Welcome to my new DTTA followers, and welcome back to my longtime dirtbag enthusiasts! I hope summer is treating you well, or at least not actively melting the skin from your bones.
In today’s issue, we’re going farther back in history than any issue of Dirtbags Through the Ages has dared to go before. That’s right: I’m whipping us back before the birth of the historical Jesus Christ to introduce you to my number-one favorite Roman empress:
Livia Drusilla Augusta, The Lady Who Loved Poison More Than Anything
(Disclaimer: Roman history isn’t my area of expertise by any stretch. I’m enthusiastic but not authoritative. Don’t come at me, Pliny the Elder.)
Livia was born somewhere around 59 BCE. When she was about 17-ish, she married a politician, and they had two sons: Tiberius and Drusus. So far, so boring. (Although remember that Tiberius guy, he’ll be back.)
BUT! One day in 39 BCE, Livia happened to be in Rome, where she met the already-married Emperor Augustus, basically the most powerful man in the Western world. And apparently, Livia and Augustus locked eyes across the room and both were like: “Damn. I need to get a divorce POST POST HASTE.”
For my Tudor enthusiasts, it’s all very Anne Boleyn/Henry VIII, only if England did not give a single fuck about the morality of divorce and also Anne Boleyn was straight-up murdering people. (About which more later.)
Most empresses at the time were content to recline languidly on couches and sort of gesture wanly when it was time for someone to refill their wine. (If I was an empress, this is 1000% what I would do, btw.) Livia, though, wasn’t about to recline languidly anywhere. Power was out there, and by Jupiter she was gonna have it.
My girl had her own separate bank account. She ran copper mines. She appointed her own ministers. Augustus asked her for advice on all kinds of matters of state. She was basically the second emperor of Rome.
But was that enough? OF COURSE THE FUCK IT WAS NOT.
Roman Succession Whack-A-Mole
Now, remember, Livia is Augustus’s third wife. So technically, her sons Tiberius and Drusus aren’t next in line to be Emperor of Rome. Augustus had one biological daughter by his second wife, and her sons—his grandsons—were the official Little Caesars (technical term).
Or they would have been, if Livia hadn’t discovered her one true love, after Hot Emperor Augustus: POISON.
OK, to be fair, did Livia actually poison people? Well, she didn’t admit to it. But isn’t it just ever so slightly suspicious that in the space of a handful of years:
Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’s nephew
Gaius Caesar, Augustus’s grandson
Lucius Caesar, Augustus’s other grandson
Marcus Agrippa Postumus, Augustus’s adopted son
AND Julia the Younger, Augustus’s revolt-minded granddaughter
ALL DIED OF MYSTERIOUS POISON-ADJACENT CAUSES??
And then Augustus’s daughter Julia the Elder got exiled, leaving no one to inherit but Tiberius??
The ancient historian Tacitus thinks so, and more importantly, I also think so.
(Honestly, they were asking for it with the fourth one. They literally named the child Postumus.)
Some Roman historians (Tacitus again, a messy bitch who lived for drama) also suggest that Livia even poisoned Augustus through some fig-based shenanigans so that her son Tiberius could ascend the throne sooner. I choose to believe this, because if there’s the option to include a fig-based murder in a story, I take it.
Everything was proceeding according to plan, and upon Augustus’s (suspicious?? fig-related??) death in 14 CE, Tiberius became Emperor of Rome. BTW, Livia’s other son, Drusus, was already dead by this point, as a horse fell on him five years earlier. RIP Drusus.
Livia had gotten everything she wanted: she’s empress, her son’s on the throne, all’s well that poisons well. Except for one thing:
Emperor-ship was Livia’s goal, not her son’s. According to Pliny the Elder, Tiberius just sorta moped around Rome sighing a lot, like a grumpy teenager who got grounded (except of course in this case, “grounded” means “got made Emperor of Rome”).
So Livia has no choice but to suck it up and rule Rome her damn self, which she absolutely did. Apparently the early years of Tiberius’s reign involved so much Livia backseat driving that Tiberius got fed up and literally ran away to the island of Capri to get some peace and quiet.
This was all fine with Livia, who went on in the usual way: running the city, enjoying the attention, maybe poisoning one other guy improbably named Germanicus just to stay in fighting form. Whatever else, you have to respect the hustle.
She kept on in this way until she eventually died at age 86. Caligula himself gave the oration at her funeral (yeah, the guy who made his horse a senator, among other scandals that are less charming), and a couple decades after her death, Livia was named an official goddess by the Emperor Claudius.
As she deserves. #queen.
New subscribers: did you know I have a novel out? It’s called A Tip for the Hangman, and it’s a historical thriller set in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, following the espionage career of the poet Christopher Marlowe. (Spoiler: there is some poison in it, though not a Livia-sized quantity.) You can find buy links here, or pick one up wherever books are sold.
Also, because we’re on Substack now, it’s never been easier for you to recommend a historical dirtbag for me to feature in a future issue. Just drop their name in the comments below, and I will go happily on my own private research journey.
Until next time, be well and don’t leave your figs unsupervised,