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Livia (Wife of Augustus)

Donna Hurley

Coin with image of Livia (c) 2001 VCRC


Livia, as history most often knows her,[[1]] was the wife of Augustus for over fifty years, from 38 BC until his death in AD 14 , an astonishingly long time in view of life expectancy in ancient Rome. Although certainty about their inner lives and proof for what we would consider a loving relationship is necessarily lost to us, we can infer genuine loyalty and mutual respect between the two. They remained married despite the fact that she bore him no child. Livia's position as first lady of the imperial household, her own family connections, her confident personality and her private wealth allowed her to exercise power both through Augustus and on her own, during his lifetime and afterward. All the Julio-Claudian emperors were her direct descendants: Tiberius was her son; Gaius (Caligula), her great-grandson; Claudius, her grandson; Nero, her great-great-grandson.

Ancestry and Marriage to Octavian

Livia was born Livia Drusilla in 58 BC,[[2]] the daughter of M. Livius Drusus Claudianus and Alfidia. Her mother, evidently the daughter of a magistrate from an Italian town, did not have an impressive pedigree. Her father, on the other hand, was born Appius Claudius Pulcher and was adopted as an infant by M. Livius Drusus, tribune in 91 BC. Livia thus carried the blood and prestige of both the Livii and the patrician Claudii, families long accustomed to power.[[3]] Livia had a second connection with the gens Claudia as well. Her first husband was Ti. Claudius Nero, and by him she had two children. Her first son, who would become the emperor Tiberius, was born in 42 BC, and carried his father's name. She was six months pregnant with a second son when she married Julius Caesar Octavianus  (who would be known as Augustus  after 27 BC) on January 17, 38 BC, and she soon produced Nero Claudius Drusus, sometimes referred to as "Drusus the Elder". Her first husband Nero was a willing participant in this transfer of his wife and was present at the wedding banquet. Livia had been granted exemption from the obligatory ten-month waiting period required of a widow or divorced woman before remarriage on the grounds that Nero and her new husband had agreed on the coming child's paternity. In order to be free from his fist marriage, Octavian divorced his first wife Scribonia, who had just given birth to a daughter, Julia, who would be his only natural child. When Nero died a few years later, both of Livia's sons came to live with her and her husband.[[4]]

Despite the fact that Livia was a beautiful young woman with whom Octavian was supposed to have fallen quickly in love and that the two seem to have lived happily together ever after,[[5]] their marriage was, at bottom, political. During the civil strife that followed the murder of Julius Caesar, her first husband Nero had joined the party of the assassins and fought at Phillippi. After the Republicans were defeated there, he turned to the party of Mark Antony, specifically to Antony's brother L. Antonius, and then, after the fall of Perusia in 40, fled to Sicily where Sex. Pompey was attracting remnants of Rome's upper class. From there he and Livia and their small son Tiberius moved on to Greece. Amnesty for adherents of Antony allowed them to return to Rome in 39. Octavian, the "rising sun", needed connections with aristocrats like Nero to provide an aura of Republican respectability to his growing power, and marriage to Livia secured it. She brought to this union not only her Livian and Claudian ancestry but also her two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, heirs of the distinguished Claudii Nerones. As for Octavian, he no longer needed Scribonia because Pompey, with whom she had a family connection,[[6]] no longer had to be conciliated. The ancient sources do not speculate about Livia's feelings, but she was probably happy to be joined with a younger man of such overwhelming promise. Nero, newly pardoned by Octavian, did not have a real choice, but he was aware that it did not hurt to bestow his wife on Rome's ascendant power. Everyone gained by the arrangement.[[7]]

The Wife

By all accounts, Livia played the role of a loving, dutiful and even old-fashioned wife. She cooperated with Augustus' encouragement of upper-class women to behave in the austere fashion of an earlier age when she and other female members of his household spun and wove and provided him with clothing. She sometimes accompanied him when he traveled from Rome and always served as a trusted confidante and advisor. When a beloved great-grandson of Augustus died (a son of Germanicus, a toddler named Gaius), she saw to it that the child's statue was placed in his private quarters.[[8]] She ignored his notorious womanizing, and so Tacitus called her an "easy wife". "When someone asked her how and by what course of action she had obtained such a commanding influence over Augustus, she answered that it was by being scrupulously chaste herself, doing gladly whatever pleased him, not meddling with any of his affairs, and, in particular, by pretending neither to hear of nor to notice the favorites that were the objects of his passion".[[9]] Her tolerance need not surprise. The goal of a Roman marriage was the formation of a household and the production of children, not sexual gratification, which could be found elsewhere. Unfortunately, she never bore him any living children; a premature infant died.[[10]] Heirs would have been desirable, and it is a tribute to their relationship that Augustus did not divorce her because she failed to produce them. The two were a partnership.

The claim, however, that she did not meddle in his affairs is disingenuous. The dutiful wife, who appeared in public only as a model of traditional propriety, exercised a great deal of private power. In 35 BC, Livia received her first official marks of status, the right to manage her own affairs (i.e., control her own financial resources) without a guardian and a grant of sacrosancitas, the inviolability that tribunes enjoyed; it gave her the same protection that Augustus had. She also received a public statue, an honor almost unique for a woman at that time. In 9 BC a second statue followed, ostensibly intended to console her on the recent death of her son Drusus and to call attention to her as a mother of important sons. Both Tiberius and Drusus had become more prominent because of their military commands. At the same date she was given the ius liberorum, the collection of rights given the mothers of four children, although she already possessed the emancipation that it conferred. It was further reference to her maternal role.[[11]]

Livia was wealthy in her own right and had her own circle of clients whom she rewarded. She launched the career of M. Salvius Otho, the grandfather of the Otho who would be emperor briefly in  AD 69. He lived in her house, and it was through her favor that he entered the senate. She secured the consulate for M. Plautius Silvanus, son of her close friend Urgulania. The marriage of her grandson, the future emperor Claudius, to Plautius' daughter Urgulanilla was presumably the result of her influence as well. Most importantly, she had her husband's ear and he had hers. On one occasion she petitioned citizenship for a Gaul, and although her request was not granted, Augustus awarded the man an alternate prize. The story about her recommending clemency for the alleged conspirator Cn. Cornelius Cinna is a fiction , but it developed to illustrate her power of persuasion. It was her wealth, her good looks and her intelligence, combined with the status of her husband, that made her role possible.[[12]]

But it was within the family that Livia exercised her greatest influence, and it was for this reason that history assigned  her the role of wicked stepmother, ambitious for her own sons at the expense of other members of the household. She was a terrible mother for the state as a mother, a terrible stepmother for the house of the Caesars. [13] As events evolved, it is easy to see how this idea came to be. Augustus first tapped his nephew C. Claudius Marcellus, the son of his sister Octavia, as his successor by marrying his daughter Julia to him. Marcellus died young in 23 BC, and rumor would later make Livia complicit in his death. M. Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus' foremost ally in power, now became the designated heir after marriage to Julia cemented the arrangement. During the same period, marriage was arranged between Tiberius and Vipsania, Agrippa's daughter, and this union kept Livia's family close to anticipated future power. It was only after the death of Agrippa in 12 BC that opportunity opened for her own sons and she could realistically be thought fostering their and her own ambition.[[14]] But the role of designated heir was still not in the picture for her sons.

Augustus had already, in 17 BC (even before their father was dead), adopted Gaius and Lucius, the two oldest sons of Agrippa and Julia, and they were clearly intended as the princes of the new generation. Julia was next married to Tiberius (11 BC), and he was intended as a substitute for the boys until they were old enough to seem like plausible successors. This arrangement held no particular advantage for him, and furthermore it proved unsuccessful. Tiberius took himself off to the island of Rhodes in 6 BC and in 2 BC Julia, back in Rome, got in trouble by taking lovers and was exiled for adultery. When Gaius and Lucius died (AD 4 and 2 ), it would naturally be hinted that Livia had a hand in their deaths since their removal left the way clear for Tiberius. In one more arrangement of his succession plans, the last as it turned out, Augustus adopted Tiberius in 4 after seeing to it that Tiberius first adopted Germanicus, the son of his deceased brother Drusus. At the same time, Augustus himself adopted Agrippa Postumus, the last son of Agrippa and Julia; Postumus was not yet ready for the principate nor would he ever be. It would seem that the scheming stepmother had at last succeeded and was now the mother of the presumptive princeps. But it was circumstance that made Tiberius the only one left on his feet at the end. The rumors came later.[[15]]

The perception that Livia was ambitious for her son made it possible for her to be accused of complicity in Augustus' death. The rumor developed that she had smeared poison on figs still on a tree and then guided him to pick one of these for himself while she selected untainted ones.[[16]] Her motivation came from the fear that Augustus might retrieve from exile his one remaining adopted son, Agrippa Postumus, and that Postumus might be a rival of Tiberius. Postumus was executed shortly after Augustus died, at whose order, it is unclear.[[17]] Although it is implausible that Livia poisoned Augustus, the accusation shows how strongly she came to be perceived as championing her offspring at any cost. Further suspicion fell on her when she failed to announce Augustus' death immediately after it occurred. The military saluted Tiberius on the spot, before it became known that the emperor had died. This was necessary because, although he no longer had a rival within the family, the senate might not confirm for him the unofficial position that Augustus had held. It was better if the succession had been accomplished.[[18]] Suetonius, in a report completely different from the poisoning story, describes a loving and trusting relationship between Livia and Augustus at the end. The emperor's last words were 'Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia and farewell", and he died as he kissed her.[[19]] This detail is probably no more accurate than the poisoned figs, but it represents a second role assigned her. Her reputation was double: dutiful wife and ambitious schemer.

The Mother

After Augustus was cremated, Livia remained with the knights when they gathered his bones and took them to the Mausoleum. She, as well as Tiberius, publicly authored all the honors paid him. She joined him in building a shrine for the now deified Augustus and established games in his honor. It was she who paid Numerius Atticus to say that he had seen him ascend to heaven. By the terms of Augustus' will, she received one-third of his estate and Tiberius two-thirds. It was unusual for a woman to inherit to this degree, and the money would be a major source of her continuing influence. The will further provided for her adoption into the gens Iulia and the honorific Augusta. She became known as Julia Augusta. The adoption did not change her legal position but it did serve to legitimize the position of Tiberius, who was an adopted Julian and now became a naturalized one as well. The title Augusta would continue to be given women of the imperial family who had a role in the line of succession.[[20]] Livia was appointed a priestess in Augustus' newly established cult and, like a vestal, the right to a lictor when she performed her duties. Later it would be deemed treasonous to speak against her (AD 20 ), and once after she recovered from a serious illness (22), thanksgiving offerings were made and an altar was voted her. For a time, letters were addressed to both her and Tiberius as though she were co-regent, and her name was on the letters that he sent. In 24 she was given a seat among the Vestals in the theater.[[21]]

Livia remained an influential figure. She saved Q. Haterius from Tiberius' anger and showed favor to Ser. Sulpicius Galba, who would become emperor after the death of Nero, and rewarded him generously in her will; Tiberius, however, ignored her instructions and Galba never received the money. She was behind the rise of C. Fufius Geminus to the consulship, although he was accused of treasonous behavior after she died. Her friendship raised Urgulania "above the law". But the clearest demonstration of her unofficial but very real power was apparent with her rescue of her friend Plancina, the wife of Cn. Calpurnius Piso, who was accused of complicity in insurrection and poisoning at the time when Germanicus died (AD 19 ). Piso, who took his own life under pressure of the trial, was posthumously found guilty of treason, but both Plancina and her son were allowed to retain their wealth and status. Livia's influence in the affair is confirmed by the recently discovered senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre, an inscription that made public the official resolution of the trial. Plancina had been pardoned "by the request of [Tiberius] mother"[[22]] Gaius, who followed Tiberius in the principate, lived with Livia when he was young. He called her Ulixes stolatus, a "Ulysses in a matron's dress",[[23]]
a strong and manipulative woman.

But, despite all this, things were not the same for Livia after Augustus' death. She lost her role as advisor. Her son was not her husband; Tiberius was not Augustus. There were rumors that the new emperor resented her influence and her claims of eminence. He took exception to the senate's heaping of honors on her, to her being titled "mother" or 'parent of the country" and especially, it would seen, to himself being named "son of Livia" or "son of Julia" on the analogy of "son of Augustus". He did not allow her the lictor to which she was entitled nor an altar to celebrate her adoption. On the occasion when she assisted him in supplying fire relief (AD 16), he resented her action; Augustus, on the other hand, would presumably have welcomed her help. Tiberius was allegedly angered by the assumption that it was she who had procured his position for him, and so he put distance between himself and her. She was said to have taunted him with the thought that Augustus had preferred Germanicus. It was rumored that he left Rome for Capri (AD 26) in order to avoid her. Indeed, he only saw her once more after he departed and then briefly. He did not go to her during her final illness, nor did he attend her funeral. After she died, he forbade the deification proposed for her and disregarded her will. Neither the altar voted her when she was ill in 22 nor a commemorative arch was ever built. Tiberius did not bar all honors, however. She continued to be included in annual prayers, and she received the use of the honorary conveyance, the carpentum.[[24]]

Reports of deep hostility between them[[25]] paint too simple a picture. Although it seems reasonable to assume that Tiberius reacted negatively to the rumors that his mother was a kingmaker and that these rumors would have blossomed as he became progressively a less popular personality, his withholding of excessive honors for her and his self-imposed distance are consistent with what is known of his personality. "The emperor repeatedly asserted that there must be a limit to the honors paid to women, and that he would observe similar moderation in those bestowed on himself".[[26]] And indeed he did. Tiberius was more the Republican aristocrat than the emperor. Livia, however, had lived over fifty years as an important, if unofficial, player in the power game and as an empress. It was difficult for her to fade away. If she tried to influence Tiberius as she had Augustus, resentment and a cooling of affection might reasonably have followed. As time when on, Tiberius took his advice not from his mother but from his praetorian prefect, L. Aelius Sejanus, and as Sejanus' influence rose, Livia's seems to have fallen. Still, there was no sharp division between friendly and unfriendly periods in their relationship and she continued to receive overt marks of respect.[[27]]


Livia died in AD 29 at the advanced age of 86. She received a public funeral, although a relatively modest one, and was buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Gaius delivered the eulogy. It would be he, her great-grandson, who, when he became emperor, finally paid the bequests that she had provided for in her will and  that Tiberius had ignored. When the senate proposed divine honors,  Tiberius, consistent with his past practice, forbade them. Her grandson Claudius would oversee her long-deferred deification in 42. Women were to name diua Augusta in their oaths; she received an elephant-drawn chariot to convey her image to the games; a statue of her was set up in the temple of Augustus; races were held in her honor.[[28]] The woman who played an important role in two principates joined the imperial pantheon at last. Tacitus' obituary calls her "An imperious mother and an amiable wife, she was a match for the diplomacy of her husband and the dissimulation of her son",[[29]] a concise statement of the reputation that she left behind.


Bartman, E. Portraits of Livia

Eck., W., A Caballos, and F. Fernández (1996). Das Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre. Vestigia 48. Munich.

Flory, M. B. (1993). "Livia and the History of Public Honorific Statues for Women in Rome." TAPhA 123: 287Ð308.

Gray-Fow, M.J.G. (1988). "The Wicked Stepmother in Roman Literature and History: An Evaluation," Latomus 47 (1988), 741-57.

Huntsman, E.D. "The Family and Property of Livia Drusilla" (Philadelphia: Univ. of Penn. diss., 1997).

Levick, B. (1972). "Julii and Claudii?" G & R 22: 29-38.

Linderski, J. (1974). "The mother of Livia Augusta and the Aufidii Lurcones of the Republic." Historia 23: 463-80.

Malcovati, H., ed. (1962). Imperatoris Caesaris Augusti operum fragmenta. 4th ed. Turin.

Perkounig, C.-M. (1995). Livia Drusilla Ð Iulia Augsusta: Das politische Porträt der ersten Kaiserin Roms. B hlau. Vienna, Cologne, Weimar.

Ritter, H. W. (1972). "Livia's Erhebung zur Augusta" Chiron 2: 313-338.

Shotter, D. C. A. (1971). "Julians, Claudians and the Accession of Tiberius" Latomus 30: 1117-1123.

Syme, R. (1939). The Roman Revolution. Oxford.

Temporini, H. (1978). Die Frauen am Hofe Trajans: ein Beitrag zur Stellung der Augustae im Principat. Berlin, New York.

Wiseman, T. P. (1965). "The mother of Livia Augusta". Historia 14: 333-335.

Watson, P.A. "Ancient Stepmothers: Myth, Misogyny and Reality" (Leiden 1995; Mnemosyne Supp 43).


[[1]] But also Drusilla or Livia Drusilla and later Julia Augusta and finally Diva Augusta. The ancient sources for information about her life are three histories, those of Tacitus (Annals, books 1-6), Velleius Paterculus (book 2, 75-130), and Cassius Dio (books 48-58), and the collection of imperial biographies by Suetonius, primarily those of Augustus and Tiberius. Occasional references in other authors. The Senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre (published by Eck and others) provides confirmation of Livia"s influence.

[[2]] The date can be calculated from her age at the time of her death in 29 CE, Dio 58.2.1.

[[3]] Tac. Ann. 6.51. Suet. Tib. 3; Calig. 23.2. Wiseman. Linderski. Perkounig 32-33.

[[4]] Tac. Ann. 1.10; 5.1. Suet. Aug. 62.2; Tib. 4.3, 5; Cl. 1.1. Dio 48.34.3, 44; Vell. Pat. 2.79.2, 94.1, 95.1. Drusus the Elder was originally named Decimus Claudius Drusus, Suet. Cl. 1.1.

[[5]] "He loved and esteemed her to the end without a rival", Suet. Aug. 62.2. Also Tac. Ann. 5.1. Dio 48.34.3. Vell. Pat. 2.75.2.

[[6]] Scribonia was either sister or daughter of PompeyÕs father-in-law. Dio 48.16.3. Perkounig 40-41.

[[7]] Tac. Ann 5.1. Suet. Tib. 4, 6.1-3. Dio 48.15.3-4, 44.1; 54.7.2. Vell. Pat. 2.75.3, 94.1, 95.1. Perkounig 39-46.

[[8]] Tac. Ann. 3.34, 5.1. Suet. Aug. 64.2, 73, 84.2; Calig. 7; Cl. 4. Dio 54.16.4-5. Sen. Dial. 6.4.3-4. Her role as advisor and confidante is apparent from letters that Augustus wrote; those that have been preserved are collected by Malcovati.

[[9]] Dio 58.2.5. Also Tac. Ann. 5.1. Suet. Aug. 69, 71.1. Dio 54.19.3.

[[10]] Suet. Aug. 63.1.

[[11]] Dio 49.38.1; 55.2.5-6. The privileges given Livia in 35 were also bestowed on Augustus' sister Octavia, who was married to Mark Antony at the time. Flory 292- 294, 298. Perkounig 55-59.

[[12]] Tac. Ann. 2.34; 4.21. Suet. Aug. 40.3; Cl. 26.2; Oth. 1.1. Dio 54.31.1; 55.14-22. Sen. Clem. 1.9.2-12. Perkounig 70, 76.

[[13]] Tac. Ann. 1.10.

[[14]] Tac. Ann. 1.3, 10. Suet. Aug. 63.1; Tib. 15.2. Dio 53.30.2, 33.4; 54.6.5, 18.1; 55.10a.6-10. Vell Pat. 2.93.1-2, 102. Syme 430. Perkounig 65, 82.

[[15]] Tac. Ann. 1.3; 4.57. Suet. Tib. 15.2, 21.3. Dio 55.13.2.Vell. Pat. 2.104.1.

[[16]] Dio 56.30.1-2. Tacitus writes only that poisoning was "suspected", Ann. 1.5.

[[17]] Postumus had been exiled in 6 or 8 CE. Tac. Ann. 1.5, 6. Suet. Tib. 22. Dio 56.30.1; 57.3.6.

[[18]] Perkounig 105-6. Tac. Ann. 1.5. Suet. Aug. 98.5; Tib. 21.1. Dio 56.31.1. Vell. Pat. 2.123.1.

[[19]] Suet. Aug. 99.1.

[[20]] Tac. Ann. 1.8. Suet. Aug. 100.4, 101.2; Tib. 23. Dio 56.32.1, 42.4, 46, 47.1. Ritter, Temporini 35-42. Perkounig 124-131.

[[21]] Tac. Ann. 3.64, 71; 4.16. Dio 56.46.1-2; 57.12.2, 19.1. Vell. Pat. 2.75.3. Ovid. Pont. 4.9.107.

[[22]] Line 113 (also lines 114-120); the bronze tablet has been published by Eck, Caballos and Fernández. Tac. Ann. 1.13; 2.34, 43, 82; 3.15, 17; 4.21-22; 5.2; 6.10, 26. Suet. Gal. 5.2; Dio 58.4.5-6.

[[23]] Suet. Calig. 23.

[[24]] Tac. Ann. 1.14; 3.64, 71; 4.57; 5.2. Suet. Tib. 50.2-3, 51. Dio 57.3.3, 12.4, 12.6, 16.2; 58.2.1-3a,, 6; 60.22.2. Perkounig 147-153.

[[25]] Suet. Tib. 51.1

[[26]] Tac. Ann. 1.14. Also Dio 57.12.1

[[27]] Perkounig 148-9

[[28]] Tac. Ann. 5.1-2. Suet. Calig. 10.1, 16.3; Cl. 11.2. Dio 58.2.1-3a; 59.1.4, 2.4; 60.5.2. Vell. Pat. 2.130.5.

[[29]] Tac. Ann. 5.1.

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