Livia Drusilla

Livia Drusilla was born in Rome on the 30th of January, 59 BCE. Her father was Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, a Roman Senator, and his mother, Alfidia, came from a wealthy family.

Early in Livia’s life, her father was a sympathizer of the triumvirate and an admirer of Julius Caesar. When Caesar was murdered, though, he swung over to the assassins’ side and fought Octavian and Antony. He eventually died, along with the senators Cassius and Brutus. Livia’s husband at the time, Tiberius Claudius Nero, supported Augustus and Antony, but when the two finally clashed, he backed the more seasoned Antony over the young Octavian. With Augustus’ victory, she fled to Greece, along with her husband and two-year-old son, Tiberius.

Rise to Power

In 39 BCE, after an amnesty was granted to the triumvirate’s political foes, Livia and her husband felt it was safe to go back to Rome. When they eventually did, Livia was introduced to Augustus. At the time, Livia was pregnant with her second son, Nero Claudius Drusus, but Augustus nonetheless fell in love with her on sight. A few months later, Augustus convinced Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce Livia and Augustus divorced his wife, Scribonia. Interestingly, Scribonia gave birth to Augustus’ daughter, Julia, on the day of the divorce. With matters settled, Octavian and Livia were engaged to each other.

Ordinary yet Influential Wife

In 38 BCE, three days after Livia gave birth to her second son, Drusus, she and Octavian were married. There were no rumors that Tiberius Claudius Nero showed ill-will towards Octavian. Instead, he even attended the wedding and acted as Livia’s father, and gave her away to her new husband. Tiberius Claudius Nero died five years later.

Marrying Livia was politically useful for Octavian. Although he was a powerful and wealthy man, he lacked the prestigious familial background that Livia enjoyed. Livia’s family’s political connections would only increase Octavian’s power and influence. 

Seen from this angle, it could have been very easy for their contemporaries to say that their marriage was only for political reasons. However, Octavian and Livia seemed to have really loved or at least liked each other. Livia became pregnant, but when the time came, the child was born dead. After this, she was not able to conceive anymore. Octavian could have easily divorced her because of this, but instead, their marriage flourished for the next 51 years. Perhaps one factor that made their union last was that Octavian cultivated the image of being a humble person, a man of the people who lived plainly in a house on Palatine Hill and not in a palace. When the Senate proclaimed him Augustus, or “revered one,” in 27 BCE, he preferred to be called Princeps Civitatis, or “First Citizen.” 

The assassination of Julius Caesar may have caused these efforts by Octavian to be seen as an unassuming man. Octavian may have thought that the best way to avoid being killed by political enemies was to not do what Caesar had done, to not be a star that outshone everyone else. It would have taken very little effort for Livia to assume the image her husband wanted her to, as she played the part so well. She made his clothes and did not parade herself wearing fancy jewelry or fine clothes. She faithfully attended to domestic tasks such as house chores and her children’s education. Livia became her husband’s most intimate counselor, and she, therefore, affected his imperial decisions. 

Octavian seemed to have seen her indispensable importance, as, in 35 BCE, he mandated her protection against verbal insult that was enjoyed by tribunes. To add to this, he gave her the freedom to look after her own financial affairs and even had a statue built in her honor.

Rumors as a Scheming Mother

Augustus had no natural heir to the throne, having only Julia from his former wife, Scribonia. Livia was sharply aware of this from the beginning, and her ambition drove her to position her two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, for the throne. 

Drusus, a general, found himself in a promising position when he married Augustus’ niece, Antonia Minor. He and Antonia had three children: Germanicus, Livilla, and Claudius, who would later become emperor. Unfortunately for Drusus, he died in 9 BCE after falling from a horse. 

In 23 BCE, Augustus’ nephew, Marcellus, died. Augustus was apparently priming Marcellus as the heir to the throne. When he died, rumors spread that Livia knew the circumstances surrounding Marcellus’ death. When Julia’s two sons with Vipsanius Agrippa, who was a close friend of Augustus, also died, Livia’s name was again mentioned in hushed tones. 

Julia had one remaining son, Agrippa Postumus, but Augustus exiled him to the island of Planasia. He was later killed soon after Augustus’ death. To this day, the reasons behind Augustus’ actions are unclear. Some historians say Postumus must have been connected to a plot against Augustus. Others say he was weak of mind and hard-headed. Still, some say that Livia had wicked plans for Postumus all along, as he was Augustus’ direct descendant, while Tiberius, her son, was not. Ultimately, these deaths would pave the way for Tiberius to be chosen as heir by Augustus.

Death of Augustus and Relationship with Tiberius

When Augustus died in AD 14, word circulated that Livia had poisoned her husband. The historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio told of rumors wherein Livia, having failed to poison Augustus’ food on the table because he always liked freshly-picked figs, smudged poison on unpicked figs instead. However, present-day historians look down on these allegations and treat them as falsehoods woven by political enemies. 

Augustus bequeathed one-third of his fortune and property to Livia and the rest to his step-son Tiberius. He conferred on Livia the title of Augusta, so she might keep her standing and influence even after his death. Consequently, she enjoyed real power after her husband’s death. She had become so venerable that criticizing her had become punishable by law. 

Now emperor, her son, Tiberius, granted her a seat at the theater with the Vestal Virgins. Tiberius, however, had a simmering bitterness towards his mother. Early in his rule, Tiberius blocked the Senate’s move to confer on Livia the title of “Mother of the Fatherland.” He harbored a grudge against her because of her political stature. More importantly, he despised her for being the reason he was in power. This may be supported by Cassius Dio and Tacitus, who portray her as an overbearing and imperious woman who always used her influence on her son whenever she saw a chance.


In AD 22, Tiberius rushed to his mother upon hearing she was ill. Things unfolded differently, though, when Livia fell gravely sick in AD 29. Tiberius, who was then staying in Capri, sent excuses, saying that he was too preoccupied with work to immediately return to Rome. He then made out as if he would come over to the burial after all but did not. Consequently, Livia’s decomposing body forced friends and family to bury her without her son’s presence.

Tiberius blocked the Senate’s wishes to confer divine honors on Livia, saying he was acting on her mother’s orders. However, when Livia’s grandson, Claudius, became emperor in AD 42, he allowed her grandmother to finally be proclaimed a god under the name Diva Augusta.