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Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome Paperback – January 11, 2004
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From Library Journal
Barrett, who has written biographies of Caligula and Agrippina, here reconstructs the life of a noteworthy Roman historical figure about whom little direct information is available. Livia maintained a "deliberate reserve" throughout her life and was steadfastly committed to being the Emperor Augustus's wife. Much has been suggested about the influence she had on her husband during his tenure, and common belief holds that she deliberately poisoned his successors. Barrett counters the mostly negative attacks on her character, arguing that much of what has been said about her is spurious. As such, those responsible for documenting the imperial family, such as the historian Tacitus, get scrutinized. Barrett explores other facets of Livia's personality, such as her interest in horticulture and political patronage. The book presents the general politics of the time and highlights other key figures from imperial Rome. Surprisingly, Livia was highly regarded by the Roman Senate, as well as by other peers, who often commended her for her generosity. Barrett's work is probably denser and more detailed than would interest the average reader, but for those keenly interested in studying ancient Rome it comes as a welcome addition to the genre. Recommended for academic libraries. Isabel Coates, CCRA-Toronto West Tax Office, Mississauga, Ont.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"In reading Anthony Barrett's biography of Livia, I not only learned about this remarkable woman, but also gained a meaningful appreciation of life and society in her time."
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Top customer reviews
Apparently there is not much in the way of hard evidence as to Livia's personality or actions. Barrett makes it very clear that historians Tacitus', Seneca and Suetonius et als are torn, and conflicting in their portrayal of Livia. The former being the most acid and hostile to Livia.
Barrett begins his biography by devoting paragraphs to speaking of Robert Graves' portrayal of Livia in I, Claudius and Claudius the God, including the BBC filming of same. He states (correctly) that Sian Phillips's portrayal of Livia was so strong, it has taken over popular opinion as the "real" Livia. There is a great deal of truth in what he says. However as far as I am concerned, Barrett has done very little to counteract that picture.
He states time after time (ad nauseam) that there is no verifiable proof of Livia being a poisoner as stated in Graves books. Every step of the way though, Barrett backs up the verifiable events as seen in Graves work. There is nothing to counteract those assumptions of being a poisoner. And, I hasten to admit, as far as I can tell, they are assumptions. We have no forensic proof that Livia poisoned the ones she was accused of poisoning in Graves books. As Barrett presents her Livia did in fact, have motive and opportunity to commit those crimes that she has been accused of.
Livia is presented by Barrett as being the epitome of Roman Womanhood, an example to be followed in every way. Loyal, and doing everything possible to support her husband. Let us also remember that Octavian/Augustus ran roughshod over many to become Emperor, and was politically savvy and an opportunist.
From the Preface:
"One of the burdens shouldered by the modern historian is that of correcting false impressions created by the popular media, particularly dangerous when a production is distinguished and the performances brilliant. This process usually involves the thankless task of demonstrating pedantically that, contrary to popular belief, truth is rarely stranger than fiction, and is usually far less exciting."
Barrett seems to have shot himself in the foot in my view, as he doesn't prove anything, and is far too repetitive, and far too (his word) pedantic.
In fact, as far as I am concerned, methinks the historian doth protest too much.
The book was well written and relatively easy to read. My only complaint was that I tended to get lost in the multitude of "multi-worded" Roman personal names. And, many times I had to go back and reread who a certain character was. This was not the authors fault but it did tend to slow reading down.
I recommend this book. It's a good read.
“If the general public has any impression of Livia, the wife of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, it is of the character created by the Welsh actress Sian Phillips in the highly acclaimed BBC-TV series production of I, Claudius, first broadcast in 1976. This popular confusion between the historical and the fictional is hardly surprising, given Phillip’s riveting performance. Cunning and sinister, her Livia devotes every waking hour to her consuming interests: plotting, scheming, conniving, and the cheerful eradication of an assorted variety of fellow citizens, be they strangers, friends, or even close family.
“One of the burdens shouldered by the modern historian is that of correcting false impressions created by the popular media, particularly dangerous when a production is distinguished and the performances brilliant.”
In my pseudo-autobiography, Sempronia, the Sister of the Gracchi, I have Sempronia opining “If ever you are about to be born and the gods grant you the decision as to whether you want to be born into the most illustrious family in Rome, or to some poor family who is just part of the head count, I strongly recommend that you choose the head count family.” Sempronia was referring to her illustrious family, the Scipios, but this advice would go double for someone contemplating being born into the family of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The premature mortality among the members of this family is incredibly high.
But how much, if any of this was the doing of Augustus’ wife Livia? Anthony Barrett believes little or none. He dismisses the deaths Gaius and Lucius, the two elder sons of Augustus’ daughter Julia and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, as a war casualty and a natural death respectively. The death of the third son, Postumus Agrippa, is clearly murder. It occurred upon the heels of Augustus’s death, and was no doubt upon the order of someone high up in the power structure, but Barrett feels that there is not enough evidence to pin it on Livia.
Barrett sees no evidence of foul play in the deaths of Octavia’s son Marcellus, or in the death of Tiberius’ brother Drusus. Germanicus, the son of Drusus, clearly thought he had been poisoned and said so before he died. Some pin the blame upon Plancina, the wife of Germanicus’ rival, Calpurnius Piso, who was a close friend of Livia. Again, Barrett feels that there is not enough evident to implicate Livia.
Barrett blames the death of Tiberius’ son Drusus on his wife Livilla and her paramour Sejanus. He claims that Livia protected the lives of Germanicus’ widow Agrippina and her sons Nero and Drusus while she lived, and it was only after Livia’s death that they fell prey to the machinations of the scheming Sejanus.
It is entirely possible that Livia exerted a moderating influence upon both her husband Augustus and her son Tiberius. It has been noted that as a young man, Octavian was bloodthirsty but became far less so after he consolidate his power. Might this have been somewhat due to Livia’s influence? Conversely, Tiberius seems to have become more murderous after Livia died. Barrett presents a lot of anecdotal evidence of Livia interceding on the behalf of Romans who had fallen out of favor with the Emperors, both Augustus and Tiberius.
Barrett’s book is not for the casual reader. It is a scholarly and heavily detailed tome of which nearly half the pages are appendices and footnotes. The reader must be motivated to plow through it, but one will find some fascinating information about the Julio-Claudian family and the Roman empire of that period of time.