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August 8, 2011

Book Review - Livia: Empress of Rome by Matthew Dennison

Livia, Empress of Rome: A BiographyI've had an interest in ancient Rome for a while now, but that was further stoked when the wife and I watched the BBC adaptation of Robert Graves' book, I, Claudius a few years back. The wife had seen it before, but I hadn't, and I was enthralled. I think Derek Jacobi, as Claudius, certainly helped. I loved the intrigue, almost soap opera-like.

In that show, Livia, wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, is portrayed as conniving and ruthless, doing anything she can to make sure that her son Tiberius rises to the throne when Augustus dies.

But is that real history?

Matthew Dennison says no, and he's written Livia: Empress of Rome in order to counteract that portrayal, which is taken from a number of Roman historians who seemed to have it in for her.

Sadly, Dennison's book only sometimes makes the case, and isn't interesting enough to hold the reader while he attempts to do so.

From my review on Curled Up With a Good Book:
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.
I could only struggle through a few pages here and there at a time, rather than being enthralled with the book.

Which is sad, because I really wanted to like it.

Anyway, check out the review and let me know what you think.


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