Livia, Empress of Rome
By Matthew Dennison
(St. Martin's Press, Hardcover, 9780312658649, 336pp.)
Publication Date: January 4, 2011
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Rome is a subject of endless fascination, and in this new biography of the infamous Empress Livia, Matthew Dennison brings to life a woman long believed to be one of the most feared villainesses of history.
Second wife of the emperor Augustus, mother of his successor Tiberius, grandmother of Claudius and great grandmother of Caligula, the empress Livia lived close to the center of Roman political power for eight turbulent decades. Her life spanned the years of Rome’s transformation from Republic to Empire, and witnessed both its triumphs under the rule of Augustus and its lapse into instability under his dysfunctional successor.
Livia was given the honorific title Augusta in her husband's will, and was posthumously deified by the emperor Claudius—but posterity would prove less respectful. The Roman historian Tacitus anathematized her as “malevolent” and a “feminine bully” and inspired Robert Graves's celebrated twentieth-century depiction of Livia in I, Claudius as the quintessence of the scheming matriarch, poisoning her relatives one by one to smooth her son’s path to the imperial throne.
Livia, Empress of Rome rescues the historical Livia from the crude caricature of popular myth to paint an elegant and richly textured portrait. In this rigorously researched biography, Dennison weighs the evidence found in contemporary sources to present a more nuanced assessment. Livia’s true “crime,” he reveals, was not murder but the exercise of power. The Livia who emerges here is a complex, courageous and gifted woman, and one of the most fascinating and perplexing figures of the ancient world.
MATTHEW DENNISON is the author of The Last Princess. A journalist, he contributes to The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Country Life, and The Spectator. He is married and lives in London and North Wales.
“This is an erudite, nuanced, and engrossing portrait of a turbulent era and of an empress demonized for refusing to be invisible.”—Publishers Weekly
“A fine biography. . . . [Dennison] has produced a scholarly but highly accessible book about the woman who—through chance, dress, behaviour and her own undeniable determination—was able to make the Empire her own.”—Lindsey Davis, New York Times bestselling author of Alexandria
“British journalist Dennison deftly sifts the historical record for a portrait of a woman in the right place at the right time. . . . Dennison does a nice job of defending this fascinating character from “demonization” through the centuries, and knowledgeably considers many facets of Roman history, including religion, the place of women and children, family life and iconography. A deeply considered look at women and power in the late Roman age.”—Kirkus Review
“Dennison attempts to set the historical record straight in this balanced biography of one of the most maligned females in ancient history: Portrayed in both fact (The Histories and The Annals) and fiction (L Claudius, anyone?) as a serial poisoner who would stop at nothing to ensure that her son Tiberius succeeded his stepfather, Augustus, as emperor of Rome, the Livia that is resurrected here is far from the femme fatale of legend. . . . Ancient Rome always appeals, and it is nice to see an unjustly tarnished reputation polished up for posterity.”—Booklist
“[A] richness of detail gives readers a solid foothold for understanding the complex traditions, customs, and politics of the era. . . . aficionados of Roman history, social history, women's history, or biography will enjoy the wealth of information.”—Library Journal
“Learned, engrossing and pacey new biography . . . Dennison combines a healthy scepticism towards his sources with an alertness to all that made the career of his heroine authentically remarkable . . . His achievement, in this consistently entertaining biography, is to remind us that a politician with a clever and supportive wife is a fortunate man indeed.”—Mail on Sunday (UK)
“An engrossing and persuasive portrait of one of history’s most influential women.”—Independent (UK)
“Well-researched . . . full of delightful detail.”—Daily Mail (UK)
“Dennison excels at exploring the iconography of Livia . . . his analysis is exemplary . . . Balanced, scholarly and yet accessible, this is very good history indeed.”—Country Life (UK)
“A powerful new life of Livia . . . refreshingly free of cant.”—The Herald (UK)