I am Livia, by Phyllis T. Smith.
Another Kindle First, I Am Livia is a type of historical fiction that I generally enjoy. The bystanders of history, if you will, who didn’t get the biographies and historical studies, can make for excellent fiction when their lives are fleshed out. (This is also great with stories about minor fictional characters.) Livia Drusilla, a Roman noblewoman and daughter of a senator, is a girl in a man’s world.* As a teenager, she witnesses her father’s involvement in the assassination of Julius Caesar, and this story chronicles her life through the political fallout of the two decades that follow. Livia is married (at 14 or 15) to her father’s friend Tiberius Nero, and the of them negotiate the power struggle for Rome as the adopted son of Julius Caesar, Octavianus, seeks to punish those who murdered Caesar and retake power.
That’s the political backdrop – assassinations, wars, escapes, and ever-shifting alliances. Smith describes the turbulence well, and also provides us with a lot of detail about everyday life in ancient Rome: the sacrifices to gods, the omnipresent slaves, the superstitions and the daily risks of disease and death. (Sometimes these rituals seem force-fed into the narrative to add color, a jarring weakness in an otherwise well-written book.)
The book’s strength, however, is telling us the role of a woman in that world. Livia muses:
“Some would say it hardly mattered what women thought of Tavius, that even senators’ wives … had no power to shape events. But what if Portia, Brutus’s beloved wife, rather than encouraging his plan to assassinate Julius Caesar, had told him he would pointlessly destroy himself and others? I think Portia might have changed history.”
That’s the world she finds herself in – a place where, as her mother teachers her, a woman influences events by influencing the men in her life. Livia is ambitious (“Any woman who says she does not want to guide the actions of the man she loves is, in my opinion, lying.”) but not cutthroat; she wants to contribute, not dominate. She cares about her family, especially her children, and is willing to compromise a great deal to keep them safe. Her mind is focused on her relationships more than anything: when her husband departs for war, she cares more about him coming back safe than about the political repercussions. She is, in many ways, a stereotypical female, even though she accomplishes more than most of her peers. I won’t give away many plot details, but if you know your history, you should already know them.
Womanhood is a central theme, and the book’s efficient prose contains some real gems about women in a world shaped by men:
“Looking at her I had a sorrowful sense of the ineffectuality of her sort of goodness in the world.”
“Since our marriage, I had thought myself powerful. But now I saw that no real power had been mine. It had always been his. I had possessed only a knack for wheedling favors.”
Similarly, a letter Livia receives tells us who the men shaping this world are:
“I’m surrounded by idiots here. The stupidity of soldiers is like no other stupidity on earth. Sometimes I think men are physically brave only because they lack imagination and cannot anticipate what a spear in their guts would feel like.”
At one point, Livia has to deal with her choices to become involved in politics, and the prices that have to be paid to be effective in that field:
“I had wanted to be part of the world I had first glimpsed as a girl through my father’s eyes, the world of men who wielded power. But had I known I was asking for a front-seat view of butchery? In some way I supposed I had, but the full emotional meaning of this eluded me.”
Her evolution as a person, and especially as a woman, is the real story of this novel. Smith avoids the biggest pitfalls of inserting modern sentiments into an ancient culture, and for the most part it works – whatever concerns Livia has may well have been held by an educated Roman woman, and many women through history. It’s hard not to judge them through a modern lens, but that is the reader’s fault, not the author’s.
The book is framed as Livia’s memoirs, and she leads off with a feeling that immediately makes her relatable, not as a woman but as a human:
“It will take courage to remember the days I was Livia Drusilla. I wonder if I can do it without flinching.”
Would that we all could live without regrets. Recommended.