Grace Mooney September 2011


We look at historical biographies differently over time. Biographers have their own style, technique and perhaps even their own agenda of likes and dislikes. Certain themes become more important as historical events alter society’s thinking and values. Ancient authors would have approached the life of women, for example, differently than modern day authors would. The life of Livia Drusilla, for instance, is no doubt the life of an extraordinary woman. She craved autonomy and chose to make a difference by using her position in society. Ancient biographers could choose many things in which made her important. Her biography would be written differently perhaps because there are many ways of looking at her life. Diogenes Laertius was a well-known Greek biographer who wrote about ancient Greek philosophers. If you look through the eyes of this ancient author, he would mostly have exemplified, through his writings, Livia’s philosophy of life. Nevertheless, Diogenes would have interpreted the actions Livia made to get her son to power, and how far she went in order to do so.

Diogenes Laertius Regarding LiviaEdit

Livia Drusilla’s attitude towards life was very unique. Her philosophy throughout her marriage to Augustus was that she deserved power and would eventually succeed at gaining it. She was a determined woman. Diogenes would have believed her desire to have one of her sons become successor important. This is because he mainly wrote about the facts, and this was a fact. By interpreting her life, it makes it easier to explain all of the murders that occurred within the family. Diogenes wrote dozens of biographies on philosophers and their morals. His biography on Empodocles, for instance, illustrates his writing as insincere and more factual than insightful. However, in order to understand Empodocles’ life as a philosopher he includes various factors to explain his actions. Empodocles was a philosopher whom was a student of Pythagoras. Diogenes, who relates other author’s opinion of him in his biography, describes his doings saying, “Heraclides called him not merely a physician but a diviner as well” (Laertius, 377). Not only was Livia a mother, but she was a wife, politician, and a murderer. She did whatever it took in order to get her oldest son to become successor. (Fraschetti, 112)

Livia craved power. Her values were simple; she believed that one of her son’s should succeed Augustus and that if this happened, she too, would have power in Rome. Diogenes’ reoccurring theme in his biographies was the important factors of what made a person great, how actions caused something to occur. He would have written about Livia in a manner more factual, explaining how she got to become so powerful, why she believed she should have power. He does this in his biography on Empedocles, “Empedocles was reduced to silence; the next day he impeached both of them,…This then, was the beginning of his political career” (Laertius, 379). Diogenes states what happened, and then how it affected Empedocles’ life. Livia was granted more influence, politically, as she was given the honor of being a sacrosanctae. (Fraschetti, 106) This title gave her the ability to “act in legal matters without the assistance” (Fraschetti, 105). Diogene’s would have included this information as it portrays the beginning of how Livia was given an opportunity, a door was open and she took it.

Diogenes' style was unique. This is due to the fact that he uses quotes within his biographies in order to demonstrate a more factual way of explaining what Empodocles may have sounded like. This was his way of adding detail to his simple way of writing about a person. When discussing the citizens of a country he writes, “Empedocles, he continues, speaking of their luxury, said, ‘The Agrigentines live delicately as if tomorrow they would die, but they build their houses well as if they though they would live for ever’” (Laertius, 377). This is significant as it proves that Diogenes explains the philosophy behind Empedocles life, attempting to illustrate the way in which Empedocles may have thought. If Diogenes were Livia’s biographer, he perhaps would have had her say something similar about her thoughts on political subjects. Her influence over her husband’s political decision would probably not have been recorded. Yet, a quote from her explaining how she received a letter asking for advice would have been included in her biography if written by Diogenes. There are writings in which were found to whom Augustus would have, “requests for advice and furnishing him with answers appropriate to her own claims” (Fraschetti, 106). Livia’s opportunities to influence her husband gave her a sense of knowing she had power and could use it.

Diogenes, as a biographer, would not have gone into detail about Livia’s life as a politician, but more as a philosopher. He would have written about her ideas behind her plan to have her son take power. He writes about Empedocles gaining authority over the people of Greece as he took his own life, and disappearing, made people believe he turned into a God. “He set out on his way to Etna; then, when he had reached it, he plunged into the fiery craters and disappeared, his intention being to confirm the report that he had become a god” (Laertius, 383). Here, we see that Diogenes explains clearly the reasons behind Empedocles death. Diogenes would have statedthat Livia was aggressive and set up certain situations so that they covered up the truth. Regarding the death of Germanicus, she sent him to the East near Syria where she had her friends, Calpurnius Piso and Plancina, his wife, kill Germanicus. This was very secretive, and the truth never came out. (Fraschetti, 114-115) Livia illustrated determination to get her son to the front of the line for succession, as Germanicus was the son of Drusus, whom was ahead of Tiberius for succession. (Fraschetti, 114)

With Livia’s genius tactics, it is believed that she was responsible for the murders of the male relatives whom were in line for succession. All of these men that died sporadically were related to Octavian, also known as Augustus, and were in line for inheriting the position. (Fraschetti, 111) It is believed that she poisoned Augustus and his sons. Her vigorous attempts to kill worked allowing Tiberius, her eldest son, to come to power. (Fraschetti, 113) Diogenes would have interpreted Livia’s actions as ruthless, attempting to explain how her ideas to do this would have been significant to her big plan of gaining power.


Because women were not important during the Greek period of time when Diogenes Laertius wrote his biographies, Livia’s biography would have been mainly based off of her philosophical ideas. Her will to make it to the top, and do whatever it took to get there would have been an important aspect to Diogenes biography. Her thought process, which brought her to act and kill for power, would have been interesting to Diogenes and important to her life story. He may have completely left out her life prior to marrying Augustus because his technique would not have deemed that important. Diogenes would have only included her role pertaining to her philosophy of life. He was a biographer of ancient philosophers as seen through examples of Empedocles. She had craved power and perhaps Diogenes would have had to include that in her biography as a fact. However, the events that occur throughout Livia’s life were significant to how she gained her power and illustrate her ideas of what was important in life.

Works Cited

Laertius, Diogenes. Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Fraschetti, Augusto. Roman Women. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001. Print.