Title: I am Livia
Author: Phyllis T. Smith
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Copyright: May 1, 2014
Format: E-Book, 391 Pages
Genres: Historical Fiction, Historical Women’s Fiction, Historical Romance, Ancient Fiction, Historical Biographical Fiction
Price: $11.39 [Amazon Paperback], $9.99 [Kindle | KindleUnlimited], $7.49 [Audible], $14.99 [Barnes and Noble Paperback], $26.80 [Barnes and Noble Hardcover], $9.99 [Nook], $9.99 [Google Play], $9.99 [Apple Books], $16.99 [Apple Books Audiobook]
Her life would be marked by scandal and suspicion, worship and adoration…
At the tender age of fourteen, Livia Drusilla overhears her father and fellow aristocrats plotting the assassination of Julius Caesar. Proving herself an astute confidante, she becomes her father’s chief political asset—and reluctantly enters into an advantageous marriage to a prominent military officer. Her mother tells her, “It is possible for a woman to influence public affairs,” reminding Livia that—while she possesses a keen sense for the machinations of the Roman senate—she must also remain patient and practical.
But patience and practicality disappear from Livia’s mind when she meets Caesar’s heir, Octavianus. At only eighteen, he displays both power and modesty. A young wife by that point, Livia finds herself drawn to the golden-haired boy. In time, his fortunes will rise as Livia’s family faces terrible danger. But her sharp intellect—and her heart—will lead Livia to make an unbelievable choice: one that will give her greater sway over Rome than she could have ever foreseen.
This may contain some spoilers if have not read the book or if you are unfamiliar with Livia Drusilla’s story. Note that the review does not contain spoilers.
The year is 38 BC and Rome is abuzz with the latest scandal. It seems like a civil war has been waged for so long that a weird bit of news would go unnoticed. However, this is Rome and the Romans take notice of one of the stranger happenings.
First, Octavianus divorces Scribonia, his second wife, on the same day she gives birth to their only child, Julia. It so happens that he has fallen in love with Livia Drusilla, the wife of Tiberius Claudius Nero. She consequently is also the daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, one of the co-conspirators who plotted to kill Julius Caesar. This is the same woman who has spent years running away from the civil wars. She had to flee with her husband, child, and servants from Perusia as it was besieged by Octavianus’s forces.
The bizarre spectacle is rendered even stranger because it is revealed that Livia is pregnant with her second child, Drusus, by Tiberius Claudius Nero. On top of that, her first husband is more than willing to give his wife away to Octavianus. As she dons the tunica recta, the gown of the Roman bride and covers her face in the flammeum, the orange veil, he makes absolutely no objection. He sits in the place of honor reserved normally for the male representative of the bride’s family. It is uncertain if Octavianus forced his hand or if he willingly chose to give up Livia. Tacitus believed that Livia entered willingly into the union.
The established law and custom is that Livia and Octavianus should wait three months before marrying. Augusto Fraschetti, professor of Roman History at La Sapienza University, writes: “A pregnant woman could not enter into a second marriage until the child in her womb had been born into her legitimate husband’s home.” Octavianus broke with tradition and chose to marry Livia immediately, regardless of the fact that she was pregnant. Before getting married, he consulted the College of Pontiffs who agreed with his choice to marry Livia immediately. Tacitus referred to it as a “mockery” while Dio Cassius stated that they only agreed out of fear of the “princeps civitatis” or “first citizen.”
Livia the Controversial Figure
During her own lifetime, Livia Drusilla was quite the controversial figure. Not only was she the first Roman empress, but she was the first Roman woman to be deified or declared a god. She was famous for her modesty and traditionalism. We see this image of her working at the loom like any traditional Roman woman would do, but we also see her as an advisor to her powerful husband. She was the wife of an emperor (Caesar Octavianus called “Augustus”), the mother of an emperor (Tiberius), the grandmother of an emperor (Claudius), and the great-grandmother of an emperor (Caligula). Many men have accused her of poisoning others or conspiring to get her way. It seemed, in general, that ancient Roman men took umbrage with a woman being in power. Needless to say, she certainly left her mark on the world.
- Livia Drusilla: Daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus and Alfidia; a young noblewoman
- Tiberius Claudius Nero: Husband of Livia; a co-conspirator in the plot to kill Julius Caesar
- Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus: Father of Livia and her sister, Secunda; a co-conspirator in the plot to kill Julius Caesar
- Caesar Octavianus: Heir of Julius Caesar who is bent on getting revenge; referred historically to as “Octavian”
- Octavia: Virtuous sister of Octavianus; first married to Gaius Claudius Marcellus and later Mark Antony.
- Cleopatra VI: Queen of Egypt; lover of Mark Antony.
- Tiberius and Drusus: Sons of Livia and Tiberius Nero.
- Julia: Daughter of Octavianus and Scribonia.
- Secunda: Sister of Livia Drusilla, daughter of Marcus Livus Drusus Claudianus and Alfidia; it is likely that Secunda was not a real historical figure. The author does not specify in her author’s note.
At the start of the story, Livia Drusilla is a woman of advanced years who recounts the events of her life. She reminisces about a time when she was a fourteen-year-old girl living under her father’s roof, before she was married. She was the daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, a respectable Roman nobleman who consequently plotted to murder Julius Caesar. One night, she overhears a confidential conversation the men are having in her father’s study. Not long after that, she marries Tiberius Nero, a fellow co-conspirator in the plan to rid Rome of the tyrant, Caesar. She feels no attraction towards her new husband but does her duty in running the household.
Early on, Livia is drawn to a remarkable young man by the name of Caesar Octavianus. It so happens that he is Julius Caesar’s heir and thus one of the enemies of her family. He comes from a lesser family than her own noble family but she cannot deny her attraction to him. In the events that unfold, she must grapple with an uncomfortable attraction and make a difficult decision. Will she act on her impulses? What does the future have in store for her?
Phyllis T. Smith’s I am Livia is a book about a fascinating historical figure. There is no woman in Ancient Roman history quite as famous as Livia Drusilla. Ms. Smith utilizes first person to draw the reader in, as if Livia is engaging in conversation with the audience.
The characterization is particularly strong in this story. In Livia, we have an accessible, wise, and likeable heroine who knows more than she sees. Her cleverness is one of her greatest attributes. When it comes to Octavianus, we can glimpse pieces of the great emperor that he would become. He is a man who tries to do good while balancing his desire for revenge. The secondary characters even possess such depth and authenticity.
From the first page to the last, the story was engrossing and compelling. This was an adventure I wanted to take. The exquisite narrative Livia weaves is so rich with cultural and historical description. It was like the conflict-ridden world of ancient Rome was brought back to life. Ms. Smith conducted considerable research and it consistently shines through her gorgeous writing. Ultimately, this story is believable. The Livia in this story was so real and authentic.
One thing I did notice was that the pacing of the story was a bit slow at times. It seemed to slog somewhere around the middle. It pulled me out of the narrative. Eventually it did pick back up later in the book.
At the beginning there is a section called “Leading Characters” that shows you who all the characters are. There are a lot of them, so this was a great way to keep track. Towards the end of the book was the “Author’s Note,” where Ms. Smith provides more background on the intriguing real life figures of Livia and Octavianus. It is a testament to the fact that the author did a considerable amount of research.
While it did have its slow moments, I am Livia is a tale about a strong woman fighting to survive in a world gone mad. If you enjoy a strong and capable female character, I recommend giving this story a try!
I have often thought that women are the only true adults in the world, and men are a species of children. When babies are born, when the sick are struggling for life, when the old die, you will see women about, but rarely men. Women carry the burden of the family’s survival on their backs.
– Phyllis T. Smith, I am Livia
If you like this, you may enjoy…
In 2021, a series called Domina came out. It loosely depicts the life of Livia Drusilla. It shows the audience what Livia’s difficult life was like. It is a fascinating watch. This is a warning that there are explicit scenes, explicit language, and violence featured in this show.
de la Bédoyère, Guy. Domina: The Women who Made Imperial Rome. Yale University Press, 2018.
Dennison, Matthew. Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia. Quercus, 2010.
Fraschetti, Augusto. “Livia the Politician.” Roman Women, edited by Augusto Fraschetti and translated by Linda Lappin. University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 100-117.