Siân Phillips as Livia in the 1976 BBC television adaptation of I, Claudius

Little Letterhole: A villain worth remembering

I, Claudius abounds with villains: there is the insane, incestuous Caligula; the sadistic Tiberius; and the power hungry Sejanus, but the most effective of them all is Livia Drusilla, the puppetmaster behind the throne and our narrator’s callous grandmother. Part of what makes her so compelling as a villain is that she is used relatively sparingly; most of the time, her actions are consigned to Claudius’ speculations. Whenever a character meets a mysterious end, she looms large and menacingly in the background; she is a spectral presence behind every death

The real Livia was characterised by contemporary historians as a devoted wife and an able deputy to her husband Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. Graves casts her as the former, but also as the brains behind the entire imperial operation, skilfully manipulating Augustus and others around her, and using poison to remove her opponents. Her effectiveness is emphasised by the absolute helplessness of Claudius. Constantly fearing death at her hands, Livia’s grandson in fact goes ignored, unable to act as his family slowly dwindles.

It becomes clear as the book progresses that Livia is in fact operating entirely with the benefit of the Empire in mind. Indeed, her murderous actions stop civil strife from erupting more than once, halting conflict between Marcellus and Agrippa, and ending the designs on the throne of Gaius, Lucius, and Postumus. She also successfully keeps her son Tiberius in check, preventing the worst of his character from coming through. After her death Claudius begins to sympathise with her, and upon his own succession remarks that he wishes to rule even half as well as Livia and Augustus.

On her deathbed, the reader, like Claudius, is invited to sympathise with Livia. As she lies dying she is afraid that her actions have condemned her to hell. She beseeches Claudius to deify her, to save her from this fate. Now Tiberius, and after him Caligula, are allowed to reign freely and sadistically. Finally, after murder and manipulation, we see her as human, we see Rome unravelling without her, and we miss her.

I could never have thought it possible that I would miss Livia when she died. When I was a child I used secretly, night after night, to pray to the Infernal Gods to carry her off. And now I would have offered the richest sacrifices I could find – unblemished white bulls and desert antelopes and ibises and flamingoes by the dozen – to have had her back again.
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