Thursday, November 24, 2016

Book 52: I Am Livia

 "When I was a girl, I imagined love was a kind of prize for virtuous behavior. That was how the philosophers described it. Love was a tribute that flowed naturally only to those with undivided spirits and pure hearts. It occurred to me now that it was something else, wilder and less comprehensible."

Dates read: May 11-14, 2016

Rating: 7/10

As I'm writing this (in mid-May), Hillary Clinton is on pace to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. However you feel about her (I personally support her, but understand there are plenty of completely valid reasons not to), there's no denying she's raised an issue that a lot of people, including myself, have unexplored feelings about: female power. A woman's rule gives a lot of people pause, and has throughout history. Think about it: how many books and movies have you read and/or seen where a woman with power is a sinister and malevolent force?

Phyllis Smith's I Am Livia is a fictionalized account of a very powerful woman who has been regarded suspiciously by history: Livia Drusilla, wife of the Roman emperor Augustus (born Octavius). I'd actually never heard of her before I read this book, but it was a Kindle First title and I'm into historical fiction, so I picked it up and I'm glad I actually got the chance to read about Livia and her life. And a lady who gets her first husband to give her away to her second husband just days after she gave birth to the first husband's child (true story!) is someone I'm interested in learning about.

Livia was the older of two daughters of a Roman senator, and Smith kicks off her story just as Livia's father is throwing his support behind the assassins of Julius Caesar. Like many historical fiction heroines, Livia is a smart and strong-willed young woman, educated by her father about government and politics. Despite having had a chance meeting with young Octavius in which the two become besotted with each other, Livia's marriage to her older cousin, Tiberius Nero, is arranged for political purposes. Smith doesn't take the easy way out and make Tiberius cruel to Livia to get readers to root against him and their marriage: he's not a bad man or even a bad husband, Livia simply doesn't love him. She tries to be a good wife to him anyways, bearing him two sons and trying to advise him on how to best navigate the complicated world of Roman politics in the era of the Triumvirates. But when Livia and Octavius re-encounter each other years after her marriage (and when she's heavily pregnant with her second of those sons she had with Tiberius), their connection can no longer be denied and Tiberius is persuaded to bow out as graciously as any person possibly could, really, with the whole giving-her-away bit I mentioned above.

Livia uses her status as wife of the First Citizen of Rome to assume some power of her own: she handles his correspondence, gets him to allow her the legal right to make her own decisions about her own property under the guise of giving the same right to his popularly-beloved sister Julia, helps him see the advantages of making sure the citizens of Rome are taken care of and not just focusing on war and conquest. The use of one of my least favorite literary tropes, love at first sight, bothered me like it always does, but I appreciated that Smith drew Livia and Tavius (a pet name for Octavius) as a complicated couple. Besides their ultimately unsuccessful struggle to have a child of their own and the strain that situation places on their relationship, they're both hard-headed and stubborn and there's a point at which their marriage is very near breaking down because of miscommunication and pride. And while Livia loves her husband, she's not so crazy about him that she can't see advantages to their separation, which takes some of the saccharine out of the tired "we've been in love since we first laid eyes on each other" sweetness that underlies their relationship.

Smith does a good job of neither making Livia a paragon of virtue nor a tyrant greedy for ever-more authority as she acquires and uses power over the course of her life. It lets us ask ourselves why we're uncomfortable with the idea that a woman would want the power to make her own decisions even if her husband would never deny her the opportunity to do what she wanted. Livia's mother was content to be in the traditional female "power behind the throne" role, why does Livia want more active power? If she plants ideas with her husband after they've slept together, is it her using her body to get what she wants or simply taking advantage of the time they're most relaxed and are actually alone together to discuss the things that are important to both her individually and them as a couple? The questions the book raises and the strong characterization of Livia overrides some underdeveloped side characters and a workmanlike prose style to create a work that's definitely worth a read, especially if you're interested in Roman history and/or feminism.

Tell me, blog friends...can you imagine a modern-day husband ever giving away his ex-wife less than a week after she had his child?

One year ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology


  1. This seems like an incredible read! And no, I can't imagine that happening, even today. That's why this sounds even more amazing. Great review!

    1. Thanks! It was definitely an enjoyable read that made me think about for how long there's been a stigma against women with ambition and power. And the kind of power to make your ex give you away at your wedding just after you had his kid is a lot!