Roman history is bursting with political strife, shocking scandals, and epic battles—and the life of the first Roman Empress Livia Drusilla is no exception. Consumed by ambition, she followed a treacherous path to glory, crushing her loved ones along the way. Although her beauty won her favor with the emperor, the cunning empress' fine features hid a chilling dark side.
Livia Drusilla was born in 59 BC in Italy. Her father, Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, was part of both the Livii and the Claudii families, two influential and highly respected lineages. Livia would grow up immersed in the prestige and privilege of these influential families—but her easy life wouldn't last forever. With conflict looming on the horizon and fraught alliances, fate propelled Livia down a path she never could have imagined.
In approximately 43 BC, when Livia was only about 16, her life changed dramatically when her father arranged her first marriage. But her new husband wasn’t a stranger. Her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero was the groom and also happened to be about 40 years old. Not exactly a teenager’s dream wedding. Soon, however, the motivations behind this union became startlingly clear—and they had nothing to do with love.
It didn’t matter to Livia’s father whether she loved her new husband; her father had his own reasons for marrying Livia to her cousin. As a member of the ruling class, Nero had political power, and the marriage would bring together and strengthen two influential family ancestries. It was a recipe for disaster. Before long, this two-year marriage found itself drowning in turmoil.
After Livia entered into this tumultuous union, she soon became pregnant with her first child. Sadly, horrors raged on behind the scenes. After the downfall of Julius Caesar, chaos erupted. Livia and her husband found themselves caught in the middle of an ever-growing conflict. Livia’s father and husband supported the slayers of Caesar, choosing to fight against the army of Marc Antony and Octavian.
But, the fight was about to become even more complicated and dangerous for Livia herself.
As the civil conflict raged on, Livia’s father and husband faced a disheartening realization: They were not on the winning side. This left the very pregnant Livia in extreme danger, fearing for her own life as well as her unborn child. In 42 BC, surrounded by chaos, Livia suffered through a mother’s nightmare and went into labor. Fortunately, she managed to safely give birth to her son Tiberius despite the terrifying circumstances.
But an unimaginable loss would soon overshadow the joy of welcoming her first child.
The same year Livia gave birth, the armies of Marc Antony finally crushed her family’s side at the Battle of Philippi. The consequences wreaked havoc: Realizing his fate, Livia’s father took his own life. Filled with despair at the loss of her father and desperate to protect her new baby, Livia and her husband faced another difficult choice.
Liva had no choice but to follow her husband into a future of uncertainty. When Marc Antony began squabbling with his ally Octavian, Tiberius joined Antony. Fearing Octavian’s wrath, Livia and Nero fled with their small child and eventually settled in Greece. After all the hardships they'd already endured, this was their biggest risk yet.
Civil conflicts can last years, and Livia's decision to flee with her young child could have gone horribly wrong. Fortunately, within a few years, Octavian and Anthony struck a tentative truce. In August of 39 BC, the now-pregnant Livia and her family were able to escape exile and return to their lives in Rome. But soon after she made it home, Livia became embroiled in a shocking betrayal.
Shortly after Livia and her family returned to Rome, she met Octavian for the first time. Struck by her poise and beauty, Octavian immediately fell in love with her, unconcerned about his current marriage to his wife, Scribonia. He wanted nothing more to have Livia all to himself—but someone stood between Octavian and his new infatuation.
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It was no secret that sparks were flying between Octavian and Livia. Still, Livia's marriage effectively trapped her between two lovers...Then the unthinkable happened: Livia’s husband abruptly chose to divorce her. Whether he did so at Octavian’s urging or by choice is still up for debate. Either way, Tiberius Nero wasn’t in any position to refuse the more powerful Octavian.
But despite the convenient elimination of Livia's husband, getting married would prove more difficult than Octavian and Livia anticipated.
Unfortunately for the new lovebirds, Livia's marriage to Nero wasn't the only hurdle to clear. Livia was also pregnant with Nero’s child when she met Octavian. Just before turning 20, Livia gave birth to her second son Drusus. and it seemed like she could finally pursue her new paramour freely. She wanted to marry Octavian—but there was still one big problem standing in their way.
Much like his new love interest, Livia, Octavian was also trapped by circumstance. At the time he met Livia, his wife Scribonia was also pregnant. Did he care? Not one bit. Octavian waited long enough for his new daughter to be born before callously divorcing Scribonia. As insensitive as their behavior was, Livia and Octavian’s wedding proved to be the strangest debacle of all.
Tiberius Nero seemed to have accepted losing his wife to Octavian, or at least buried any feelings of animosity out of sight. He even agreed to participate as an important member of the wedding ceremony. Since Livia’s father was gone, Nero acted as Livia’s father during the ceremony, giving his ex-wife away to her new husband. Considering the strange circumstances surrounding Livia and Octavian’s marriage, it may seem ill-conceived. But the benefits of this messy union soon became clear.
Livia and Octavian’s marriage may have appeared spontaneous, but both had something to gain from their new partnership. Beyond his physical infatuation with Livia, Octavian gained an illustrious family connection, thus consolidating his claim to power. Livia, on the other hand, was already a member of a prestigious family line–so what else did she need?
Livia wasn't about to say no to more wealth and status—but her motives for marrying Octavian were far more complicated than they seemed.
Livia and Octavian’s union was definitely strategic, but their reasons for marrying ran much deeper than politics and wealth. They had genuine feelings for each other. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Livia was Octavian’s true love, despite having two wives before Livia and many affairs during his marriage to her. Livia and Octavian remained married for over fifty years.
This was more than a marriage of convenience, it was one based on genuine love. It seemed like a real "happily ever after"—but lurking in the shadows, tragedy lay in wait.
Livia had two children with her ex-husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero. But despite their best efforts, she and Octavian could not cheat their destiny. While she did become pregnant once, Livia met heartbreak when her child arrived stillborn. Though they continued to try, their lost baby was their only chance. However, even without children of their own, Livia became irreplaceable to Octavian in many other ways.
In 27 BC, the couple embarked on their biggest adventure yet. About 10 years into Livia and Octavian’s marriage, Octavian received the title of Augustus and officially became the Emperor of Rome. Although Livia already had significant influence, the elevation of her husband’s status catapulted her to new heights as the powerful first Empress of Rome.
Of course, power doesn’t come without problems. But in Livia's case, some of these "problems" worked in her favor.
As Emperor, Augustus now found himself in a powerful yet perilous situation. Trustworthy allies were a rarity and he needed people he could count on and confide in. Livia became one of those few people, arguably the most important of them all. She became someone he could rely on, look to for advice, and consult on all matters both personal and political.
Livia was more than a wife; she enhanced his position as the ruler of Rome. Her role was absolutely integral—but Livia wasn't exactly your typical empress.
As a reigning empress, it would have been easy for Livia to become drunk with power—but she didn’t let it go to her head. Despite her position, she never chose to wear elaborate outfits or excessively ornate jewelry. She wore pieces that were simple and elegant, but never flaunted her status in that way. But this wasn't the only she challenged others' expectations.
Livia not only defied the expected dressing style of an empress, but she also chose to live modestly in other ways. She and Augustus could have built themselves a palace of untold extravagance, yet chose not to. Instead, they chose a simple, though still beautiful, home on Palatine Hill. Even after becoming empress, Livia regularly helped out around the household.
She effortlessly settled into her new role—but there was one complication that threatened her future happiness.
Livia may have been happy with simple living, but she still had a thirst for ambition. More than anything, she wanted one of her sons to become the next emperor. In Ancient Rome, male heirs were important to maintain the family dynasty. Unfortunately, Augustus only had his daughter Julia. But Julia did have three sons: Gaius, Lucius, and Agrippa Postumus.
While this gave Augustus three potential successors, it was bad news for Livia. Since Julia’s sons were blood relatives to Augustus, they stood ahead of Livia's sons as heirs. But Livia wouldn’t give up so easily. She had a plan.
While Livia’s relationship with her son, Tiberius, wasn't exactly affectionate, she still cared for him. However, as time passed, their conflicting personalities turned their relationship sour. Tiberius was intelligent but extremely introverted—happy with his peaceful marriage and his life outside of the spotlight. But this would never be enough for Livia.
Livia's love for her son was insignificant in comparison to her lust for the throne. Livia decided, with Augustus’ support, to manipulate Tiberius into divorcing his cherished wife, Vipsania, while pregnant. Livia had nothing against Vipsania, she just didn’t serve to further Tiberius’ position in any way and she became a casualty of the empress' ambition.
Tiberius grudgingly yielded to the pressure from his mother and Augustus. But Livia was about to bury her son even deeper in misery.
Once Livia convinced Tiberius to unhappily divorce Vipsania, she immediately pushed him to marry the widowed Julia, Augustus’ daughter. While Julia had a tainted image tarnished by multiple affairs, she would help legitimize Tiberius as an heir, so Livia ignored her son’s misery. Forced together in 12 BC, Julia and Tiberius would endure a marriage filled with resentment.
It was this event that planted a seed of hatred in Tiberius’ heart, and his loathing for his mother began to grow. Busy with her cunning manipulations, Livia never foresaw the tragedy hurtling her way.
Livia had been pressuring her two sons into positions of power for years—but Drusus, Livia’s younger son, wasn’t subjected to quite the same heavy-handed manipulation. As an important general and husband to Augustus' beloved niece, Drusus had become one of the favored choices for an heir to the emperor. Unfortunately, his chance to become Emperor faded in 9 BC when he stepped onto a battlefield.
Livia's youngest son perished in battle—and the news shattered her entire world. In an attempt to cope with her overwhelming grief, she had multiple statues built to honor him and continued to speak about him lovingly after he was gone. Like many others in Rome, Livia seemed to favor Drusus over Tiberius. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Livia’s meddling would soon lead to even more suffering for the only son still breathing.
To say Tiberius was miserable in his new marriage to Julia would be an understatement. After six years of marriage, things took a turn for the worst when the unhappy couple lost their infant son. Tiberius had been keeping his feelings about his mother’s interference, the loss of his brother, and his unhappy marriage bottled up. But the loss of his child finally broke him.
Unable to cope, he deserted Julia in Rome and went into exile on Rhodes. But while Tiberius was in exile, Livia and her future plans suffered another terrible misfortune.
Once Livia’s son Drusus was gone, she turned all her attention back on Tiberius, now her only option to ensure her own progeny as heir to the emperor. But was Tiberius interested in becoming emperor? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, he had no say in the matter: Augustus officially adopted him as his heir in 4 CE. However, Livia’s relationship with her husband Augustus was about to get much more complicated.
In the years following Tiberius’ adoption by Augustus, the emperor’s health began failing. It had been worsening for years, but something was different this time. The worse his health got, the less Augustus seemed like the husband that Livia knew. As he deteriorated, he seemed to retreat into himself, becoming so solitary that, eventually, he was only speaking with Livia through letters.
Livia stayed with him and helped care for him—but their marriage had become one of the written words that Augustus could no longer speak out loud. But even these difficulties in their relationship couldn’t compare to the heartbreak that happened next.
Despite Augustus’ failing health, Livia and her husband still lived as best they could. But while away from Rome in 14 AD, after 40 years as Emperor of Rome, Augustus’ life came to an end with Livia beside him. Though it wasn’t altogether unexpected, Livia still grappled with losing the love of her life—her partner and confidant of over 50 years.
But as heartbreaking as losing Augustus was for Livia, the nightmare wasn't over yet. Awful rumors began to circulate.
Although Augustus thought he'd ensured a successor, bad luck ruined his best-laid plans. Over the years, scads of his chosen heirs dropped like flies or suffered exile, including all three of Julia’s sons. While there is no proof that Livia was to blame, rumors continued to spread as all of the emperor's heirs were suspiciously eliminated. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.
After the loss of the emperor, some claimed that Livia lied about the true date of Augustus’ demise. They claim she wanted to give her son Tiberius, who was traveling and five days away from Rome, time to return to Rome. As soon as Tiberius arrived, a declaration of the Emperor's passing followed. While it could be a coincidence, Tiberius' presence was definitely in her best interest.
The whole situation seemed more than a little suspicious—but nothing was quite as shocking as the contents of the emperor's will.
When Octavian became Emperor, Livia became the first Roman Empress. Just as Octavian became “Augustus," Livia became known as “Julia Augusta” after Augustus adopted her into the Julian family in his will in 14 BC. It seems odd to think of a husband adopting his own wife, but the upper classes used this as a technique to control who received their wealth and possessions.
Nonetheless, women were seldom adopted in Ancient Rome, making Livia exceptional. As fortunate and privileged as the empress already was, she was about to see one of her greatest ambitions finally come to pass.
By the time Augustus passed, all those who could have succeeded as emperor were gone. They had met their end in battle, by disease, or by some other unfortunate end. All those except the unenthusiastic Tiberius. Since Augustus adopted Tiberius in his 40s, he was the rightful heir and grudgingly accepted the role. Livia finally saw her hard-earned goal come to fruition—but her real hardships were only just beginning.
Although Livia orchestrated her son's rise to power, she never seemed to consider whether Tiberius actually shared her desires. It was plain to see that he would rather do anything else: He was brooding, paranoid, and preferred his roles serving as a general and his Governorship of Gaul. Although he ruled for 23 years, his sad compliance destroyed his relationship with his mother.
After Livia became known as Julia Augusta, she also became a priestess of the newly deified Augustus. This was an extreme honor and much like the other aspects of Livia’s life, it was quite unheard of at the time. Typically, the Vestal Virgins were the only female priestesses in Rome, so to give her such a title was extraordinary. But this title would incite the ire of her son Tiberius.
When Livia received the title of priestess, Tiberius was more than irritated. He tried to downplay the importance of the title, not wanting his mother to undermine his authority. But Tiberius’ rage only grew as the senate took Livia’s new title to heart and began addressing Tiberius not solely as the “son of Augustus,” but also as the “son of Livia.”
The Senate began to view Livia as having true power and influence and she became an ally against Tiberius. Livia embraced her new position wholeheartedly, whether Tiberius approved or not.
Livia portrayed herself as poised, faithful, and proud. She was of immeasurable worth to her husband Augustus and represented the ideal Roman woman. But as Tiberius’ rule continued, Livia’s desire for power and authority became all-consuming. She became increasingly preoccupied with external displays of authority, perhaps trying to maintain the climate of adulation that Augustus had created during his life.
But as her urge for power grew, so did her cruelty towards others.
You see, Livia had a hidden dark side—and it reared its head in the ugliest of ways. Her grandson, Claudius, suffered from physical disabilities throughout his life. Although she was his grandmother, Livia treated him with disdain on a regular basis. It was a chilling conundrum. The empress treated her enemies with clemency, but her generous spirit did not extend to her family.
She tormented Claudius at every opportunity, mocking his limp and stutter. Her treatment of her family was abysmal, but she continued to use them as pawns in her political games.
In 22 AD, as Livia became more focused on public displays, she dedicated a statue to Augustus in the center of Rome. But she decided to place her own name on the engraving before that of her son Tiberius who was now emperor. Livia wasn’t exactly known for obeying custom and had a healthy sense of entitlement. However, placing her name ahead of Tiberius was a bold statement and a blatant insult to her son and his authority.
Of course, she wasn’t quite finished stepping on her son’s toes.
Livia exploited her position to create laws for herself, but also allowed her close friends to skirt the law when it suited her. On one occasion, her friend Plancina was accused of slaying Germanicus, Livia’s grandson. Luckily for Plancina, Livia managed to save her from punishment. Sadly, years later, someone raised the same accusation against Plancina again, and she chose to end her own life.
These various interferences did not go unnoticed by Tiberius, and he was about to prove in a very obvious way that he was absolutely done with his mother.
As Livia became increasingly domineering, Tiberius’ resentment only grew stronger. He was an introverted man to begin with, but his constant feuding with his mother turned him into an unforgiving and cold version of himself. Eventually, he couldn’t stand it any longer and retreated to Capri to escape her manipulative and controlling ways.
However, this was only a respit. Their relationship was about to crash and burn in a very permanent way.
Livia and Tiberius’ relationship continued to deteriorate and reached the point of no return by 29 AD. Livia fell terribly ill and her rapid decline spelled the end. She did not survive. In response, Tiberius dealt her spiteful betrayal: He stayed on Capri, claiming he was too busy to see her or even attend her funeral. Still, Livia's legacy continued to plague him.
After Livia's demise, many in the Roman Senate wanted to grant divine honors to her. However, Tiberius would have none of it and denied all honors, claiming he was only enforcing Livia’s wishes. As if that wasn’t enough, Tiberius canceled the execution of Livia’s will. Clearly, his feelings of resentment ran fierce and deep. Yet, as it turns out, Tiberius wouldn’t get the last word when it came to his mother.
As Emperor, Tiberius was able to block the honors that Rome attempted to bestow on Livia. But when Livia's grandson, Claudius, became Emperor, he changed everything. Despite her abysmal treatment of Claudius earlier in his life, in 42 AD, he set their painful history aside to ensure the fulfillment of Livia’s new identity and the accompanying honors.
Her deification was at last accomplished. While she wouldn’t be alive to see it, Livia’s deification brought her the recognition she'd always wanted.
In much the same way that the name Julia Augusta designated a higher status, when Livia received the title of Diva Augusta—or The Divine Augusta—it immortalized her. This came with other honors as well. For instance, a chariot pulled by elephants carried a representation of her image to public games. A statue of her was also erected in the Temple of Augustus beside her husband's, races took place in her honor, and women called upon her in sacred vows.
However, as impressive as her deification was, Livia greatest legacy might have been how she challenged societal standards throughout her life.
The history of Rome mainly belonged to men—women were often obscured or completely left out of the narrative. Statues were quite often established for important men of the state as enduring symbols of their triumphs; they were almost never erected for a woman. But in 35 BC, Augustus gave Livia the incredible honor of dedicating a public statue to her.
This elevated her status in the eyes of the public. But that wasn't all.
Despite her rejection of certain luxuries afforded to royalty, Livia did enjoy other advantages of her position. In 35 BC, she gained an impressive step towards her independence that most ancient Roman women wouldn't dare dream of: controlling her own finances. She owned palm groves, papyrus marshes, and even copper mines. Once again, Livia earned a freedom almost never afforded to women, displaying her remarkable influence.
What's more? She wielded these finances in a shocking way.
Women were largely invisible members of society in ancient Rome, but Livia’s many public honors and activities allowed her to move beyond the conventional gender roles of Rome. With financial resources rarely presented to women, Livia could have chosen to keep her riches to herself. Instead, she took steps to bring women to the forefront of society by rebuilding various temples and shrines that were particularly linked with goddesses and women.
She even found ways to influence the physical appearance of other women.
Even Livia’s hairstyle set her apart from other women. She wanted to symbolize the ideal Roman woman, so she based her hairstyle on the Roman divinities. Her signature hairstyle, named the “Augustan” style, consisted of a roll of hair across the forehead with a few curls cascading down the sides. By the time Livia became Empress, both elites and free women could use the hairstyle and it became fashionable among women who idolized Livia.
But her hairstyle was more than a simple fashion choice.
Like many of Livia’s decisions, even her hairstyle became a calculated choice. Livia hoped that by opting for a simple hairstyle that free women could easily imitate, she could show that she was just like the average Roman woman. She also believed adopting this modest hairstyle might also improve the image of purity in Roman aristocratic women.
This was a serious custom to change—but her influence broke down another wall.
Livia became such an influential figure in Rome that she even became the first woman to have her portrait on provincial coins in 16 BC. The coins showed the merging of Livia’s image with that of the ideal Roman woman. Later, she became a mother figure, and eventually, a divine figure. Livia’s image would influence the illustration of imperial women for years to come.
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