The most memorable performance in I, Claudius is Sian Phillips’ Livia. Her personality drives the action in the first half of the series, and Phillips gives a truly unforgettable, incandescent performance as the ruthless schemer who systematically manipulates everyone around her except Claudius (Derek Jacobi), whom she wrongly considers too stupid to pay attention to until late in her life. The performance netted her a much-deserved BAFTA award. So let’s take a look at her and see how fact meets fiction.
Livia in the Series
When we first meet Livia, it’s at a banquet celebrating the seventh anniversary of Augustus’ triumph over Antony and Cleopatra. She’s watching everyone in the room, catching every detail of what the people do, and she demonstrates her ability to manipulate Augustus (Brian Blessed). She’s iron-willed, arrogant and condescending, clever, and in many ways the power behind Augustus’ throne. And she is absolutely determined that her older son Tiberius (George Baker) is going to succeed Augustus as ruler of Rome. For the first four episodes, nearly everything she does is about eliminating all the possible alternative candidates, of whom there are several. Her problem is that Augustus dislikes the prickly Tiberius and would much rather have anyone else as his successor. So she has her work cut out for her. Over the course of the first seven episodes, Livia
- Poisons Marcellus, Augustus’ young nephew and initial favorite so that Agrippa will return to Rome, since she’s convinced that Augustus needs Agrippa
- Poisons Agrippa between episodes 1 and 2 because Agrippa required a marriage to Julia, Augustus’ daughter, as the price of returning to Rome, and Livia wants Tiberius to marry Julia
- Ignores Augustus’ explicit wishes and arranges for his deification on the eastern side of the Empire
- Apparently poisons her own son Drusus (Ian Ogilvy) because it looks like he might try to rebel against Augustus to restore the Republic
- Poisons Julia’s son Gaius off-screen because he’s Augustus’ obvious successor now
- Persuades Plautius (Darien Angadi) to spy on Julia and compile a list of Julia’s lovers
- Persuades Lucius to reveal his mother’s adulteries to Augustus so that he won’t appear complicit in the affairs, thus getting Julia exiled in hopes that Augustus will change his mind and recall Tiberius from exile
- Arranges for Plautius to kill Lucius in a boating ‘accident’ because he’s now Augustus’ successor
- Persuades her grand-daughter Livilla (Patricia Quinn) to falsely accuse Augustus’ last surviving grandson Postumus (John Castle) of attempted rape so that Augustus will have to recall Tiberius and make him his successor
- Tricks the chief Vestal Virgin into breaking her oath and allowing Livia to look at Augustus’ will and then substituting a fake will when she discovers that the will names Postumus as Augustus successor
- Poisons Augustus by painting poison on the figs he’s growing because he won’t eat anything anyone else has touched
- Sends Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) to murder Postumus so he can’t succeed Augustus
- Sends assassins to murder Fabius Maximus because he knows about Augustus’ intentions for Postumus succeeding him
- Sends her agents to spirit away Martina, the woman who poisoned Germanicus (David Robb), so that Piso (Stratford Johns) can’t use her testimony against Tiberius during his murder trial, compares notes about poisoning with Martina, and suggests that she could easily have poisoned Martina if she wanted to
- Intervenes in Gnaeus Piso’s trial to protect his wife Plancina, which Tiberius refuses to do
- Persuades Plancina (Irene Hamilton) to persuade Piso to commit suicide so that Livia can destroy the letter than implicates her in Germanicus’ poisoning
- Persuades Claudius to promise to deify her by telling him who she murdered, and admits to Claudius that she didn’t orchestrate the deaths of Drusus and Germanicus only because they died without her intervention
- And finally dies an old woman, with Claudius the only person who knows about her long list of crimes
Whew! That’s a rap sheet that even Shakespeare’s worst villains can’t match. So is any of it true?
The Real Livia
As Augustus’ wife, Livia played an important role in his rule. Publicly, she was offered as the embodiment of traditional Roman feminine virtue, a great beauty, and a matron devoted to her family. She made many of her family’s clothes herself, a traditional marker of moral virtue for Roman women. To some extent, this traditionalist depiction was a strategy of Augustus’ to provide cover for the radical political changes he was introducing at Rome, but Augustus may also have been a man of conservative social tastes. His choice to exile Julia for the rest of her life (and deny her the right to drink wine) after her adultery was revealed was reportedly gut-wrenching to him because he loved her dearly, so he was clearly horrified at Julia’s immoral behavior. According to Cassius Dio, Livia attributed her influence over Augustus to her unswerving faithfulness to him and overlooking his various flings.
As she aged, she became a model for the depiction of the goddesses Piety and Concord and as such helped shape the Roman view of its future empresses, who were expected to faithful and devoted wives and mothers. At public events, she was allowed to sit with the Vestal Virgins, the most honored women in Rome. And of course after her death, Claudius had her deified, the first Roman woman to achieve that honor.
She was clearly interested in promoting her two sons politically. Both Tiberius and Drusus became important and trusted generals. Drusus married Augustus’ niece Antonia Minor and Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce his beloved wife Vipsania in order to marry Julia. This was clearly an unpleasant experience for the unfortunate Tiberius and Julia; they got along poorly, which probably contributed to Julia’s decision to start sleeping with other men, and the loss of Vipsania seems to have permanently scarred Tiberius emotionally. But whether Livia played any role in orchestrating these two marriages is unknown.
The ancient sources all agree that Livia had a good deal of influence with Augustus. She is known to have helped him with the administration of the Empire, often replying to correspondence in his name. This gave her the opportunity to make important decisions on matters of second-tier importance. It’s unlikely that she presumed to handle the most important matters. Given that Augustus trusted her to handle a lot of routine and less important matters, it’s likely that the two discussed issues of governance and she probably acted as an important advisor to him.
Tacitus claims that “she had the aged Augustus firmly under control” and asserts that she was the driving force behind his decision to exile Postumus. The reason Augustus did this is unknown; the story of Livilla accusing him of rape at Livia’s behest is made up. But note that Tacitus says this was when Augustus was quite old; if the charge is true, it was a consequence of decades of ruling and not a basic characteristic of their marriage or Livia’s personality. Suetonius, in a striking turn of phrase, claims that Gaius Caligula described Livia as “Ulysses in petticoats” (Ulixem stolatum). Since in Greek mythology Ulysses (or rather Odysseus, the Greek form of his name) is marked out by his cunning more than his martial skills, the quip is a charge of being manipulative. But elsewhere he says that Augustus refused her request to grant citizenship to a Gaul.
The sources definitely accuse her of some of the murders she commits in I, Claudius. Tacitus claims that she murdered both Gaius and Lucius. He claims, quoting an unnamed source, that Marcia, the wife of Fabius Maximus, revealed to Livia that Maximus had accompanied Augustus to his reconciliation meeting with Postumus, and then subsequently said at his funeral that she had been the cause of Maximus’ death. But he admits this is a rumor. He says that Tiberius claimed that Augustus had left instructions for Postumus’ death, and then based on no evidence whatsoever asserts that it is more probable that Tiberius and Livia arranged it out of fear of Postumus, a rather odd claim given that Tiberius was emperor and Postumus was a disgraced prisoner. He notes that “some suspected” that Livia might have caused Augustus’ final illness out of fear that he would restore Postumus. Tacitus clearly disliked Livia, describing her as a curse to the empire and curse to her family.
Tacitus also accuses Tiberius and Livia of conniving with Gnaeus Piso and his wife Plancina to arrange the death of Germanicus. The reported motive is that Germanicus was a threat to the possible succession of Tiberius’ son Drusus (called Castor in the series) and that Livia hated his wife Agrippina and wanted to ruin her because she had more children and was more famous that Livia. When Piso and Plancina returned to Rome, the Senate demanded a trial for the death of Germanicus. Tacitus claims that Plancina was saved, despite her guilt, because Livia begged Tiberius to rescue her friend. The claim that Livia orchestrated Plancina getting clemency has been confirmed by the discovery about 20 years ago of a senatorial decree that explicitly says as much.
Suetonius repeats the claim that Livia might have ordered the death of Postumus, saying that the tribune who did the deed had received a letter from Augustus ordering it, but that Livia could have written it. He says that as emperor he became vexed that Livia was claiming to rule jointly with him and went out of his way to avoid meeting privately with her. Their final breach happened when, during an argument, she produced some letters that Augustus had written to her complaining about Tiberius; since Suetonius had access to the imperial archives he might have seen such letters, although he doesn’t quote them as he does with other correspondence between the couple. But that’s the only crime he accuses her of, and given that Suetonius was normally eager to repeat dirt on the Julio-Claudians, it’s striking that he does say anything about Tacitus’ other accusations.
The idea that Livia was systematically murdering her way through Augustus’ possible successors rests primarily on Cassius Dio. He says that she was accused of poisoning Marcellus, but then says that a lot of other people died of disease the same year, so that people were uncertain whether the charge was true. He says that Gaius died of an infected wound and Lucius of illness and people suspected Livia because this happened about the time that Augustus recalled Tiberius from exile. He claims that she manipulated Augustus into being merciful toward an attempted assassination plot as part of a Machiavellian scheme of her own. (Indeed, the conversation he invents about this is possibly one of the longest speeches an ancient author attributed to any woman. It runs for seven paragraphs.) He expands on Tacitus’ claim that she poisoned Augustus by inventing the absurd story that she smeared poison on some figs in Augustus’ garden and then offered them to him, eating clean ones to prove that they were safe. He repeats the claim that she might have arranged Postumus’ death. He says that people gossiped that Livia had secured Tiberius’ succession, much to Tiberius’ consternation, and that she claimed this as well, and that eventually she wished to take precedence over Tiberius. Tiberius grew tired of this, forced her to step out of public life, and then grew so tired of her trying to manage his household that he retreated to Capri to get away from her.
So between the three of them we find the following accusations (in chronological order):
- The poisoning of Marcellus
- The poisonings of Lucius and Gaius
- The poisoning of Augustus
- The murder of Postumus
- Perhaps the murder of Fabius Maximus
- The poisoning of Germanicus
That means that the other crimes, including the murder of Agrippa, the exposing of Julia’s adultery, the framing of Postumus, the theft of Augustus’ will, the suicide of Piso, and the kidnapping/rescue of Martina are entirely invented.
With the exception of the killings of Postumus and Fabius Maximus, Livia is accused of poisoning her victims (the sources disagree about how Lucius died). The problem with this is two-fold. First, the ancient world had only a hazy notion of medical issues. People easily died unexpectedly of undiagnosed maladies such as heart disease and sudden crises such as stroke, of fevers and other illnesses that simply couldn’t be treated, and from food poisoning, given the poor state of preservative techniques. Any of these could produce a sudden unexplained death. Injuries could easily turn infected and gangrene could set it. Because the ancient world could not easily explain such things medically, it was incredibly common for people to suspect poisoning and curses, because that made an unexpected event easily understandable in human terms. A second problem here is that the ancient world widely viewed poison as a woman’s weapon. Because women were physically too weak to use weapons successful (or so ancient culture assumed), they preferred to resort to poison to eliminate their enemies.
As a result, I am always very skeptical of historic accusations that a woman has poisoned men, because they can easily be expressions of misogyny and a lack of medical knowledge. Gaius’ death from a wound that became infected is so easily understood that attributing it to Livia is perverse. Similarly, Augustus was in his late 70s when he died; the idea that Livia would have going to ridiculous lengths to poison the men who was the source of her political clout is absurd. Marcellus died in a year when many others died of disease as well. Germanicus and Lucius both died a long way from Rome, and murdering them would have required Livia to pull a lot of strings and risk her position if exposed. In all cases, Ockham’s Razor means that we ought to consider these deaths as result of natural causes rather than Machiavellian plotting.
Our sources also acknowledge this. They repeatedly comment that these charges are rumors, that some people thought she might have poisoned Marcellus, Gaius and Lucius, that Livia could have forged a letter from Augustus ordering the death of Postumus. They offer no firm evidence for any of these claims. The only hard evidence we have for any of this is that Livia intervened to rescue Plancina from a poisoning conviction. That doesn’t prove that Livia had conspired with Plancina to poison Germanicus or even that Plancina had actually poisoned him, merely that helped Plancina get off. An equally probably reading of the evidence is that Livia sincerely believed Plancina was wrongfully-accused and acted to help an innocent friend.
Notice also that the motives attributed to her are the typically misogynistic ones of advancing a son’s interest and, in the case of Germanicus, feminine resentment that another woman was more successful than she (a pretty absurd charge for a woman of Livia’s towering stature). The idea that a woman would kill another woman’s husband simply because they had more children than she did is the sort of misogynistic nonsense that ancient authors were prone to.
Livia makes a marvelous villain, perhaps one of the greatest evil women in all of 20th century film and television, thanks to Sian Phillips remarkable performance. I’ve always suspected that Tony Soprano’s viciously manipulative mother was named Livia as a nod to Phillip’s performance. But while she’s a remarkable character, the historical Livia was probably quite different.
Want to Know More?
If you’d like to know more about Livia, try Anthony Barrett’s biography, Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome.