I enjoyed I Claudius (both the book and the TV miniseries) which introduced me to Livia as a fictional villain. I’ve had a longtime interest in ancient Rome and have wanted to write a historical novel with that setting. Livia seemed like a great central character but I didn’t know if I could stand spending a lot of time writing about someone so evil. Researching her life, however, I came to the conclusion that she was misjudged, that her reputation was trashed because she was a powerful woman living in a time when women were not supposed to be powerful. Imagining her life I came to empathize with her and even to want to do her historical justice.
Who are your favorite characters, if any, and why?
Livia was my favorite character. There is something about writing in the first person voice of a person who actually lived, and putting yourself in her place, that builds empathy. I had a sense of how resilient she had to be to get through some of the things she did. I also got to like Caesar Octavianus quite a bit-- more than I expected to. Some historians have called him an enigma. He had his dark side. But I believe he was capable of deep human emotions, certainly when it came to Livia. His complexity made him interesting to write about.
Octavia, Caesar’s sister and Mark Antony’s wife, deserves a mention here. She is generally looked upon as the boring third party in the romantic triangle that included Antony and Cleopatra. But she was heroic in her own way, not afraid to defy her all-powerful brother. She made a stand for peace. I find her truly admirable.
What were the easiest and difficult parts of your research and why?
Rome, to put it mildly, was patriarchal. I found the lives of men who were active in public life relatively easy to research because Roman historians were mainly interested in them. The details of the lives of women and children didn’t particularly interest these ancient historians—who were men--and much information was never recorded and is simply lost to us.
Livia was the most powerful woman in Roman history so she left an imprint on history, but you have to read between the lines. There is a quotation from her in which she attributes the success of her marriage, to among other things, her never interfering in her husband’s affairs. That is laughable. There are other sources that show she was her husband’s partner in running the Roman Empire. I suspect that she was always interfering in his affairs, that is, in public business, but she kept her mouth shut about it because it would be bad public relations to be truthful. So you have to understand that certain things were said just for public consumption. The historical record is not only scanty but distorted when it comes to Roman women, and you have to do a lot of checking of one bit of evidence against another to make sure you are not led astray.