Livia Drusilla, the First First Lady: There has to be a first of everything, and this lady was it. She certainly was not the first powerful woman in the ancient world: the Bible and other ancient tomes were full of predecessors, and Cleopatra was barely out of the picture when Livia bloomed in Rome. Livia was not even the first wife of Octavian (later called Caesar Augustus): that would have been Claudia, the child stepdaughter of Marc Antony, whom Octavian left untouched and whom he divorced when he and Antony fell out again. Not even his second: Scribonia, an "older woman" and already (by a previous husband) the mother of the later notorious Julia the Elder and grandmother of the even more odious Julia the Younger (Julietta), filled that role. Livia Drusilla, who was willed the title of Julia Augusta when her Caesar Augustus died many years later, was, in fact, Augustus' third wife.

Livia was born in 58 BC, the daughter of a Roman Patrician, Marcus Livius Drusus Claudius, and the granddaughter of Marcus Livius Drusus, a great man who had been tribune in 91 BC. At the age of 15 or 16, she was married to Tiberius Claudius Nero, who was an opponent of the young Octavian. Livia gave birth to there first son, Tiberius in 42 BC and by 40 BC, the young family had fled Rome to the protection of Mark Antony. They soon returned to Rome and, by 38 BC, a very pregnant Livia divorced Tiberius Claudius Nero to marry Octavian who had himself just divorced Scribonia, newly the mother of Julia the Elder.

The events leading up to this marriage aren't clear, but it appears to have been done with the approval of her husband, but he could hardly have safely objected. It is certain that both Livia and Octavian wanted this union, because they were willing to endure a great deal of scandal and Roman gossip. But to make the marriage acceptable to Roman society, a story of divine omens was put about. The tale was that, while traveling to her country estate, an eagle, the sacred bird of Jupiter, had dropped in her lap a laying hen holding a sprig of laurel in its mouth -- three potent omens occurring simultaneously obviously marked Livia for a special job. Three months after her marriage to Octavian, Livia's second son, Drusus, was born. In accordance with Roman custom, Livia's sons went to live with their father. Julia, the daughter of Scribonia, stayed with Octavian and Livia. When Tiberius Claudius Nero died in 32 BCE, Livia's sons joined Octavian's household. This may seem complicated, but such family arrangements were not uncommon among the ancient Roman elites.

The role of wife to rich and a famous urban Roman man was clearly defined by Livia's time: she should stay at home, produce as many children as she could, maybe do a little spinning and weaving, supervise the servants, and know (for ceremonial purposes only) how to thresh grain and start a fire. The "stay at home" part was the most important. A good Roman wife never upstaged her husband -- in fact, she should not be on the stage at all. Many upper class women understandably found this incredibly boring and sought solace in the arms of men other than their husbands. Livia did not appear to have had a wandering heart and found other outlets which closely match our modern ideas of the role of a "First lady."

Livia was given the right to sit with the Vestal Virgins during public performances, she received large numbers of clients, commissioned and dedicated public buildings, sponsored charities and interceded on behalf of provincial emissaries. Her entire public persona and all her images and actions were connected with marriage, the family and traditional Roman family values. She endowed the "Portico of Livia" between the Opian and Cispian Hills in Rome as a public recreational area consisting of a large courtyard with a shrine to Concordia, dedicated to marital concord and harmony. At the time of its dedication, she gave a large banquet for the respectable matrons of Rome. Her actions were decidedly untraditional because they were undertaken in public, but they were still directed toward traditional ends. She was a very intelligent woman who was able to help her husband consolidate his power while maintaining the appearance of not doing so.

Like some later first ladies, Livia had to put up with the rowdiness and randiness of her husband. The Historian Suetonius noted that Augustus' "various acts of adultery" were "not denied even by his friends". His early enemies (especially Mark Antony and his brother Lucius Antony, when they were still alive) were free with accusations, which he apparently answered only with the famous "and so is your mother." Such carryings on were expected of manly men in those days, and Livia stood by her Augustus throughout -- and he did always come home. They stayed married for almost 53 years until his death in 14 AD.

Livia continued to exert her good influence over Augustus' successor, her son Tiberius, for fifteen years after Augustus' peaceful death. She died in 29 AD at the age of 85. It was probably because of her political acumen and ability to watch out for Tiberius that his problems with the praetorian prefect Sejanus, a bureaucrat/pretender, did not occur until two years after her death.

Livia's was the exemplar for later Roman and other "First Ladies", but the later Roman ones, all of whom also carried the honorific title "Julia Augusta", just did not measure up because all seemed to have forgotten one qualification that Livia always possessed: Livia was never accused or ever even suspected of any kind of moral or sexual misconduct. Livia Drusilla was so revered by later ages that she was claimed as an ancestress of all European royal houses (through Charlemagne and Farabert, King of the Franks from 166 to 186). British colonials and American founding fathers, steeped as they were in the classics, named their daughters Livia Drusilla in the hope that they would be good and faithful wives as was their namesake, and her combination name survives in a surprising number of American academic and plutocratic families.

For more on the personal lives of Caesar Augustus and Livia, go to: and scroll down to Chapter 61.

PS: You too can, with mathematical if not biological certainty, trace your ancestry back to Livia. If you assume four generations per century and you know that in each previous generation you had double the number of ancestors that you had in the next generation, it's easy to work out the geometric progression. Just multiply by two for each generation: yourself, two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, 16 great-greats, etc. Using this method, you can see that you would have had about a trillion ancestors (one with 12 zeroes behind it) alive in 1000 AD and about a septillion (24 zeroes) in Livia's time. Even the trillion is more folks than ever lived, so you can see that there must have been some, if distant, incest involved in your ancestry ( -- We won't tell). Since intercontinental travel was already possible in Livia's time and since race-mixing wasn't much of a taboo in most places and intervening times, it's obvious that everyone alive in Livia's time was your ancestor, and inevitably though several different lines.