Classics 137: Greek and Roman Biography
September 26, 2011
Livia The Politician’s Life as Written Like a Classical Biography
Livia The Politician, or Livia Drusilla, was one of the most influential and powerful women to exist in ancient Rome. Despite her wealth, power, and wisdom from being the Empress of Rome, she is not well represented in classical biography. Augusto Fraschetti’s goal was to write the facts about Livia’s life, and not to create a biographical meaning from it. I imagine that retelling the story of Livia in the style of a witty comedy, like “Aesop’s Romance”, may not represent her life properly. The best representation of her life may be in a style similar to that of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher. Representing Livia’s life into one meaningful encounter of knowledge may be the best way to transform the Empress’s life into classical biography.
Secundus' Climactic StylizationEdit
Secundus the Philosopher’s life is effectively portrayed in one small event. As Secundus was inches away from his execution, he taught Hadrian the most important lessons for one’s life. Giving a small picture of one’s life does many things to give meaning to a biography. First it highlights the personality of the individual. Secundus’ silence is the perfect example. There isn’t a better way to understand one’s life than to understand how he or she interacts. Secondly it demonstrates a key achievement, either positive or negative for the individual to give a lesson or reason to something. There is almost always a point to every story, especially in classic biography. Lastly, a single-event biography’s clip in time gives the author’s point of view on the individual instead of the grand picture. The anonymous author of Secundus’ biography praised the philosopher by starting off with “This man cultivated wisdom all his days” (Hanson 68). It often only takes one event from one’s life to recreate meaning, and Secundus’s life is easily brought to closure.
Livia's Biography NecessitiesEdit
Just like Secundus’s biography, Livia’s biography would need a meaning to wrap everything up. It’s very difficult to get a meaning from Fraschetti’s textbook style description of Livia. With the focus on Tiberius’s climatic rise to power, Livia’s deceiving and manipulative traits become clear. The woman betrayed her family in order to ensure her heir would keep her in some form of power. Today, or in any other time, killing your extended family while blackmailing your daughter-in-law is nothing short of outrageous. We now know what kind of person Livia has become with her taste for power.
To portray Livia’s personality, a dialogue with herself or Tiberius may be the best action. Secundus’s biography was told in the style of a short dialogue followed by all of Secundus’s thoughts. I believe the best representation for Livia would be a dialogue between her and Tiberius followed by Livia admitting her deeds in a diary or journal. We would be able to see how Livia might treat her pride and joy compared to how she acts and thinks on her own. Livia’s biography would not likely highlight her wisdom, but instead her slyness. I never got the idea that she was so much clever or ingenious. The focus of Livia’s biography should be her revealing her natural thoughts. I do not believe Livia’s thoughts are flattering towards her image.
Livia's Personality TraitsEdit
Livia’s power-hungry traits are apparent throughout Fraschetti’s depiction of Livia’s life. Following Livia and Octavia’s marriage, a white bird holding a laurel twig was seen being protected by an eagle. The twig was planted by the eagle and eventually grew into a fully developed laurel tree (Fraschetti 106). According to Dio Cassius, this is an omen of the power Livia would hold over her husband. More evidence sprouted to confirm this. As she was travelling with Augustus through the Eastern Empire, Livia was described as being “honored and hailed like a goddess” (Fraschetti 107). Immediately following this comparison, Livia was being described as dealing with practical problems including arranging marriages for her family. This may have been a “practical problem” back in ancient Rome; however, this is not a true position of power, and she only did it to “advance her career” (Fraschetti 107). The power to advance her career was the power that Livia held over Augustus. There are no depictions of Livia doing anything outside of her own benefit in Fraschetti’s historical sketch.
The climatic style of writing biography can be represented in the life of Livia the Politician. Just like Secundus’s story, Livia’s climax must be the focus of her classical biography. Perhaps the most climatic point in Livia’s life was when her son, Tiberius was to become the heir of Rome. Up to this point Livia used her cunning, and often appalling, methods of manipulating her family to ensure he would get the throne. First, Tiberius’s wife, Julia, is accused of immoral behavior, and therefore caused Tiberius to return from Rhodes. Secondly Lucius and Gaius Caesar mysteriously die within two years. If Livia were to reveal her thoughts and possibly admit her involvement through her diary, Livia’s personality would become clear to the reader. Tiberius became the rightful heir to Rome, but conveniently for Livia, a war breaks out against Germany. The result is Tiberius going north to lead Rome’s Army while Livia rules as the temporary leader of Rome. These events were so coincidental and convenient for Livia, many thought it could have only been her doing. Although it is only described by “rumor” and “scandal,” Livia was never proven to be the architect of these events (Fraschetti 106). Regardless, this was the climax of Livia’s life and would make a superb example of a classic biography.
A difficult task in translating the story of Livia the Politician into a classical biography is deciphering a redeeming quality from the reading. One must wonder following a biography like this what the moral of the story is. One climactic event for a biography may have meaning to the person’s life, but that does not necessarily come without a lesson. Secundus’s lesson was based upon the discipline and will power of values in the face of adversity. Unfortunately there is no obvious moral in the story of Livia the Politician. One possible moral is that Livia’s personality and drive for power led her to success in her life. The problem with this moral is that it also promotes treachery, betrayal, and many other poor morals to abide by. If the ending of Livia the Politician were truly the climax, the moral might be related to Tiberius’s sudden distrust and apathy towards his mother, yet this seems like a weak moral, because the reader never would know how this made her feel. Livia, or at this point Julia, had squeezed out all the power she could have from Tiberius, and was aging to the point of being unfit for any power. Neither the climax nor the end of “Livia the Politician” can come up with a proper moral, thus making it a difficult story for a classical biography.
The final question coming from Livia’s biography is why she did not have such a classical biography (or at least why it isn’t as famous as most biographies). There have been classical biographies of women, including “The Life of Macrina”, even though they are less common. Could it have been her personality or lack of moral qualities that persuaded writers to disregard her? If this is so, then were there not enough influential women in Ancient Rome for there to be more classical biographies? Both of these are possibilities, but I think the answer may lie in Livia’s fame. Empresses do not need classical biographies because everybody knew who she was, despite her doing very little to directly progress Rome. When such a powerful and influential woman rules, but lacks quality personality traits, it may reflect poorly on a lot of women. Livia the Politician’s reputation of being a manipulative ruler may have caused ancient biographers’ techniques to not frequently use women, through unpopularity.
Despite the challenges, a clear idea and meaning behind the life of Livia the Politician can be made. Livia’s climactic reach to gaining power over her extended family through treachery, manipulation, and deceit summarizes the kind of person Livia truly is. The meaning behind her personality is a hunger for power and Livia’s will to accomplish anything for it. There may not even be a moral behind the story of Livia the Politician, but instead a description of a heinous ruler. The history and personality of Livia may be why few saw her as worthy of receiving a flattering classical biography.
Fraschetti, Augusto. "Livia the Philosopher." Roman Women. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001. Print.
Hansen, William F. "Secundus the Silent Philosopher." Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. Print.