plot to kill Augustus. So, there is every reason to believe that he would have mounted a challenge to Tiberius. And Tiberius’s position was far from secure. One reason for his dilatory acceptance of his position as emperor.

The events following the execution, as described by Tacitus, give weight to Livia and Tiberius being behind the murder. When the centurion reported in a military fashion that he had carried out his order, Tiberius answered that he had given no orders and that what had been done would have to be accounted for in the Senate. This came to the notice of Tiberius’s confidant, Gaius Sallustius Crispus. It was he who had sent instructions to the tribune, and he was afraid that telling the truth or lying would be equally risky. So, he warned Livia that palace secrets, and the advice of friends, and services performed by the army, were best undivulged, and Tiberius must not weaken the throne by referring everything to the Senate. The whole point of autocracy, Crispus observed, is that the accounts will not come right unless the ruler is their only auditor. This story is rather revealing, for it suggests that there could have been a faction in Augustus’s court that was loyal to the Claudii and not the Julii.

According to Dio, Tiberius sent someone from Nola and had Postumus killed at once. Yet he declared this had not been done by his orders, and he threatened the perpetrator of the deed. Instead of punishing him, however, he allowed men to invent versions of the affair, some to the effect that Augustus had put him out of the way just before his death, others that the centurion, who was guarding him, slew him on his own responsibility for some revolutionary dealings, others that Livia and not Tiberius had ordered his death.

According to Suetonius, Tiberius did not make the death of Augustus public until he had taken off young Postumus. He was slain by a military tribune, who was appointed to guard him, after receiving a written order. Suetonius continues that doubt remained whether the order was left by Augustus to be acted upon after he died or whether Livia issued it in the name of Augustus with or without Tiberius’s knowledge. When the tribune came to inform Tiberius that he had executed his command, he replied, ‘I commanded you no such thing, and you must answer for it to the senate,’ avoiding, as it seems, the odium of the act for that crime. And the affair was soon buried in silence.

Augustus’s will was then brought in and read aloud by a freedman. All senators present who had witnessed the document being first to be called upon to acknowledge the seals. Witnesses of lower rank did the same outside the House. The will thus began: Since my ill-fortune has deprived me of my two sons, Gaius and Lucius, let Tiberius Caesar be heir to two-thirds of my estate. These words caused the suspicion of those who were of the opinion that Tiberius was appointed successor more out of necessity than choice since Augustus could not refrain from prefacing his will in that manner.

In the will, Livia was adopted into the Julian family and named Julia Augusta. If Livia thought she could hold her former power and influence over Tiberius the way she had done with Augustus, she was sorely mistaken. Tiberius complained that his mother irritated him for wanting to become a co-ruler of the Empire. He was so offended when the Senate proposed that the title of “Son of Livia” also be added to “Son of Augustus” that he personally vetoed it and would not allow titles like “Mother of the Country” or “Parent of the Country” be conferred on her.

According to Suetonius, while occasionally Tiberius sought Livia’s advice, he avoided frequent and extended visits with her. He even warned her that she was a woman and must not interfere with affairs of the state. He became even more insistent on this point when on one particular occasion, when a fire broke out near the Temple of Vesta, Livia was out there directing people and soldiers to do their best to put the fire out as though Augustus was in power. It is important to note that according to Dio, Augustus granted both Octavia and Livia the right to administer their own affairs without the need of a male guardian and enjoy the same security and inviolability as tribunes did.

Suetonius tells us that Tiberius quarreled with his mother openly and frequently. Once when she urged him to place among the judges a person who had been granted citizenship, he refused her request, unless she would allow it to be inscribed on the roll, That the appointment had been extorted from him by his mother. Enraged at this, Livia showed Tiberius unflattering letters Augustus had written, complaining about Tiberius’s sourness and stubborn character. It was said that this act of spite by Livia might have been the main reason for Tiberius retiring to Capri.

After this explosive row, Tiberius only once visited Livia for a brief hour or two, and that was three years before she died. When Livia fell ill shortly before she died, he was quite unconcerned about it and did not make any effort to see her. And when she died, Tiberius allowed Livia’s corpse to remain in a state of decay for several days before sending for it to be buried but did not attend the funeral. He also vetoed her deification on the pretence that she herself had forbidden it. He also annulled her will and began taking revenge on all her friends and confidants, sparing not even those whom, on her deathbed, she had appointed to take charge of her funeral rites. He went so far as to condemn one of them, a man of equestrian rank, to the treadmill.

It is important to ask why Tiberius hated his mother so much. Was it because he knew that he would have never become emperor without her machination? A fact Livia never hid. The following is what Dio says about Livia and Tiberius:

“Livia occupied a position of great prominence, far above all women of former times, so that she could at any time receive the Senate and such of the people as so wished to greet her in her house. This was also inscribed in the public records. The letters of Tiberius bore for a time her name also and were written by both with equal authority. Except that she never ventured to enter the Senate or the camps or the public assemblies, she undertook to manage everything like a sole ruler. In the time of Augustus, she had great influence, and she declared that it was she who made Tiberius emperor.

“Consequently, she was not satisfied to rule on equal terms with him but wished to assert superiority over him. In this way, many measures out of the ordinary were introduced, and many persons voted that she should be called Mother of her Country, many others that she should be termed Parent. Others proposed that Tiberius should receive his name from her, that just as the Greeks were called by their father’s name, he should be called by his mother’s. This vexed him, and he neither ratified the honors voted her (save a very few) nor allowed her any further unusual freedom of action. For instance, she had once dedicated in her house an image to Augustus and in honor of the event wished to entertain the Senate and the knights together with their wives, but he would not grant her permission to carry out any part of this program until the Senate had voted it, and not even then to receive the men at dinner. Instead, he entertained the latter, and she attended to the women. Finally, he removed her entirely from the public sphere, allowing her to direct affairs within doors; then, as she was troublesome even in this capacity, he proceeded to absent himself from the City and avoided her in every way possible. It was chiefly on her account that he removed to Capri.”

Livia died on September 28, AD 29. She was given divine honors by her grandson, Claudius, upon becoming emperor, even though she used to treat him with the deepest scorn and seldom addressed him personally.

In part four of Women of the Empire, the life of Julia the Elder, daughter of Augustus, 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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