Marriage, Stories, and Politics:

The Life of Livia the Politician as Told by Diogenes Laertius

Adam Margulies

September 26, 2011

The life of Livia the Politician could be well accounted for in the biographical genre of Diogenes Laertius.[1] Since Laertius specialized in noted philosophers, the lives of whom were largely lived out in the public spotlight, Livia’s role as wife of Augustus is particularly suitable for comparison. Laertius describes how each eminent philosopher was effective in communicating ideas. So too, Livia had her own methods for achieving success, namely, by manipulating her (second) husband Augustus. Still, as a woman Livia was limited to operating in the background. Therefore, many of her actions and beliefs survived in anecdotes and disputed accounts rather than factual records. This also makes her life apt for the genre of Laertius, who told stories and multiple accounts of an event as part of his biographical technique. Livia’s behind-closed-doors politics do not, however, lend themself to Laertius’s thorough descriptions of his subject’s philosophies. While Livia’s success can be explained through the focus and technique of Diogenes Laertius, her poorly documented political beliefs (if they in fact existed) complicate the values of Laertius’ biographical approach.

Livia’s rise to power would be of great interest to an ancient biographer such as Laertius. Philosophers, politicians, and politicians’ wives, all achieve success in a variety of ways. Laertius reports that Diogenes the philosopher was “great at pouring scorn on his contemporaries” (Diogenes Laertius, VI. 24). Laertius emphasizes Diogenes’s difficult and dog-like nature. “[Diogenes] described himself as a hound of the sort which all men praise, but no one, he added, of his admirers dared go out hunting along with him” (VI. 33). Diogenes became known for his cynicism and public demonstrations, which Laertius explains through anecdotes.

Whereas one might say Diogenes taught by counterexample, Laertius tells us that Pythagoras gained respect through teaching by example. For instance, Pythagoras advocated for living a simple life, and he inspired a community of followers by practicing what he preached. According to Laertius, Pythagoras was “never known to over-eat, to behave loosely, or to be drunk. He would avoid laughter and all pandering to tastes such as insulting jests and vulgar tales” (VIII. 19-20).

As with Diogenes and Pythagoras, Livia also had her own special way of accomplishing things. Since the philosophers were vocal men, their methods involved public displays. As a Roman woman, Livia needed to resort to a less direct approach. In short, Livia milked her marriage with Augustus for all its worth. By “remarrying and passing from Tiberius Cladius Nero to the adopted son of Gaius Julius Caesar…Livia helped reconcile tensions between…the Julian and the Claudian clans, which were subdivided into several branches and which had often fought on opposite sides during the civil wars” (Fraschetti 100). While useful, technically the marriage itself seems to have been initiated more by Augustus than Livia.[2] Nevertheless, once remarried, Livia caught on quick. When Augustus sent her written requests for advice, she “furnish[ed] him with answers appropriate to her own aims,” thereby becoming “more powerful than any woman in Rome had ever been before” (106).

Just as Laertius explained how the philosophers gained eminence, his genre would give a good account of how Livia used her marriage with Augustus to attain power.

Livia’s political schemes were implied through her recorded correspondences with Augustus. Thus rather than being the subject of factual record, her hidden life is best described through stories, the accuracy of which are often disputed. Laertius is a master of stories, and goes to great lengths to describe every version when there is a dispute. Storytelling as a biographical technique is perhaps most evident in the life of Diogenes, whose eccentric nature and public demonstrations create more than enough material. As far as accounting for stories in dispute, Laertius gives three different versions for Diogenes’s death and at least three for Pythagoras (D. L., VI. 76-77; VIII. 39-40).[3]

In the life of Livia, we also find examples of stories which illustrate her motives and stories which are subject to dispute. In the case of the former, Suetonius tells of an episode where Livia threatened to blackmail her son Tiberius. One of Livia’s primary motives – if not her primary motive – as a politician was to gain power (although many would argue that this has not changed for politicians over the centuries). Perceiving his mother’s intentions and feeling threatened, Tiberius distanced himself and refused to list as a judge someone Livia recently made a citizen without specifically referring to the act as a favor (Fraschetti 114).[4] In return, Livia retrieved some of Augustus’s old letters where he insulted Tiberius’s character, and threatened to make the letters public (114). There are other stories depicting Livia’s political ruthlessness, including one in which she may have cooperated with Tiberius to have her grandson, Germanicus, killed at the hands of the governor of Syria so that Tiberius’s own son would succeed him (115).

For disputed stories, there are also four instances in Livia’s life where she is thought to have poisoned those she saw as political threats: Marcellus, Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, and Augustus (112). Although the editor, Augusto Fraschetti, finds these accusations as “in reality unfounded,” he does explain the origins of each and why he disagrees (112). In the instance of Augustus’s death, Fraschetti goes as far as devoting half a page to review the circumstances and cites Dio Cassius’s assertion that it was an unhealthy year in general (108-109). Laertius similarly gives the origins for different versions of a story. For instance, rather than just listing the ways in which Diogenes might have died without citing sources, he credits the dog-bite version to Cercidas of Megalopolis and the suicide account to Antisthenes (D.L., VI. 76-77).

Livia’s surreptitious dealings while trying to advance her political goals are appropriate for the biographical technique of storytelling used by Diogenes Laertius.

One aspect of Livia’s life that might complicate the approach of an ancient biographer such as Laertius would be the lack of information regarding her political beliefs. Laertius naturally devotes much of his biographies on the eminent philosophers to the philosophies they espoused. Therefore, it would make sense that in reviewing a politician’s life, he would address their politics, especially since law and political philosophy are akin to some of the eminent philosophers’ concerns. For instance, Laertius writes, “Aristotle too declares [Empedocles] to have been a champion of freedom and averse to rule of every kind” (VIII. 63). He goes on to tell a story where Empedocles had a magistrate impeached and executed for acting a tyrant at dinner, describing the episode as “the beginning of his political career” (VIII. 64).

So what, if anything, would Laertius have to say about the politics of Livia? As previously discussed, Livia’s politics were driven by her personal quest for power, but also by those close family members and friends whom she wanted to see rise or fall. This is apparent in how she arranges the marriages for her children, Tiberius and Drusus. “Through these marriages Livia protected her sons from potential danger: Tiberius became the son-in-law of the powerful Agrippa, while Drusus became part of Augustus’s own family” (Fraschetti 108). When Livia’s power began to decline in her old age, it was not her political ideas that suffered so much as her inability to still “protect her closest friends” (115).

We can be reasonably certain that Livia’s personal allegiances and vendettas would be a significant subject for Laertius’s biographical approach; but we might also think that Laertius would be frustrated in her shallow, or at least poorly documented, political ideas.

An ancient biographer like Laertius would be deeply interested in how Livia used her marriage with Augustus to gain power. The biographer would also find stories, disputed and not, involving Livia to be instructive and complementary to the genre’s biographical technique. Still, when writing a biography of the most powerful woman in Roman history to date, the biographer might be dismayed that only Livia’s personal agenda, and not her political philosophies, were documented or even existent.

Works Cited

Diogenes, Laertius, and Robert Drew Hicks. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Fraschetti, Augusto. Roman Women. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001. Print.

[1] Diogenes Laertius, the biographer, will always be referred to by surname; Diogenes, the philosopher, by first name only.

[2] Octavian was “so irresistibly attracted to [Livia] that he repudiated his wife the very same day she gave birth to a daughter” and then “asked Livia’s husband to surrender her to him so that he could marry her.” (Fraschetti 102-103).

[3] Diogenes died from colic, dog-bite, or suicide; Pythagoras died when his throat was cut after escaping his house set on fire (and while trying to avoid a bean field), from starvation, or in battle (also trying to avoid a bean field).

[4] Citing Suetonius, Tib. 50-51.

Response to The Life of Livia the Politician as Told by Diogenes LaertiusEdit

Project 1 Part 2
By Ashley Barnes
The argument of this paper is that while Livia's life can be shown through the eyes of technique of Diogenes Laertius, it is difficult to do so with the little information biographers have on her political beliefs.
This paper has a very well written introduction, with a clear-cut argument and a logical organization. The similarities in the information provided by each author are easily seen, giving the paper a consistent flow. However, the thesis of the paper becomes a little less focused as the writing goes on. By this, I mean that the original argument claims, “…through the focus and technique of Diogenes Laertius…” but more is mentioned about the actual information in the texts rather than the technique of each author.
How would Diogenes tell the story of Livia the Politician? This small connection is enough to pull together the entire paper. By describing more of Diogenes’ style versus his ideals and what he stands for, it would be much easier for Adam to show how each statement relates to the argument. It would also draw the connection between Livia’s life in Roman Women versus how it would be told by Diogenes.
“Just as Laertius explained how the philosophers gained eminence, his genre would give a good account of how Livia used her marriage with Augustus to attain power.” How did he do it? What would it look like is he told Livia’s story? If Laertius were a “master of stories,” than what would he have said about Livia if her life was more well documented? Have fun with it and be creative! The goal, again, is to demonstrate how the author is successful in creating a story, and then taking this technique and applying it to another person’s life. For example, there was Aan interesting claim falls in the very last paragraph, stating that Laertius would take a special interest in Livia’s desire to be powerful. It leaves the reader wanting to know how an author such as Laertius would want go about emphasizing this. Step into the role of Laertius and create an information-rich story about how Livia goes about getting what she wants.
Overall, the facts found in both Diogenes and the story of Livia are clearly demonstrated and outlined. However, there is a small disconnection between the argument, which clearly follows the instructions, and the actual context. This can be easily fixed with a short excerpt on the techniques and styles of Diogenes. Also, adding a short example of a story about Livia, perhaps about her lust for power, through the eyes of Diogenes, would complete the project.

Response by Powell Wright

Diagenes Laertius’s writing style is reminiscent of political philosophy. He seems to teach through a simple life instead of through example. I agree with Adam Margulies in that Laertius would be interested in the life of Livia the Politician. She seems to do everything Laertius argues against, while being proud of it. The life of Livia the Politician would be a very detailed political commentary, if not a criticism if it were told in Laertius’s style.

Laertius is described as putting “scorn on his contemporaries, as well as “difficult and dog-like in nature” (Diogenes Laertius, VI. 24). This writer is naturally difficult to debate or impress in politics, and there is probably very little that anybody could do to change this. More so, Laertius focused on what each philosopher had for political beliefs. He even criticized Pythagoras for “never known to over-eat, to behave loosely, or to be drunk. He would avoid laughter and all pandering to tastes such as insulting jests and vulgar tales” (VIII. 19-20). Adam was correct in using these quotes because they accurately reflect the kind of writer Laertius was. Clearly it is difficult to impress Laertius.

Livia is not the kind of person who would impress Laeirtius, because she may not actually have any traditional political beliefs. Her biography is more so a discription of her deeds to come into power than her ability to lead. The woman possibly killed two members of her extended family in order for her son to gain the Roman thrown. Occasionally Livia would be an effective figurehead, often resolving conflicts between senators and working through important Roman marriages (Fraschetti 104). Beyond this her “political” beliefs were not described well by Fraschetti. In order to get an understanding of Livia the Politician, it is better to not look at her as a politician, but instead a deviant.

Laertius’s biography of Livia the politician would be a lot more accurate of exactly what Livia believed in. Neither Fraschetti nor Adam took into account that Livia has to have some kind of political beliefs beyond her personal life. Regardless, I do not think it would be flattering towards Livia. Her son, Tiberius pretty much abandoned her when her rule ended, meaning she had a poor relationship with those that loved her most (Fraschetti 117). Additionally her acting as a constant figurehead is not something Laertius would advocate as. He would only be happy with politicians that agree with him and make direct decisions towards creating a strong empire, not simply acting as a figurehead. Because of the life that Livia led, Laertius’s biography would be short and critical of her leadership, showing very little sympathy for her.