I Am Livia

Monday, June 6, 2016

I Am Livia
Phyllis T. Smith, 2014

Premise: A retelling of the life of Livia, wife to the first emperor of Rome.

I do love historical semi-fiction about powerful women. Last summer I read and enjoyed (but did not review) The Summer Queen, and it occurs to me how much Livia Drusilla and Eleanor of Aquitaine have in common. Both are daughters of important families who made a young political match. Both later left their first husbands to marry a young war leader: Livia to Octavius Ceasar (later Augustus), and Eleanor to Henry Plantagenet, (aka Henry II, King of England). Both exercised a good deal of political power, whether behind the scenes or in their own right. Both founded a line of kings.

Both this book and The Summer Queen also took a similar approach toward their subjects: everything is based on verifiable history, but the truth of disputed facts is decided in the character’s favor, and unknown motivations or feelings are incorporated, of course. Livia is a figure more maligned by history, and less is known concretely about her, so this book does contain more clear invention than the other.

I actually didn’t realize how much was disputed about Livia, or how important she was. I mostly had a vague recollection of a heartless scheming character in I, Claudius. (The cover of the book is clearly inviting comparison.) Her parents’ politics allied her family and her first husband with the faction which assassinated Julius Ceasar, because of which she spent several years on the run with her young family.

It is hard to know from this distance how she came to marry her former political enemy, Ceasar’s adopted son. That potential contradiction - the tension between political ideals, survival, and affection - is why the possibilities in this story are so intriguing. By all accounts, the Emperor Augustus treated her as a special advisor; she sponsored public works, had clout in the Senate, and pioneered financial independence for some women in Rome. No matter what is true about her, she was certainly remarkable.

This book is an adventure, and a bit of a romance, and an attempt to recreate a lost perspective on a long ago time. I think it succeeds well in all these respects.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

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