Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Empress-Mother

Livia, Empress and Empress-Mother for nearly seventy years, is one of the stateliest figures in Roman history. By birth she belonged to the great Claudian house, a race far more celebrated indeed for the arts of peace than for triumphs in war, but the proudest and most resolute of Roman aristocrats. Adopted by one of the Livian family—hence the name which she bore throughout her life—she married into her own house, though not into her own branch of it.

Her husband was a certain Tiberius Claudius Nero, descended from the famous Nero, whose rapid march northwards in the twelfth year of the Second Punic war had assured, not indeed the safety of Rome, which was no longer doubtful, but the speedy end of a desolating war.

Her husband took the wrong, or, at least, the unsuccessful side in one of the struggles of the Civil War, and had to fly for his life. Livia was with him, and the pair had more than one hair-breadth escape, once very nearly being discovered to their pursuers by the crying of the infant which the young wife was carrying with her, at another being almost burnt alive by a forest fire. But a reconciliation was brought about between Nero and Augustus now acknowledged master of the Western world, and the fugitives returned to Rome. Livia's beauty attracted the notice of the Emperor. Her husband divorced her, gave her away to her new spouse and actually—so the story runs—sat as a guest at the marriage feast. She was then but eighteen, the mother of one child (afterwards the Emperor Tiberius), and about to become the mother of another.

It was not then in a very reputable way, that Livia became the partner of the Imperial throne. But we must not judge these things by modern standards, and whatever we may think of Augustus, Nero and Livia are not much to blame. Resistance to the supreme ruler of Rome was hardly to be thought of, and no one certainly in those days dreamt of being a martyr for the sanctity of the marriage tie. Once seated on the throne she was a model of all that a wife should be. Not even a breath of slander tarnished her fair fame. She was a matron of the old Roman type, the finest ever seen outside the circle of christian womanhood.

I have spoken of Livia's ambition for her children. Whether she used any sinister means to clear the way to the throne for Tiberius, the elder, is a matter about which we know nothing for certain. That she was suspected is clear, but then any woman in her position and with her opportunities would have been suspected. That when Tiberius gained the object of her ambition she sought to secure him in power by removing the unhappy youth who had the fatal distinction of being the grandson of Augustus, is almost certainly true. Tacitus seems to apportion the guilt of the murder between the mother and the son. He tells us, however, that Tiberius disclaimed all knowledge of the deed, and professed an intention of bringing it under the notice of the Senate, an intention from which he was turned only by a representation that there were secrets of Empire which it would be highly dangerous to reveal, and about which the Senate must not be permitted to judge. The historian has a vehement prejudice against Tiberius, and we may perhaps conclude that the balance of probabilities inclines to the belief that Livia rather than her son had the principal share in the deed.

If Livia sinned for her children, she was grievously punished through them. The younger of the two, Drusus, a brilliant soldier, who carried the arms of Rome into regions never visited by them before or after his time, died at the age of thirty (A. D. 9). This was sad enough, though it may well be that he was happy in being taken away from the evil to come and that his mother lived to feel it. She suffered far more when the elder son, the one for whom she had dared so much and suffered so much, showed jealousy which was not long in growing into something like hatred.

She seemed to him to claim an equal share in the government, and this his sullen temper could not brook. He had grown indeed so used to her counsels that he found it hard to do without them; but he deliberately estranged himself from her more and more completely. It was especially annoying for him to be styled, as he was in the proceedings of the Senate, the son of Augustus and Livia. He refused to allow the title of "Mother of the Country" to be bestowed on her; he limited as far as he could the distinctions which her position seemed to make natural. He went further than this; he told her plainly that she was fond of meddling with affairs too great for her or for any woman. His jealousy descended sometimes to ludicrous meanness. A fire broke out near the Temple of Vesta, the most sacred spot in Rome, and the Empress, who must have been then past her eightieth year, herself came upon the scene, as she had more than once in the lifetime of Augustus, and urged the populace and the soldiers who were putting out the flames to do their very best. Tiberius was most unreasonably angry at her activity. At last the two came to an open feud.

Livia begged her son to bestow some honour on one of her protégés. He refused and she repeated her request. At last he said "Yes, I will do it, if you will allow this entry to be made in the register; This was extorted from me by my mother.' " Stung to the quick, she produced an old memorandum in the hand-writing of Augustus, complaining of the morose and odious character of his stepson. Tiberius was furious to find that such a document had been kept so carefully and was now brought up against him. This was said to be one of the causes that drove him out of Rome, where, indeed, he never set foot during the last eleven years of his life. His mother lived three years after his departure. During that time he saw her but once only, and that but for a few hours. She must have gone out of the city to meet him. He did not attend her funeral; neglected her last wishes as to the disposition of the body; and did not carry into effect the provisions of her will.

All her friends felt the weight of his displeasure. He bore and showed a grudge even against those whom she had entrusted with the conduct of her funeral rites. Such was the end of all her guilty scheming. There is no doubt that, up to time of the rupture with her son Livia exercised a moderating influence on his rule. Tacitus distinguishes five periods in his character. There can be little doubt indeed that the historian does him, on the whole, less than justice; still we may accept the statement that "as long as his mother lived he was partly good and partly bad." But the best side of Livia's nature is one of which, but for an accident, we should have known nothing. Among the remains of antiquity which time has spared, is the chamber in which the cinerary urns of Livia's family were deposited. There are stored in almost endless succession the urns of her personal attendants, her robe-women and tire-women, and others who filled posts in an establishment which must have been one of truly imperial dimensions. Generations of such servants passed away during her long life. There must have been some tenderness, some capacity of affection in the woman to whom they rendered faithful service and who preserved the affectionate memorial of them when they were gone.