Sunday, May 25, 2014

I am Livia. . . just not the Livia you think I am

We've all played the game. You can invite # historical figures to dinner. Who would you choose? Chances are good that Livia Drusilla, the second wife of Augustus Caesar (a marriage that lasted over 50 years), doesn't make the cut for most of us.

In popular history she was reviled as an ambitious schemer not above poisoning those who got in her way, and that was when history was being nice to her. For me, Si├ón Phillips sealed my impression of Livia as a woman of "glittering malice" in the popular BBC series, I, Claudius.

I am Livia by Phyllis Smith changes the equation. In Smith's well-written and well-researched novel that masquerades as a memoir, Livia is every smart girl who wants a place at the political table and is denied because of gender. That, of course, is not at odds with how history sees Livia. What is different is the probity with which Smith's Livia pursues her ambitions. Or as the aging Livia best puts it  in the opening paragraphs:
I wonder sometimes how I will be remembered. As mother of my country, as men call me to my face, or as a monster? I know the rumors none dare speak aloud. Some believe I am a murderess many times over. They envy me, and they hate my power. In Rome, a woman's power,  however circumspectly exercised, arouses revulsion. . . . .
Oh, I have transgressed. But not in the way they think. It is when I remember my youth that I find myself recoiling. Do I recoil when I think of him, my beloved? No. But I paid a price in my soul, for loving him.
Throughout the novel, Livia struggles with moral dilemmas. She wants to be a respectable Roman matron, but she is obsessed with a man (Augustus) not her husband. She ultimately sacrifices her children and family's good will to be with him. She wants to do good and sponsors civic works, but she is not above the scheming to get her own way or theatrical gestures. She agonizes over the long Roman civil wars and reluctantly embraces the notion that the Republic, a cherished dream of her beloved father, must end if Rome is to know peace. She grudgingly respects, Cleopatra, her arch-enemy and the other smart girl of her time. After the battle of Actium and Cleopatra's death, Livia wonders if what she wants is any different than what Cleopatra sought and if her own methods were any more noble.

For maybe the first time ever, readers catch a glimpse of the passion between Livia and Augustus, who often appears in fiction as rather a cold fish that nobody loves. From the moment they first lock eyes, these two are possessed. Livia rhapsodizes over Augustus's beauty, something unique in my reading experience where he is often described as sickly and less than manly. In return, Augustus wants her and wants her bad.

Like their more well-known passionate counterparts, Antony and Cleopatra, Livia and Augustus are one of history's original power couples. Some of the best scenes are a post-coital Livia and Augustus plotting to make Rome a better place and dealing with those who stand in their way. As Livia recounts her role in making Augustus great, we can relish how she tells the tale with equal parts modesty, intensity, and something akin to a conscience.

Ultimately, I found this book both enjoyable and satisfying in its portrayal of a woman who dared to be powerful in life and love.

Oh, and that dinner party? I think a Women Who Dared in the Ancient World might be the ultimate girl's night. My guest list: Livia, Cleopatra, Hypatia (philospher, mathematician, and astronmer), Hatsheput (the first female Pharoah), Nefertiti, Helen of Troy, Cassandra the prophetresss of Troy, and the goddesses Isis, Hera, and  Ishtar