I’m a big fan of historical fiction, so when I started hearing a lot of praise for I Am Livia, I knew I wanted to read it. I’m not very familiar with the founding of the Roman Empire, and I was eager to learn more about this time period. I Am Livia is unique in that it details the conflict between Octavianus (a.k.a. Tavius, the Emperor Augustus) and Marc Antony, from a woman’s perspective.
Smith begins the story with Julius Caesar’s assassination and from there describes Octavianus’ rise to power in Rome in parallel with Livia’s political marriage to Tiberius Nero. As her father was involved in Caesar’s assassination, Livia and Octavianus are on opposing sides in the ongoing Roman power struggle. As Octavianus gains influence, he begins to avenge Caesar’s death through proscriptions, a form of ancient Roman justice where normal citizens are encouraged to kill individuals deemed enemies of the state. Livia’s husband is named in one of these proscriptions, and so she, Tiberius Nero, and their son, Tiberius, must flee to Greece to avoid Octavianus’ wrath. Eventually a truce of sorts is called and they are allowed to come back to Rome.
Once back in Rome, Livia and Octavianus’ paths cross as they run in the same social circles. Both feel an intense attraction for each other, but they are also both married to other people. In fact, Livia is pregnant with her second child with Tiberius Nero, and Octavianus’ wife, Scribonia, is also pregnant. Livia is reconciled to her life with Tiberius Nero, until Octavianus steps in. He divorces Scribonia on the day she gives birth, and convinces Tiberius Nero to give Livia an amicable divorce as well. Livia and Octavianus then have a short wedding ceremony, waiting on the more elaborate version until she has given birth.
Livia is misunderstood at times, and idle gossips paint her as a manipulative shrew who has tossed her first husband aside and now controls Octavianus. However, Smith describes the private side of Livia. She stands by Octavianus’ side as he struggles to gain approval of the Roman people, as he battles against Marc Antony (husband to his own sister), and eventually consolidates power to become the first Emperor of Rome. More than that, Livia shows her shrewd intellect by learning how to play the political games of the Senate. She expertly influences Octavianus to do more for the people, including setting up public works. Her main goals are always peace for the realm and safety for her family. Livia and Octavianus’ marriage lasts for 51 years, and they experience their ups and downs during this time. They clash on decisions on how he should rule Rome. She is unable to have any children with him. But, throughout it all, their affection for each other remains and eventually Octavianus names Livia’s son, Tiberius, as his heir.
I Am Livia is an engaging read, which will serve to pique your interest to learn more about this time period. The characters come to life through Smith’s writing and I felt that under all of the power and political game-playing, this was a story about a woman who wants nothing more than to raise her children in a peaceful country. Livia is written in a way that you see her goodness and her flaws. I rooted for her in every situation – when she and Tiberius Nero are literally running for their lives in Greece, when she breaks his heart to marry Octavianus, when she tries and fails to carry a child with him to term, and her struggle to balance her husband’s military ambition with her fear of war. She wasn’t perfect, but she tried her best to make the right decisions for her people and her family.
My only complaint was that I felt the love story between Livia and Octavianus seemed to materialize too quickly. Based on Smith’s writing, they seemingly made the decision to leave their existing marriages within a matter of days, as opposed to what I’m sure was much longer in reality. I would have preferred a lengthier, more realistic, courtship. It also seemed that all obstacles, loose ends, and conflicts within Octavianus’ and Livia’s marriage were able to be resolved fairly quickly and easily. I’m sure it wasn’t all that simple.
Aside from that, I really enjoyed I Am Livia. I found myself staying up late to read one more chapter (which actually turned out to be more like five more chapters!). If you’re interested in historical fiction, or just want to read about a strong heroine who helped to shape an Empire, definitely check it out!