Octavian and Livia

By 36 BC Octavian was a much married man. His first wife was Claudia Pulchra, the daughter of Fulvia who was the wife of Antony. That marriage gives every indication of having been unhappy. Octavian divorced her and claimed that they had not had sexual intercourse (a strange claim in a Roman moral context).

His second wife was Scribonia. But on the very day she gave birth to their daughter, Julia, who turned out to be Augustus’ only child, Octavian divorced her (Dio, 48.34). He presumably waited until that point so that he could lay claim to the child.

His third and final wife was Livia Drusilla, (born January 58). She had already been married and, indeed, was married when Octavian became enamoured with her. Her first son was Tiberius (born November 42 BC), the future emperor. Her second son, Drusus, was born on January 14th 38 BC. On January 17th, Livia and Octavian married. Livia was just short of her twentieth birthday.


Livia Drusilla: Cast at Pushkin Museum (Photo: Wikipedia / Shakko)

Even for the relaxed Roman customs around marriage, this was a scandal (Dio, 38.44).

We need not necessarily see the marriage between Livia and Octavian as one of romance, driven by love or desire. Certainly, there were rumours throughout Octavian-Augustus’s career of long-term relations with other women, and it was on these rumours that Antony played in his defence of his relations with Cleopatra.

Although we might want to take with some caution the lurid tales of sexual promiscuity that gave rise to Augustus’s clamping down in adultery, it is clear that the Romans of the late Republic had a relatively relaxed view of sexual pleasure being taken outside fo the marital relationship, certainly for men, but also for women. If Julius Caesar could take many lovers, why could Octavian not follow the same path?

Marriage was not just an act to satisfy a personal desire. It was a political and social act. What did Livia bring to this partnership?

Livia was from a leading aristocratic family. Her ancestors probably first came to prominence in the fourth century BC. During the late second century, they were a family of considerable importance. Her father had opposed Caesar. He joined with the assassins and committed suicide in 42 after the battle of Philippi.

As befitted someone of such birth and connection, Livia married Tiberius Claudius Nero, an aspiring political leader who was from a family probably yet more distinguished than Livia’s (Suetonius, Tiberius 1-3.). Tiberius Claudius Nero managed to negotiate the difficulties of the proscriptions, but chose the wrong side of the triumviral conflict in the Perusine war with the result that he and Livia had to flee Rome.

Their experiences gives us some insight into the dangers that exiles faced in these turbulent times. Unable to win the favour of Sextus Pompeius, Livia and Tiberius Claudius fled to Greece. But there the politics was also difficult, and they were forced to move at night for fear of arrest. The small family was nearly killed in a fire that singed Livia’s hair (Suetonius, Tiberius 4-6).

Their intent was to join Mark Antony, which they seem to have achieved. With the outbreak of peace in 40 BC and the general amnesty that followed, they were able to return to Rome. One might speculate that this lesson in the realities of imperial power meant that when Octavian came calling for Livia, Tiberius Claudius knew better than to make a fuss.

Livia was well-connected, but little more so than Octavian’s previous and current wives.

Nevertheless, the presumptuous removal of Livia from her husband’s home could be read as a display of Octavian’s political power. Tyrants took what they wanted and if they wanted someone’s wife or daughter, they took her. Whatever the realities of the situation (and it might have been that Tiberius Claudius was happy to be rid of Livia and Livia happy to go), it would be understood as the act of a tyrant.

So what must we presume about Octavian’s actions.

  • We might presume that he was in love, and so did not care what people thought.
  • We might presume that he had made a judgement that what Livia brought to the marriage was worth the opprobrium he risked.
    • If this were the case, what did Livia bring? Was it some personal quality that the future emperor thought would enhance his position?
  • We might presume that he simply did not care. His power was unquestioned and this was just another way to display his authority.

In her later career, Livia secured a reputation as a political wheeler and dealer. She was very prominent in the middle and later Augustan period and this continued through into the reign of the her son. She was able to use her wealth and access to the emperor to help manage imperial affairs. She could offer support to families informally in ways which unobtrusively built support for the regime.

But that was not the case in the triumviral period. Most of the portrayals of Livia in public art appear to come from the later reign. There was an exception, however. In 35 BC, as part of the celebrations relating to Octavian’s victories in Dalmatia, Octavia and Livia were granted statues and the right to administer their own affairs. Normally, women required a legal guardian (a tutor) before dealing with legal business (Dio, 49.38).

It was very rare for women to be given statues. Statues were public matters and reflected a contribution to the public sphere. They were to be granted irregularly, to the great men of the state. They became permanent symbols of the achievements of those great men and consequently something of a history in stone of the achievements of the senatorial aristocracy. Like so much in Rome, they reflected and represented the hierarchical political order of Republican society.

Women were not part of that story. It was a man’s history of Rome. Consequently women were not honoured with statues. There had, of course, been statues to divine figures. Mythical women or those who had performed acts of particular religious importance might get a statue, but these were rare and exceptional.

There was one exception, a statue to Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi. This statue appears have voted for by the plebs. In itself, it was an attack on the conventions of the senators. It honoured in the most obvious way the mother of their heroes and set that motherhood against the male dominated collectivity of senatorial power.

In this tradition, the granting of statues to the wives of the triumvirs was a remarkable statement about their positions. Women took a role in running and supporting the households of their menfolk as Fulvia had done for Antony. Cleopatra was to play a similar role, operating in a form of partnership with Antony. But the granting of honours to the wife of a leading man was to make an equivalence between her role in support of that man, and the role of the leading men of the past.

The gender politics here are complex for a modern audience. The honours for Livia and Octavia were not for what they had done, but for whom the were married to. They were clearly secondary figures to their husbands. But they were seen as figures of high status and public importance.

We might think about a society of male equals. In that society, men are honoured because of their achievements. There may be a myth of equality between those men and a convenient assumption that all men started equal and what distinguished them was their abilities and their moral status. Even within an aristocratic society, one could have a myth of meritocracy. In such a society, women play little public part: their significance is confined to the shadows.

But  what might happen to such a society to allow women to be honoured for their public achievements?

In this Roman instance, it is not because women have been allowed access to the public roles. Politics and public life at an official level remained male. We cannot and should not impose a modern agenda of a creeping liberalisation of attitudes towards women in Roman society: there is no evidence for such a change in attitudes.

Instead, what seems to happen is a shift from the achievements of the individual to a focus on the individual’s household. It is not just the main man who is lauded, but his family. There has always been reflected glory from the achievements of a family member, but we seem to be seeing a shift in that process. That shift would suit the way in which Antony was to represent his position in the East in a quasi-regal relationship with Cleopatra. It also suited Octavian’s representation of his position as Caesar’s heir. In both these representations, there were clear elements of monarchic ideology.

The granting of the statues was an event that illustrates a process of change in Roman political ideologies. That process was a shift of power away from the particular senator and towards the household. In the first instance, this transformation relates to the household of the emperor, but senatorial households became increasingly partnerships between men and women. This process can be seen at work throughout the Augustan period and was closely related to the emergence of monarchy.

Livia was acknowledged not as a partner in power, but in her contribution to the household of her husband. It was in this role that women of the imperial house wielded power, never as independent political figures.

It seems to be enormously unlikely that Octavian selected Livia because he understood how important a wife with political sensibilities was going to be. But for later emperors, such as Claudius, the choice of the right wife was of paramount political importance.

Acts of the Triumvirs                     Livia                            Octavian’s Domination

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