The first six episodes of the British Broadcasting Service's extraordinary adaptation of Robert Graves's equally extraordinary novel "I, Claudius," first broadcast in 1976, have at their center not the Emperor Augustus or his successor, Tiberius, but Livia Augusta, wife of the first and mother of the second. As depicted in the script by Jack Pulman and portrayed by the Welsh actress Sian Phillips, Livia is one of history's great villains, whom Matthew Dennison describes in this biography as "a caricature of feminine ruthlessness which remains current despite repeated debunking by classicists and scholars."
This caricature - of "Livia's scheming, her malevolence and, above all, her unbridled maternal ambition and lust for power" - existed nearly two millennia before Phillips's brilliant performance, but the widely watched "I, Claudius," of which a handsomely remastered DVD set is now available, embedded Livia's villainous legend even more deeply in the public mind. Reading Dennison's "Livia" moved me to watch those first six episodes once again, for the fifth or sixth time, and to marvel at the skill with which Phillips brings to life not, perhaps, the historical Livia, but certainly the fictional one.
Which brings to mind the immortal line from John Ford's film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance": "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The legend of Livia Augusta connects her, in her relentless quest to put her son Tiberius on the Roman throne, "with the deaths of Marcellus, Marcus Agrippa, Gaius and Lucius Caesar, Agrippa Postumus, Germanicus," even Augustus himself, though there is little or nothing that actually establishes those connections beyond accusations made by Tacitus in his "Annals of Imperial Rome," written nearly a century after Livia's death and based on sources of uncertain accuracy.
Obviously, Livia deserves a fairer shake than she has received at the hands of Tacitus, Graves and Pulman. Indeed, it is interesting that the rather perfunctory portrait of her in Suetonius's "The Twelve Caesars," the chief source for Graves's novel, is essentially neutral and in some respects favorable. Graves plainly wanted an eminence grise for his tale, and apparently invented a truly wicked one essentially out of whole cloth, an invention that Pulman seems to have been happy to embroider upon. Dennison, by contrast, believes Livia is entitled to a portrait "more finely balanced, more equivocal - and less indebted to burlesque."
She was born Livia Drusilla in 58 B.C., the daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, the very wealthy son of a powerful, aristocratic family who himself eventually "attained the rank of praetor, one of the Republic's senior magistrates with a powerful judicial role." In 43 or 42 B.C. she married Tiberius Claudius Nero, a marriage that produced two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, but not a lot of happiness or achievement. Then she met Julius Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, a fast-rising star in the imperial hierarchy as the republic moved into its final hours. Even though he had played a role in the death by suicide of her father, she threw everything aside for him, and in January of 38 B.C., a mere three days after giving birth to Drusus, she married him.