period makeups: Livia Drusilla

L’inchiesta
Imperium: Augustus
The Caesars

Ancient Roman period makeups: Livia Drusilla

Livia Drusilla (58 BCE–29 CE) was the first Roman empress as the third wife of the Emperor Augustus. She was the mother of Tiberius, grandmother of Claudius, great-grandmother of Caligula, and great-great grandmother of Nero. She was deified by Claudius who confirmed her title of Augusta.

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar both her father and her then husband fought against Octavian in the civil war and the family was forced to flee to Italy returning only after a general amnesty was granted by the victorious Octavian. She was introduced to Octavian in 39 BCE and they were married shortly after – as soon as their respective spouses had been divorced. While the legend is of love at first sight, the importance of the patrician Claudii to Octavian’s cause, and the political survival of the Livia’s family are probably more rational explanations for the union. Nevertheless, Livia and Octavian remained married for the next fifty-one years, despite the fact that they had no children apart from a single miscarriage. She always enjoyed the status of privileged counselor to her husband, petitioning him on the behalf of others and influencing his policies, an unusual role for a Roman wife in a culture dominated by the paterfamilias, and she even enjoyed the unprecedented honour of ruling her own finances.

Livia used her influence to advance the career of her son Tiberius who was eventually adopted and named heir by Augustus – the Senate had awarded Octavian the honorific Augustus in 27 BCE. She also plotted against her step-daughter Julia’s family and ruined them. Tacitus in his Annals depicts Livia as having great influence that she ‘had the aged Augustus firmly under control – so much so that he exiled his only surviving grandson’. When Augustus died in 14 CE he left one third of his property to Livia, granted her the honorific title of Augusta, and adopted her into the Julian family, thus turning her into a patrician. This allowed Livia to maintain her status and power after his death under the new name of Julia Augusta.

While reporting various unsavoury titbits of hearsay – including the famous story that Livia poisoned Augustus with fresh figs – the ancient sources generally portray Livia as a woman of proud and queenly attributes, faithful to her imperial husband, for whom she was a worthy consort, forever poised and dignified. But the image that sticks is that of the macchiavelian, scheming political mastermind that Robert Graves presented in I, Claudius.