Livia: Wife of Augustus




Wife of G. Julius Caesar Octavianus

In the year 38 B.C. it suddenly became known at Rome that G. Julius Caesar Octavianus (afterward the Emperor Augustus), one of the triumvirs of the republic, and colleague of Mark Antony and Lepidus in the military dictatorship established after the death of Caesar, had sent up for decision to the pontifical college, the highest religious authority of the state, a curious question.  It was this: Might a divorced woman who was expecting to become a mother contract a marriage with another man before the birth of her child?  The pontifical college replied that if there still was doubt about the fact the new marriage would not be permissible; but if it was certain, there would be no impediment.  A few days later, it was learned that Octavianus had divorced his wife Scribonia and had married Livia, a young woman of nineteen.  Livia’s physical condition was precisely that concerning which the pontiffs had been asked to decide, and in order to enter into this marriage she had obtained a divorce from Tiberius Claudius Nero.

Drusus Claudius Nero

The two divorces and the new marriage were concluded with unwonted haste.  The first husband of Livia, acting the part of a father, gave her a dowry for her new alliance and was present at the wedding.  Thus Livia suddenly passed into the house of her new husband where, three months later, she gave birth to a son, who was called Drusus Claudius Nero.  This child Octavianus immediately sent to the house of its father.

To us, marriage customs of this sort seem brutal, shameless, and almost ridiculous.  We should infer that a woman who lent herself to such barter and exchange must be a person of light manners and of immoral inclinations.  At Rome, however, no one would have been amazed at such a marriage or at the procedure adopted, had it not been for the extraordinary haste, which seemed to indicate that it was undesirable or impossible to wait until Livia should have given birth to her child, and which made it necessary to trouble the pontifical college for its somewhat sophistical consent.  For all were accustomed to seeing the marriages of great personages made and unmade in this manner and on such bases.  Why, then, were these nuptials so precipitately concluded, apparently with the consent of all concerned?  Why did they all, Livia and Octavianus not less than Tiberius Claudius Nero, seem so impatient that everything should be settled with despatch?

The legend

The legend which then formed about the family of Augustus, a legend hostile at almost every point, has interpreted this marriage as a tyrannical act, virtually abduction, by the dissolute and perverse triumvir.  I, too, in my “Greatness and Decline of Rome” expressed my belief that this haste, at least, was the effect not of political motives but of a passionate love inspired in the young triumvir by the very beautiful Livia.  A longer reflection upon this episode has persuaded me, however, that there is another manner, less poetic perhaps, but more Roman, of explaining, at least in part, this famous alliance, which was to have so great an importance in the history of Rome.

Houses of Drusus and Claudius

To arrive at the motives of this marriage we must consider who was Livia and who was Octavianus.  Livia was a woman of great beauty, as her portraits prove.  But this was not all.  She belonged also to two of the most ancient and conspicuous families of the Roman nobility. Her father, Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, was by birth a Claudius, adopted by a Livius Drusus.  He was descended from Appius the Blind, the famous censor and perhaps the most illustrious personage of the ancient republic.  His grandfather, his great-grand-father, and his great-great-grandfather had been consuls, and consuls and censors may be found in the collateral branches of the family.  A sister of his grandfather had been the wife of Tiberius Gracchus; a cousin of his father had married Lucullus, the great general.  He came, therefore, of one of the most ancient and glorious families.  Not less noble was the family of the Livii Drusi who had adopted him.  It counted eight consulships, two censorships, three triumphs, and one dictatorship. Thus the father of Livia belonged by birth and adoption to two of those ancient, aristocratic families which for a long time and even in the midst of the most tremendous revolutions the people had venerated as semi-divine and into whose story was interwoven the history of the great republic.  Nor had the first husband given to Livia been less noble, for Tiberius Claudius Nero was descended like Livia from Appius the Blind, though through another son of the great censor.  In Livia was concentrated the quintessence of the great Roman aristocracy: she was at Rome what in London to-day the daughter of the Duke of Westminster or the Duke of Bedford would be, and her noble rank explains the role which her family had played during the Civil War.  In the great revolution which broke out after the death of Caesar, the father of Livia in the year 43 had been proscribed by the triumvirs; he had fought with Brutus and Cassius and had died by his own hand after Philippi.  In 40, after the Perusinian war and only two years before Livia’s marriage with Octavianus, Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia had been forced to flee from Italy in fear of the vengeance of Octavianus.

Linage of Octavian

Who on the other hand was Octavianus?  A parvenu, with a nobility altogether too recent!  His grandfather was a rich usurer of Velitrae (now Velletri), a financier and a man of affairs; it was only his immediate father who succeeded by dint of the riches of the usurer grandfather in entering the Roman nobility.  He had married a sister of Caesar and, though still young when he died, had become a senator and praetor.  Octavianus was, therefore, the descendant, as we should express it in Europe to-day, of rich bourgeois recently ennobled. Although by adopting him in his will Caesar had given him his name, that of an ancient patrician family, the modest origin of Octavianus and the trade of his grandfather were known to everybody.  In a country like Rome where, notwithstanding revolutions, the old nobility was still highly venerated by the people and formed a closed caste, jealous of its exclusive pride of ancestry, this obscurity of origin was a handicap and a danger, especially when Octavianus had as colleagues Antony and Lepidus, who could boast a much more ancient and illustrious origin than his own.

We can readily explain, therefore, even without admitting that Livia had aroused in him a violent passion, why the future Augustus should have been so impatient to marry her in 38 B.C.  The times were stormy and uncertain; the youthful triumvir, whom a caprice of fortune had raised to the head of a revolutionary dictatorship, was certainly the weakest of the three colleagues, because of his youth, his slighter experience, the feebler prestige among his soldiers, and, last of all, the greater obscurity of his lineage.  Antony, especially, who had fought in so many wars, with Caesar and alone, who belonged to a family of really ancient nobility, was much more popular than he among the soldiers and had stronger relations with the great families.  He was therefore more powerful than Octavianus both in high places and in low.

A marriage with Livia meant much to the future Augustus.  It would open for him a door into the old aristocracy; it would draw him closer to those families which, in spite of the revolution, were still so influential and venerable; it would be the means of lessening the hatred, contempt, and distrust in which these families held him.  It was for him what Napoleon’s marriage with Marie Louise and the consequent connection with the imperial family of Austria had been for the former Corsican officer, become Emperor of the French.  Since, now, a lady who belonged to one of these great families was disposed to marry him, it would have been foolish to put obstacles in the way; it was necessary to act with despatch; time and fortune might change.

Such are the motives that may have induced Augustus to hasten the nuptials.  But what were the motives of Livia in accepting this marriage, in such stormy times, when the fortunes of the future Augustus were still so uncertain?  A passage in Velleius Paterculus would lead us to believe that he who devised this historic marriage was none other than that same first husband of Livia, Tiberius Claudius Nero himself!  According to our ideas it is inconceivable; but not at all strange according to the ideas of the Roman.  It is probable that Tiberius Claudius Nero, feeling that the triumph of the revolution was now assured, had wished by this marriage to attach to the cause of the old aristocracy the youngest of the three revolutionary leaders. Already well along in years and infirm, he was to die shortly after, Nero, who well knew the intelligence of his young wife, was perhaps planning to place her in the house of the man in whom all saw one of the future lords of Rome.  Thus he would bind him to the interests of the aristocracy.  In the person of Livia there entered into the house of Octavianus the old Roman nobility, which, defeated at Philippi, was striving to reacquire through the prestige and the cleverness of a woman what it had not been able to maintain by arms.

All her life long, with constancy, moderation, and wonderful tact, Livia fulfilled her mission.  She succeeded in resolving into the admirable harmony of a long existence that contradiction between the liberty conceded to her sex and the self-denial demanded of it by man as a duty.  She was assuredly one of the most perfect models of that lady of high society whom the Romans in all the years of their long and tempestuous history never ceased to admire.  Even and serene, completely mistress of herself and of her passions, endowed with a robust will, she accommodated herself without difficulty to all the sacrifices which her rank and situation imposed upon her.  She changed husbands without repugnance, though her marriage to Octavianus occurred but five years after the proscriptions, while he was still red with the blood of her family and friends.  Likewise she renounced her two sons, the future emperor Tiberius, who had been born before her second marriage, as well as the one who had been born after.  So too when, a few years later, Tiberius Claudius Nero died, appointing Augustus their guardian, with equal serenity she took them back and educated them with the most careful motherly solicitude.  To the second husband, whom politics had given her, she was a faithful companion.  Scandal imputed to her absurd poisonings which she did not commit, and accused her of insatiable ambitions and perfidious intrigues.  No one ever dared accuse her of infidelity to Augustus or of dissolute conduct.  The great fame, power, and wealth of her husband did not disturb the calm poise of her spirit.  In that palace of Augustus, adorned with triumphal laurel, toward which the eyes of the subjects were turned from every part of the empire, in that palace where, in little councils with the most eminent men of the senate, were debated the supreme interests of the world,–laws and elections, wars and peace, she preserved the beautiful traditions of simplicity and industry.  These she had learned as a child in the house of her father, a house as much more illustrious with inherited glory as it was poorer in wealth than that which Victory had prepared for Augustus on the Palatine.

We know-it is Suetonius who tells us-that this house on the Palatine built by Augustus, in which Livia spent the larger part of her life, was small and not at all luxurious.  In it there was not a single piece of marble nor a precious mosaic; for forty years Augustus slept in the same bedchamber, and the furniture of the house was so simple that in the second century of our era it was exhibited to the public as an extraordinary curiosity.  The imperial pair had several villas, at Lanuvium, at Palestrina, at Tivoli, but all of them were unpretentious and simple.  Nor was there any more pomp and ceremony about the dinners to which they invited the conspicuous personages of Rome, the dignitaries of the state and the heads of the great families.  Only on very special occasions were six courses served; usually there were but three.  Moreover, Augustus never wore any other togas than those woven by Livia; woven not indeed and altogether by Livia’s hands,-though she did not disdain, now and then, to work the loom,-but by her slaves and freed-women.  Faithful to the traditions of the aristocracy, Livia counted it among her duties personally to direct the weaving-rooms which were in the house.  As she carefully parceled out the wool to the slaves, watching over them lest they steal or waste it, and frequently taking her place among them while they were at work, she felt that she too contributed to the prosperity and the glory of the empire.


Simplicity, loyalty, industry, an absolute surrender of one’s own personality to the family and its interests,-these, in the great families, were the traditional feminine virtues which lived again in Livia to the admiration of her contemporaries.  But with these virtues were associated also the need and the pride of participating in the affairs and work of her husband, that interest in politics which had been common to the intelligent women of the nobility.  No one at Rome was astonished, especially in the upper classes, that Livia should occupy herself actively with politics; that Augustus should frequently come to her for counsel, or that he should not make any serious decision without having consulted her; that, in short, she should at the same time attend to her husband’s clothes and aid him in governing the empire.  For so had done from time immemorial all the great ladies of the aristocracy, mindful of their good repute and the prosperity of their families.  And Livia must have tried the more earnestly to fulfil all that her education had taught her to consider a sacred duty, since to a woman of her old-fashioned breeding the times must have appeared especially difficult and perilous.

The civil wars had greatly reduced in numbers the historic aristocracy of Rome, and the peace which followed after so long a time and which had been so anxiously invoked, very soon began to threaten the prosperity of the remnant of that nobility with a more insidious but more inevitable ruin.  About 18 B.C., when Livia was approaching her fortieth year, the men of the new generation who had not seen the civil wars, for when these ended they were either unborn or only in their infancy, were already beginning to come to the front.  They brought with them a previously unknown spirit of luxury, of enjoyment, of dissipation, of rebellion against discipline, of egotism and fondness for the new, which rendered very difficult, not to say impossible, the continuation of the aristocratic regime.  Women submitted with more and more repugnance to those obligatory marriages, arranged for reasons of state, which had formerly been the tradition and the sure bulwark of dominion for the aristocracy.  The increase of celibacy was rendering sterile the most celebrated stocks; the most lamentable vices and disorders became tolerated and common in the most illustrious families, and ruinous habits of extravagance spread generally among that aristocracy, once so simple and austere.  All this had grown up after the conquest of Egypt, which had established more points of contact with the East; and it increased in proportion as those industries and the commerce in articles of luxury which had flourished at Alexandria under the Ptolemies were gradually transplanted to Rome, where the merchants hoped to establish among their conquerors the clientele which had been lost with the fall of the Kingdom of the Nile.  The ladies especially took up with the new oriental customs, and, preferring expensive stuffs and jewels, turned from the loom, which Livia had wished to preserve as the emblem of womanhood.  Many young men of the great families were beginning to show a distaste for the army, for the

government of the state, for jurisprudence, for all those activities which had been the jealous privilege of the nobility of the past.  One gave himself up to literary pursuits, another cultivated philosophy, another busied himself only with the increase of his inherited fortune, while another lived only in pleasure and idleness.  So it happened that there began to appear descendants of great houses who refused to be senators; every year an effort had to be made to find a sufficient number of candidates for the more numerous positions like the questorship, and in the army it was no easy matter to fill all the posts of the superior officers which were reserved for members of the nobility.


The Roman aristocracy then, that glorious Roman aristocracy which had escaped the massacres of the proscriptions and of Philippi, ran grave danger of dying out through a species of slow suicide, if energetic measures were not taken to supply the necessary remedies.  It is certain that Livia had a conspicuous part in the policy of restoring the aristocracy, to which Augustus was impelled by the old nobility, especially toward the year 18 B.C., when with this purpose in view he proposed his famous social laws.  The “Lex de maritandis ordinibus” attempted by various penalties and promises to constrain the members of the aristocracy to contract marriage and to found a family, thus combatting the increasing inclination to celibacy and sterility.  The “Lex de adulteriis” aimed to reestablish order and virtue in the family, by threatening the unfaithful wife and her accomplice with exile for life and the confiscation of a part of their substance.  It obliged the husband to expose the crime to the tribunals; if the husband could not or would not make the accusation, it provided that the father should do so; and in case both husband and father failed, it authorized any citizen to step forth as accuser.  Finally the “Lex sumptuaria” was designed to restrain the extravagance of wealthy families, particularly that of the women, prohibiting them from spending too large a part of the family fortune in jewels, apparel, body slaves, festivities, or buildings, especially in the building of sumptuous villas, then a growing fashion.  In short, it was the purpose of these laws to bring the ladies of the Roman aristocracy to a course of conduct patterned upon the example of Livia.  In the protracted discussions concerning these laws, which took place in the senate, Augustus on one occasion made a long speech in which he cited Livia as a model for the ladies of Rome.  He set forth minutely the details of her household administration, telling how she lived, what relations she had with outsiders, what amusements she thought proper for a person of her rank, how she dressed and at what expense.  And no one in the senate judged it unworthy of the greatness of the state or contrary to custom thus to introduce the name and person of a great lady into the public discussion of so serious a matter of governmental policy.

Livia, then, about 18 B.C. personified in the eyes of the Romans the perfect type of aristocratic great lady created by long tradition. Having been safely preserved by good fortune through the long civil wars, this model was now set back again upon a fitting pedestal in the most powerful and richest family of the empire.  She was the living example of all the virtues which the Romans most cherished, a beloved wife and a heeded counselor to the head of the state, honored with that veneration which power, virtue, nobility of birth, and the dignified beauty of face and figure drew from every one; furthermore, there were her two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, both intelligent, handsome, full of activity, docile to the traditional education which she sought to give them in order that they might be the worthy continuators of the great name they bore.  Livia, with all this in her favor, might have been expected to live a happy and tranquil life, serenely to fulfil her mission amid the admiration of the world.








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