Two weeks ago, I sat in Livia’s dining room.
Not her actual dining room, but within the four painted plaster walls that lined her dining room two thousand years ago and now are located at the Museo Palazzo Massimo in Rome. And as I sat there surrounded by those four walls, I wondered what those walls had heard, what they had seen. I wondered about the woman who called upon the Imperial painters to create a dining space that gave the illusion to her guests that they were eating al fresco. I was mesmerized by the paintings; drawn to this woman whose taste was so much like my own. Who was she? What was she like? What did she and her women friends discuss in this room? Their children? Their men? Their joys and their sorrows?
And so I decided to write about Livia, one of the most famous women in Roman history. Wife to Augustus, first emperor of Rome, mother to the emperor Tiberius, grandmother to emperor Claudius, and great-grandmother to emperor Caligula.
When she married Augustus (at the time, Octavian), she already had a son (Tiberius), and in the fifty-one years of marriage to Augustus, she had no other children. Her role, however, was that of counsel to her husband, and she gave him wise political advice and support throughout his reign as emperor. This was wildly unusual for the times, as women were considered to be outside the sphere of politics for much of the span of Roman history. For this alone, we should admire Livia.
Livia lived humbly, despite her status as empress. She was the role model for the Roman “matrona” or matron. She wore very little jewelry or makeup, often made her own clothing and that of her husband. Augustus even gave Livia the (then) outlandish right to govern her own finances and dedicated a public statue to her.
When Augustus died in AD 14, he bequeathed one-third of his estate to Livia, and he also adopted her into the Julian family dynasty, giving her the honorific title of Augusta. All of these things meant that Livia was able to maintain her power after her husband’s death, and as the mother of the new emperor, Tiberius, she still maintained a position of importance in the empire in any case.
There are tales from ancient sources that tell of tensions between Livia and her son Tiberius during his years as emperor. It is even said that Tiberius’ retirement to the island of Capri was an attempt to get away from his mother. At Livia’s death in AD 29, Tiberius refused to return to Rome and vetoed all the honorifics the Senate wished to bestow upon Livia. However, thirteen years later, during the reign of Livia’s grandson Claudius, all of her honors were restored and her deification was completed.
Women spoke her name during their sacred oaths, her statue was erected beside her husband’s at the Temple of Augustus, and races were held in her honor. Her ashes remained beside her husband’s in his temple until the Sack of Rome in AD 410, when they, like his, were scattered.
Painted wall from Livia’s dining room, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy. Author’s photo.
Read More: Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia by Matthew Dennison.