I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

livia I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

After reading The Daughters of Palatine Hill I knew I had to read this author’s debut novel. For a debut novel I am amazed. Not only was it well-written but the clarity in which Livia’s world opened up before my eyes was unbelievable. Her story felt incredibly real to me, the thoughts she had were complexly human, and never once did I doubt that I was reading the story of a woman who actually lived. Livia was so vivid that I actually forgot that she was a character in this novel and began to view her purely as the historical figure she was. It was as if she was talking to me through the annals of history.

Livia’s story is fascinating to say the least. Daughter of a staunch supporter of the Roman Republic, it is amazing that she ended up marrying Emperor Augustus; a military dictator and the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. Livia has often been portrayed as power-hungry and an “unnatural” woman for claiming the authority that she was granted as Augustus’ wife. Yet she was very intelligent, with a mind for politics, and thus she was ideally suited to life as the wife of the Emperor.

I thought it was very clever of the author to draw the comparison between Livia and Augustus’ sister, Octavia, as often as she did. Octavia was held up to be the paragon of Roman womanhood, loyal and subservient and happy to sacrifice herself for the good of the Roman people. Her  marriage to Marc Anthony was a way in which to forge a peace between him and her brother and yet it was a turbulent marriage with many difficulties for Octavia. Even after her husband shunned her and married Cleopatra of Egypt, Octavia stayed loyal to her role as peace-keeper between him and Augustus. The Roman people saw this as for their own benefit, nobody wanted another war, and thus Octavia became their darling. Compare this to the “unnatural” woman that was their Emperor’s wife and it becomes apparent why Livia may have been remembered in such a negative light.

What the author brought to the foreground in this novel is that Livia, too, was loyal to the Roman people. Her father had been a man of the Republic, a man of the people, therefore Livia too felt a connection to the common people of Rome. This is evident by her public works and the “fire brigades” that she set up to help with a common issue in the poorer parts of the city. There is a wonderful scene in this novel where Livia comes back from assisting a brigade put out a fire and she has a smudge of dirt on her face. Her son, Tiberius, tells her “Your face is dirty. I don’t think you should go to the fires. It’s unseemly for a lady”. Not only does this highlight what a well-born Roman woman was supposed to be like, but it also gives a small glimpse into the future to show what kind of man Tiberius will grow up to be (The Daughters of Palatine Hill will explore more deeply).

It is important to understand that Livia lived in a time very different to our own. From a modern perspective Livia would most probably be exalted as a strong and intelligent woman. We would expect her to control her own finances, make decisions for herself and her family and we wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at the thought of her helping her husband to rule. However, two thousand years ago in Rome things were altogether different. I believe the author does a wonderful job of bringing this home for the reader and allowing Livia to simultaneously be seen through both our own modern perspective and also the historical perspective of the time. A remarkable feat that is to be greatly admired. I very much look forward to more novels of Ancient Rome from this talented author.

 

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