Frederic Raphael

The woman behind the god

The emperor Augustus was the original god/father.

The woman behind the god
Text settings

Empress of Rome

Matthew Dennison

Quercus, pp. 320, £

The emperor Augustus was the original god/father. Julius Caesar was often referred to as ‘the divine Julius’, but his nephew (and adopted son) was the first Roman to have temples dedicated to him in his lifetime. If uncle Julius had died a natural death, or in some brave battle, the Roman upper class would never have suffered the decimation (and then some) which Caesar’s ‘son’ and heir visited upon it under the rubric of vengeful piety.

His last and greatest enemies had had nothing to do with Caesar’s death. Mark Antony had been Julius’s number two and was actually Octavian’s brother-in-law; Cleopatra had been his uncle’s most passionate love. After their deaths, following the battle of Actium in 31 BC, the 28-year-old last man standing had the Roman ruling class at his mercy.

He also had an empire to re-organise. His use of supreme authority could never be as ruthless as its acquisition. Having bled the old aristocracy almost white, he had to reconcile himself to it in order to preserve the official continuities which kept the plebs in their place and the provinces under tribute. One of his first gambits was to divorce his wife, Scribonia, and to embed himself in a classier clan, that of Livia Drusilla, the beautiful 19-year-old wife of the disgraced Tiberius Claudius Nero. Both women were pregnant (Scribonia bore Augustus’s only child, Julia, on the very day of the divorce); neither demurred.

Lust and calculation can scarcely be distinguished in the man who later consented to be a god, at least among provincials. Livia was not only a beauty with an enviable pedigree; she already had two sons, Drusus — her favourite, who died when a young man — and Tiberius. For a long time an outsider among imperial candidates, the latter would come through a field of fallers to succeed Augustus.

By that time, almost 50 years later, Augustus and Livia had been transformed, by artful propaganda, into the ideal Roman couple. A by-word for fidelity (of which no one ever accused her husband), Livia was the very instance of the conjugal proprieties to which Augustus sought to rally the aristocracy. She wore her hair in a matronly nodus (bun) and her austere clothes were woven on her own loom, which is described by Matthew Dennison as ‘a nimble monolith’.

Despite her long-running and flawless performance as the consort of an unprincipled princeps, or perhaps because of it, Livia has not received a good press. Tacitus (who rarely has a good word for anyone) described her as ‘a curse to the state and a blight on the house of the Caesars’. The great Ronald Syme is scathingly terse in his estimate of her qualities. Robert Graves’ fiction — following the anecdotal Suetonius — turned Livia into the manipulative witch impersonated by Sian Phillips in the 1976 television series I, Claudius. Dennison’s entertainingly brisk biography comes gallantly to the rescue of a lady whose finger-prints have been found, or planted, on the scene of all manner of suspicious deaths.

Having failed Augustus only by the sterility of their marriage, for which she cannot be blamed, the abiding charge is that Livia did everything in her power to rig the succession for her capable but sullen surviving son. Meanwhile, the emperor’s daughter Julia conducted a one-woman rebellion against all the proprieties which her father imposed on the state: she was flagrantly promiscuous and she hung out with the wrong set.

Augustus married her off, three times, for his own political purposes, but she revelled in being the woman her step- mother was not. Her third husband, Tiberius, had been very happily married to Vipsania, the daughter of Augustus’ leg-man Agrippa, when Augustus insisted on their betrothal. Can Livia really be acquitted of at least eager complicity with the emperor’s heartless promotion of her son? Soon afterwards, Julia was involved in the mysterious affair which led to her (and Ovid’s) abrupt dismissal into exile. Tiberius’s misanthropy, like his angry modesty, had ample motive, but he remained in pole position.

Dennison argues that Livia’s devious reputation derives exclusively from circumstantial evidence. Although Tiberius alone survived, from a field of much more personable imperial prospects (including the disgraced Julia’s three sons), he still believes that historians have concluded wrongly, post haec ergo propter hanc, that Livia procured their deaths. We are promised repeatedly that there is no evidence for this or that allegation, but it is difficult to imagine what kind of proof would convince Livia’s defender that she was indeed the first of a series of manipulative imperial viragos.

The most flagrant instance came later, in the alarming form of Nero’s mother Agrippina, but can Livia have been quite as serenely virtuous as she is presented here? She was Augustus’s confidante, adviser and accomplice throughout his reign. Not only did he procure her the title of Augusta (and the unprecedented right to be escorted by a lictor), he also adopted her as his daughter — and graced her with the name Julia — so that her position would be secure after his death. Augustus was at pains to have them seen (even on late coinage) as an exemplary patrician couple, almost as marmoreal as the Rome he left behind, but he and Livia were, in some respects, more like oriental tyrants than antique Romans. And the form of marriage typically favoured by tyrants was incest, between brother and sister. Like Mausolus and Artemisia in fourth-century Caria, Livia and Augustus trusted each other as they could trust no one else. She supplied what Catullus had craved, in vain, from his great love, Clodia Metelli: amicitia, not so much friendship as an unbreachable alliance.

Dennison ignores the emperor’s dying words, in which he hoped that he had given a good performance and deserved good notices. As an impresario, he had supplemented the usual bread and circuses with orchestrated solemnities such as the Carmen Saeculare which, as Stuart Lyons shows in his admirably detailed monograph, Music in the Odes of Horace, offered pious backing to Augustus’s ‘coup d’etat permanent’. Politics and national theatre had merged under a majestic actor-manager and the prima donna who outlasted him by 15 years.