The history of Ancient Rome has always fascinated me, especially the transition from Republic to Empire with the rise of Augustus (Octavian) in 31 BCE. Ever since Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius and especially since the widely acclaimed BBC television adaptation of it, Augustus's wife, Livia, has been seen as a conniving femme fatale who would do anything to insure the rise of her son, Tiberius. The show is like a soap opera almost, with Livia as the main villainess. This portrayal is seen as unfair by Matthew Dennison. His book, Livia, Empress of Rome, intends to set the record straight. If it can't rehabilitate her, it will at least demonstrate that the historical record is not necessarily accurate. It's doesn't quite do the job.
Was Livia really as bad as some Roman historians (on which many more recent portrayals are based) make her out to be? Dennison considers some of her detractors as incredibly biased, such as Tacitus, who it seems makes every effort to badmouth her at every turn, at least when she shows up in the histories. There are points in the narrative where Dennison demonstrates that something the historians say about her can't possibly be accurate based on any kind of logic or precedent. These passages are effective in doing what Dennison wants to do.
Unfortunately, too many times the best Dennison can do is say that there is no other corroboration or that something doesn't quite make sense. He can't demonstrate definitively that the histories are wrong. When these passages came up, I could almost see the mental gymnastics Dennison went through to try and lessen the impact. He tries to get into her head a little bit, supposing what she might have really thought in this case, rather than what Tacitus or Dio say she was thinking.
There's nothing wrong with trying to soften Livia's image, and I have no doubt that the ancient historians overstated things at least to some extent. A book like Livia, Empress of Rome would be an intriguing piece of historical scholarship, adding to the debate between historians.
However, Dennison fails to make the book interesting enough to keep the casual reader immersed. His prose is all over the map, starting each chapter with some aside that he then hooks his narrative into. It can be an effective way to illustrate a point, but he does it almost every chapter, and it gets tedious after a while. I found myself reading a few pages at a time rather than devouring huge chunks of it in one sitting.
That's not to say that it's all bad. I did enjoy the view into the everyday life of Rome during this time period. Dennison talks about the role that women played in that society and how Livia transformed it at times. While I don't think Dennison always successfully makes his case defending Livia, I did enjoy the picture that he paints of her: the domestic goddess, trying to embody the almost Puritanical morality laws that Augustus created (and, naturally, disobeyed, but that's what emperors can do).
Dennison never denies that Livia did her best to look out for her son, but he portrays it more as a realization that without Augustus, she could very well be in danger of losing everything that she had gained by divorcing her husband and marrying Augustus. Dennison defends her from the charges of poisoning almost everybody around her in order to make sure that Tiberius would take over after Augustusís death. He makes a strong case that most, if not all, of the poison charges are fairly outlandish and not very logical. These are the best parts of the book.
Ultimately, Livia, Empress of Rome is a decent book that doesn't quite live up to what it promises. It can also be a painful slog to get to where it's going, which makes the fact that it never truly gets there even more of a shame.