Ancient History & Civilisation



The Emperor Augustus used to boast, it is said, that his clothes were made at home by his devoted wife, Livia. In the cosmopolitan culture of first century Rome, where silks and fine linen were the more usual attire of grandees, the emperor himself paraded his attachment to homespun woollens. We have no idea how often the charade of the noble empress sitting at her loom, or sewing basket, was literally acted out in the imperial residence. But if the intention of the boast was to convince contemporaries and posterity of Livia’s humble and self-effacing virtues (as well as of Augustus’ own modest habits), it was a signal failure. From the first century AD to Robert Graves and beyond, Livia has appeared to play a much more crucial role in the power politics of Empire than the image of resident seamstress would suggest. At best, she has been portrayed as a key mediator between the emperor and various different interest groups in his Empire (the historian Cassius Dio, for example, scripts a long – and implausible – discussion between the empress and her husband, in which she successfully persuades him to show mercy to a man suspected of treason). At worst, she has been seen as a serial poisoner, the éminence grise of the Augustan court, determined to destroy any obstacle to her ambitions – including, in the end, her husband. As Graves himself put it, in I, Claudius, ‘Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus’. The origins of the darkest version of Livia’s character go back to the historian Tacitus, writing in the early second century AD almost ahundred years after her death in 29. He, at least, is the earliest surviving author to insinuate that she might have had a hand in the death of Augustus, driven by her fears that the ageing emperor was about to prefer a rival candidate as his heir, over Tiberius, her own son by a previous marriage. ‘Some suspected his wife of foul play’, Tacitus wrote with typically unsettling and unspecific innuendo. And there are similar hints about her role in the unexpected death of the young prince Germanicus a few years later, the golden boy of the Roman court, poisoned – or so we are led to believe – at her nod, if not her direct instigation.


8. Ingres’ view of the home life of the imperial family. Virgil reads his epic poem to Augustus, Octavia and Livia.

This hostile image has had a vigorous afterlife, including a chilling portrait by Ingres, Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia and Livia. This painting shows Augustus’ sister Octavia swooning as she listens to Virgil reading aloud from his new poem – the lines, we must imagine, that refer to her dead son Marcellus, another of Livia’s victims according to some ancient accounts. The empress herself pats Octavia’s shoulder with the icy detachment that you might expect of the consummate murderer. Seneca, court philosopher and tutor to the young Emperor Nero, once famously praised Livia’s self-control compared with the emotional excesses of Octavia. Ingres here shows us just how disturbing that ‘self-control’ might be.

The most powerful image of Livia’s villainy for the modern world comes from the 1976 BBC television series of I, Claudius, which featured Siân Phillips as the twentieth-century face of the scheming empress. The adapter, Jack Pulman, recast Graves’s novels (both I, Claudius and Claudius the God) much more radically than is usually recognised, in particular making Livia the dominating, evil presence of the first half of the series. Graves himself had taken a much more Tacitean turn. Livia is rarely in the foreground of the book. Her sinister hold over Augustus is explained at the very beginning of the novel by Claudius, the narrator (‘The truth is the marriage was never consummated … Augustus, though capable enough with other women, found himself impotent as a child when he tried to have commerce with my grandmother’). But as the story unfolds, her evils are rarely emphasised; instead they are archly insinuated in one-line hints and asides. It is only retrospectively, when Claudius has a final dinner with his dying grandmother, that he gets the truth out of her: the list of victims is almost as long as Graves had hinted, and does include her husband Augustus (‘yes, she had poisoned Augustus by smearing poison on the figs while they were still on the tree’).

Pulman’s television version, by contrast, makes Livia’s murders the articulating thread of the early episodes, with a whole succession of lurid scenes of death-by-poisoning. Livia herself is brought out of the background to become the memorable, if slightly camp, anti-heroine, with a ghastly line in stage irony for viewers-in-the-know to relish (the ambiguities in the word ‘food-poisoning’, for example, are richly exploited). Pulman even hands her lines that resonate with those of other ‘bad women’ of film and fiction. ‘It’s very good of you’, croaks the young prince Marcellus, as she nurses him to death; ‘No, no my dear, goodness has nothing to do with it’ she replies. Or as Mae West later put it in Night after Night: ‘Goodness, what beautiful diamonds’, ‘Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.’ One of the most striking scenes of all has no direct link whatsoever to the original novel. The close-up face of the helpless, dying Augustus (Brian Blessed) monopolises the screen for several minutes, while Livia’s voice-over taunts and reproaches him: ‘You should have listened to me more … I’ve been right more often than not and because I am a woman you pushed me into the background. Oh yes, yes you did.’ As she leaves the deathbed, to stage-manage the succession, she issues a hesitant reminder to Tiberius, who has arrived conveniently to take over the throne: ‘Oh, by the way, don’t touch the figs.’ Modern historians have found it very hard to evaluate the role of the real life Livia and the extent of her political power. It is not, for once, simply a question of the lack of surviving evidence. In fact, on some aspects of Livia’s life we have much fuller information than for almost any other woman in the Roman world. Thanks to the discovery, for example, of the large burial chamber used by members of her slave household, we have an extraordinary glimpse on to the composition of her domestic entourage. She was equipped, as their epitaphs tell us, with catering officers, cooks, secretaries, accountants, wardrobe mistresses, hairdressers, masseuses, menders, furniture polishers, goldsmiths, plasterers and footmen, not to mention a small retinue of personal doctors (whose malign presence at the bedside of her relatives was always a sure sign, in the fictional world, of an imminent death).

There is also a wide range of more or less revealing anecdotes attached to her name. A fourth-century medical writer preserves a recipe for one of Livia’s own concoctions for sore throats and another for nervous exhaustion (without any hints of sinister side effects). And from the vast compendium of useful knowledge assembled in the elder Pliny’s Natural History, we learn that she put her longevity down to drinking wine from Friuli (a claim still used to advertise the vintage); and we glean hints of an unlikely rivalry between Livia and Augustus’ granddaughter Julia over who owned the smallest dwarf (Julia won the male competition with a specimen of two foot five inches, Livia the female – height unspecified).

But if material of this kind sheds rare light on the social and cultural life of the early imperial palace, it gives very little help with what, for many historians, has been the central question: what kind of influence did Livia wield, and how? For this the evidence is ambivalent, elusive and almost impossible to interpret. As Tacitus, and other ancient writers recognised, historians are by definition excluded from the decision-making that takes place behind the closed doors of an autocracy. Women close to the man in power may, of course, capitalise on that proximity to promote their own interests. At the same time, they also provide the analyst with a handy – and untestable – explanation of why the man acts as he does. Just as the modern press has found Nancy Reagan or Cherie Blair convenient explanatory tools, when all else fails, in accounting for their husbands’ policy decisions, so ancient historians could always fall back on Livia or other imperial women when it came to making sense of the vagaries of the emperor’s actions. There is no way of telling if they were right. Charges of poisoning are a particularly loaded example of just this problem. Women – from Livia through Lucretia Borgia to Harriet Vane – have always been victims of accusations of this type (a typically sly female crime, and a neat perversion of the woman’s role as cook and housekeeper). But who could tell whether a poisoned mushroom was really that, or just an innocently unrecognised toadstool? And should we always assume that sudden deaths were brought about by those who ultimately benefited from them? Such assumptions produce tidy history, but they may not be correct.

The upshot is that exactly the same evidence has been used to justify wildly different positions on Livia’s role in Augustan politics. At the one extreme are the views of Theodor Mommsen and others that Livia, eventually at least, gained a quasi-official status in the political hierarchy of imperial Rome. At the other is the no-nonsense position of Moses Finley who discussed just this problem in a Radio Three talk, broadcast in the 1970s, shortly after the I, Claudius television series. Despite the impression you might get from Robert Graves, he assured listeners, none of these imperial ladies featured in the novel ‘had any influence on Roman history whatsoever’. Anything that suggested the contrary was ‘just gossip’.

In his biography, Livia: First lady of Imperial Rome, Anthony Barrett struggles hard and scrupulously with much of the disputed evidence. It is a first-rate collection of material; but it will almost certainly disappoint anyone wanting to get to the bottom of the historical Livia, as no clue to her power and influence ever turns out to bear the weight of interpretation we might wish to rest upon it. In one poem, for example, purportedly written as a ‘consolation’ to Livia at the death of her son Drusus in 9 BC, she is addressed as ‘Romana princeps’ (‘first lady’ – and the female equivalent of one of the titles used by Augustus himself, princeps). Is this a sign of a recognised, even if not strictly ‘official’, public status? Or is it a much more elusive kind of poetic hyperbole characteristic of Roman court poetry? Do the public buildings erected in her name attest to her active input into city planning, including its financial support? Or are they largely to be seen as a particularly lavish example of the Roman tradition which encouraged wealthy men to endow building schemes in the name of their female relatives (who probably took very little active part in the planning)? And so on. In general, Barrett keeps his head through these ambiguities, albeit at the cost of offering a rather sketchier view of Livia’s position than some readers might hope. But even he nods from time to time. In one of his lapses he tries to argue that her horticultural interests and, in particular, the ‘distinctive type of fig which bore her name, the Liviana … may have contributed to the tradition that she eliminated Augustus by specially treated figs’. The opposite is infinitely more likely: that the Liviana derived its name, jokily, from Livia’s reputed fondness for figs as a vehicle for poison.

It is hard to resist the conclusion (though Barrett himself does) that we will not get much further in understanding Livia until we have changed the nature of the questions we are asking. Perhaps it is for this reason that some bona fide classicists have recently turned to take a closer look at the modern image of the empress on stage and screen, through I, Claudius in particular. The BBC series was not the first to adapt Graves’s novels. There was a famous, aborted attempt in 1937 to film the books, starring Charles Laughton as Claudius and Flora Robson as Livia (the surviving rushes were stitched together into a BBC documentary, The Epic That Never Was, in 1965). Much less well known is the unfortunate stage version by John Mortimer, which ran for a couple of months in the West End in 1972.

Apart from a warm tribute in the Observer (where Mortimer himself was a regular theatre critic), most reviews placed this production somewhere on a scale between feeble and horrendous. Aidan Higgins in The Listener, for example, pilloried the dreadful lines (‘You don’t miss the brothel, do you, Calpurnia?’), the production effects (‘The Sybil of Cumae … performing awkward gyrations half nude on the lower parts of the great ugly scaffolding that fills the stage’) and the character of Livia herself (‘poor Freda Jackson … made-up like the Witch in Disney’s Snow White’). To be fair, Mortimer was well aware of how bad it was. As he explained in Murderers and Other Friends, the play’s disastrous reception was presaged by the disastrous pre-opening party. Graves himself turned up, bored the celebrity guests with silly stories about Jesus Christ living to the age of eighty and discovering spaghetti and presented Mortimer with a ‘magic stone’ which, he claimed, would ensure good notices. It didn’t.

These, and other recent Roman spectacles, are the subject of an excellent collection of essays, Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in modern popular culture. It includes a wonderful exploration of Carry On Cleo and its brilliant send-up of the epicCleopatra(part of the laugh was that the Carry On team used many of the actual costumes and sets left over from the Burton/Taylor extravaganza). And there is a sharp dissection of both the Broadway and cinema version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum(1966). The film’s success came from a powerful blend of the Roman comedies of Plautus, New York Jewish humour and Jérôme Carcopino’s famous book on Daily Life in Ancient Rome, first published in English in 1941, and even now still in print. The ironic twist, for the history of a show with such strongly Jewish roots, is that Carcopino had been Minister of Education in Vichy France and, among other things, had signed the order banning Jews from French archaeological institutes abroad. For all its now classic status, on a careful reading the ideological roots of the book still show through.

But the outstanding contribution to Imperial Projections is Sandra Joshel’s essay on I, Claudius. Starting from the original context and impact of Graves’s novels in the 1930s, Joshel traces its history through Mortimer’s version (briefly) and on to the BBC series. But she does not stop with its British reception in 1976; she takes the story on to the repackaging of the series for an American audience, the following year. Featuring as part of the aggressively upmarket Masterpiece Theater productions, sponsored by Mobil on Public Service Broadcasting, it was trimmed of some of its more raunchy scenes, and introduced each week by the urbane Alistair Cooke, acting as a mediator of this very British version of Rome for American viewers. The secret of Joshel’s success lies in her ability to play off all these very different contexts, both chronological and geographical, and to show how they produced radically different versions of I, Claudius. Even the very same series, shown in successive years, proves to have had a quite different significance on different sides of the Atlantic.

The Claudius novels themselves range widely; they take the reader from the recesses of the imperial palace to the remotest regions of the Roman Empire (namely Britain). Graves was partly engaged in a wry debunking of the schoolboy heroic values implicated in Roman imperialism – hinting, in fact, that it was among the ‘barbaric’ Britons that the stalwart virtues of the classic old Roman heroes were to be found. It was presumably for this reason that T. E. Lawrence found the tone of I, Claudius ‘sickening’. The television changed all that. Filmed on a tight budget (‘cheap thrills in the financial as well as the salacious sense’, carped an unenthusiastic review, again in The Listener) and entirely within a studio, very few minutes of the full thirteen hours of the series feature any location other than an imperial palace or villa; even the scenes at the games show only the imperial box, with enthusiastic crowd noises off.

This produces an image of Rome quite different from the novel or the would-be big screen spectacular of 1937. The television I, Claudius was ‘domestic’ in more than one sense: it brought the home life of the Roman court into the ordinary sitting room; and with its emphasis on conversation between the main characters, lingering facial close-ups and sex, it exploited the conventions not of epic extravagance, but of family soap opera. As the promotional material for the American series made explicit, it was a show about ‘the family whose business was ruling the world’.

But the political impact of this domestic scene was much more pointed in the USA. Of course, British audiences were well aware of contemporary relevance of the I, Claudius story to debates on power and its corruption. Even those who were dubious about the Mortimer adaptation had noted that ‘the play’s relevance to the present age is as obvious as it is frightening’. But audiences in the United States in the 1970s found particularly powerful and precise resonances. Reviewers repeatedly saw links between the series and the suspicious ‘atmosphere of post-Watergate America’ – prompted, in part, by the promotional material itself, which emphasised that there was little ‘difference between the malpractice in government revealed in today’s headlines and the corrupt practices of ancient Rome’. There were right-wing resonances too. For those in the Moral Majority who saw women’s growing power as a key factor in American decline, the behaviour of the imperial women in I, Claudius offered historical justification. The figure of Livia was the dominant symbol in all this. American reviewers harped on her Machiavellian ways: ‘power hungry’, planning ‘death as coolly as most women would take a trip to the supermarket’. And the face of Siân Phillips accompanied almost every newspaper account of the series. But the intervention of Alistair Cooke, as host of each episode of the series, pushed her capacity for evil on to an entirely new level. As Livia’s murder of Augustus approached, Cooke intervened to explain to the American audience the first Roman emperor’s political significance: ‘He wrote a constitution which, through the channel of Roman law, passed first to Britain and then to America, as a model, an outline of our own constitution … most of all he reconciled the old nobility and the new republicans and merchants and middle classes to a system of government that was fundamentally republican.’ This is historical nonsense. But it casts a role for Livia far more pernicious than Tacitus or Graves ever hinted at. In this American version, in murdering Augustus, she is not simply a scheming menace, Joan Collins writ large, with a fondness for poison and getting her own way. In Cooke’s interpretation, Livia is guilty of destroying the political foundation of the American State.

Review of Anthony A. Barrett, Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome (Yale University Press, 2002); Sandra R. Joshel, Margaret Malamud and Donald T. McGuire Jr (eds.), Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

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