The truth behind Ancient Rome’s most controversial woman



The wedding plays out against the backdrop of impending civil war following the assassination of Julius Caesar. The so-called Liberators, who saw themselves as rescuing the Roman Republic from the hands of the dictator, are now on the run. Among those leading the campaign to avenge Caesar’s death is his adopted son Octavian. Livia’s father, meanwhile, supports the Liberators’ cause.

Playing fast and loose with the known historical facts, the young Octavian (Tom Glynn-Carney) turns up at Livia’s wedding, where they secretly enjoy a passionate kiss. A little while later, as Octavian’s forces pour into Rome, Livia and her husband (cast in this series as a charmless brute with a lingering STI) flee with their baby, Tiberius. The historians record that the young family sought refuge in Sicily and Greece. Tragically for Livia, the Liberators were defeated, leaving her father, who fought on their side, to take his own life.

A marriage twist

In a peculiar twist of fate, Livia later returned to Rome with her husband, young Tiberius, and a second son growing in her womb, only to get divorced and marry Octavian. The ancient sources suggest that Octavian took her away from her husband, despite her being pregnant, because he was struck by her beauty and tired of his own wife, Scribonia, and her hostile manner. Refreshingly, Domina gives Livia rather more agency in this episode of her life by having her pursue Octavian, while he sits pining for her dreamily: “Her family connections… she’s obviously fertile. I don’t even mind that she’s clever,” he muses. As Livia reminds him, they each have something to gain from a partnership, in his case a connection to her illustrious family, in hers a chance to re-establish her wealth and status following her flight from Italy.

The real Livia must have had a similar strength of character. She was, after all, a woman who had to give up raising her two sons (they went to live with their father until his death six years later) to marry a man who had fought on the opposing side from her father in the war. Whether she accepted this situation, or actively encouraged it, is uncertain. According to Suetonius, Octavian loved and approved of Livia alone throughout his long life, despite having numerous affairs. Theirs was apparently more than a marriage of convenience.

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