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Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography Hardcover – January 4, 2011

3 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Dennison attempts to set the historical record straight in this balanced biography of one of the most maligned females in ancient history. Portrayed in both fact (The Histories and The Annals) and fiction (I, Claudius, anyone?) as a serial poisoner who would stop at nothing to ensure that her son Tiberius succeeded his stepfather Augustus as emperor of Rome, the Livia that is resurrected here is far from the femme fatale of legend. Unfortunately, the real woman is a great deal less interesting than her infamous fictional counterpart. Since what is actually verifiable about his subject is sometimes rather sketchy, Dennison pads Livia’s chronicle with cultural, societal, and historical details and events that ground her firmly in the context of her times. Ancient Rome always appeals, and it is nice to see an unjustly tarnished reputation polished up for posterity. --Margaret Flanagan

Review

“This is an erudite, nuanced, and engrossing portrait of a turbulent era and of an empress demonized for refusing to be invisible.”—Publishers Weekly

“A fine biography. . . . [Dennison] has produced a scholarly but highly accessible book about the woman who—through chance, dress, behaviour and her own undeniable determination—was able to make the Empire her own.”—Lindsey Davis, New York Times bestselling author of Alexandria

“British journalist Dennison deftly sifts the historical record for a portrait of a woman in the right place at the right time. . . . Dennison does a nice job of defending this fascinating character from “demonization” through the centuries, and knowledgeably considers many facets of Roman history, including religion, the place of women and children, family life and iconography. A deeply considered look at women and power in the late Roman age.”—Kirkus Review

“Dennison attempts to set the historical record straight in this balanced biography of one of the most maligned females in ancient history: Portrayed in both fact (The Histories and The Annals) and fiction (L Claudius, anyone?) as a serial poisoner who would stop at nothing to ensure that her son Tiberius succeeded his stepfather, Augustus, as emperor of Rome, the Livia that is resurrected here is far from the femme fatale of legend. . . . Ancient Rome always appeals, and it is nice to see an unjustly tarnished reputation polished up for posterity.”—Booklist

“[A] richness of detail gives readers a solid foothold for understanding the complex traditions, customs, and politics of the era. . . . aficionados of Roman history, social history, women's history, or biography will enjoy the wealth of information.”—Library Journal

“Learned, engrossing and pacey new biography . . . Dennison combines a healthy scepticism towards his sources with an alertness to all that made the career of his heroine authentically remarkable . . . His achievement, in this consistently entertaining biography, is to remind us that a politician with a clever and supportive wife is a fortunate man indeed.”—Mail on Sunday (UK)

“An engrossing and persuasive portrait of one of history’s most influential women.”—Independent (UK)

“Well-researched . . . full of delightful detail.”—Daily Mail (UK)

“Dennison excels at exploring the iconography of Livia . . . his analysis is exemplary . . . Balanced, scholarly and yet accessible, this is very good history indeed.”—Country Life (UK)

“A powerful new life of Livia . . . refreshingly free of cant.”—The Herald (UK)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; First Edition edition (January 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312658648
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312658649
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,454,071 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
MD makes an ambitious promise - in the absence of new archeological discoveries or historic records to review the well-known sources in a different light. A good idea, although perhaps not entirely new. Alas, what do we learn after reading the first 40 odd pages? Livia's date of birth is still uncertain; so is her place of birth; virtually nothing is known of her early years. Instead, MD paints a portrait of what the Roman family life was like, straying into many side avenues and jumping back and forth in time.

Whilst his book is well written, it often lacks a clear thread that allows the reader to follow MD's interpretations (many of which may well be right) of events, documents, and sources generally, and the inferences he draws from them. Invariably, there is a lot of speculation when MD hits the many lacunas that mark the life of Livia, and - falling back on his journalistic background - is often tempted to replace facts with suggestive questions (many of which are not entirely logical).

In all, one really has to ask the question what drove MD to write this book, especially since (leaving Ranke-Graves aside) there are already several well balanced accounts of Livia's life. MD is no Jasper Ridley, who does not hesitate for a moment when he can tear a hole into Antonia Fraser's web of history. MD is gentle, prefers to walk around the issue, and compel the reader to look at the same source material from different angles. Alas, one is occasionally tempted to conclude that such tour d'horizon does not add further insights and is dangerously close to confusing.

Were it not for MD's pleasing style of writing, one might easily be persuaded to move on to another book.
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Format: Hardcover
The history of Ancient Rome has always fascinated me, especially the transition from Republic to Empire with the rise of Augustus (Octavian) in 31 BCE. Ever since Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius and especially since the widely acclaimed BBC television adaptation of it, Augustus's wife, Livia, has been seen as a conniving femme fatale who would do anything to insure the rise of her son, Tiberius. The show is like a soap opera almost, with Livia as the main villainess. This portrayal is seen as unfair by Matthew Dennison. His book, Livia, Empress of Rome, intends to set the record straight. If it can't rehabilitate her, it will at least demonstrate that the historical record is not necessarily accurate. It's doesn't quite do the job.

Was Livia really as bad as some Roman historians (on which many more recent portrayals are based) make her out to be? Dennison considers some of her detractors as incredibly biased, such as Tacitus, who it seems makes every effort to badmouth her at every turn, at least when she shows up in the histories. There are points in the narrative where Dennison demonstrates that something the historians say about her can't possibly be accurate based on any kind of logic or precedent. These passages are effective in doing what Dennison wants to do.

Unfortunately, too many times the best Dennison can do is say that there is no other corroboration or that something doesn't quite make sense. He can't demonstrate definitively that the histories are wrong. When these passages came up, I could almost see the mental gymnastics Dennison went through to try and lessen the impact. He tries to get into her head a little bit, supposing what she might have really thought in this case, rather than what Tacitus or Dio say she was thinking.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an ambivalent treatment of the enigmatic Livia. The main theme appears to be that Livia is not likely to be guilty of crimes attributed to her by Tacitus and Graves. Dennison characterizes 'I Claudius' as a series of murders with the motivation of installing her son as princeps. He likens the process to that in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets.' Denigrated repeats of Graves, such as the murder of Augustus with poisoned figs, are perhaps more interesting than the fairly dry history that Dennison substitutes.

There is interesting analysis of motivation without new insights towards either history or characterizations. Dennison is perhaps overly careful not to assume any history without evidence. He does not substitute any character study of his own.

Many questions remain. When and how did Augustus manage to morph from first citizen to emperor? Why did he stay with Livia as his honored consort for thirty years in spite of her failure to provide him an heir? The author gives the impression of approaching from a distance, never getting close to his characters. The source and extent of Livia's political influence does not come through. Citing Livia as politically astute is not explored. That she engaged in her own foreign policy and inherited territory from the sister of Herod in her own right is a very interesting item that warrants more detail. Also that she vexed Tiberius with a desire to be co-emperor.

Some of the most interesting items in the book are given as tidbits that could stand much more exposition. Dennison characterizes Tiberius as a 'Republicans' and allusion that Germanicus might have restored the Republic.
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