I received a review copy of this book from TLC Book Tours. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Lake Union in 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction
Source: TLC Book Tours
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I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith is a historical fiction novel that tells the story of Livia Drusilla, who grew to be one of the most powerful women in ancient Rome. The story begins as Livia overhears her father plotting to kill Julius Caesar. In order to cement a political alliance, her father marries her (mind you, she’s just a child at the time) to Tiberius Nero. It’s a tumultuous time for Rome, and war and destruction are inevitable. Livia sees her marriage as a duty to her country, but she doesn’t have any real feelings for her husband. She does, however, have a crush on Caesar’s heir. Livia is conflicted by her feelings, because she knows that Caesar Octavianus is the enemy of both her father and her husband. And if you know anything about history, you’ll already know how the story ends.
History has not been kind to Livia, but the author presents a much more balanced view of her as someone who wants love, independence, and peace for her family. (Do I add a spoiler alert here? Is it a spoiler if it actually happened? But at least this story isn’t tragic like the one I read about Boudicca…) It would have been really easy to make Livia seem like a bitch who abandons her husband to run off with her lover. It would also have been easy to make it seem like she never cared about Tiberius Nero. Instead, we see a woman who marries out of duty and develops a camaraderie and friendship with her husband, despite the fact that he’s not the person she would have chosen. And Tiberius Nero realizes that the marriage was political, and he lets her go without drama. Instead of a YA-style love triangle, we see rational people making rational decisions and realizing the impact that society and politics have on the choices that they make. We see a breakup that remains civil, and Livia and her ex continue to be friends even after her marriage to Caesar Octavianus. I’m glad that the author chose to frame their relationship in that context, because if we look at history, marriages for love are a fairly modern development. (/endspoiler)
By portraying the politics of ancient Rome through a female lens, we can clearly see the impact that Rome’s continual fighting have on average people. At first, Livia is young and reckless, grasping for power but not really knowing how to use it. She endures unexpected hardship during her teenage years as she and Tiberius Nero flee from the enemies that they’ve made in Rome, and she’s doing it with young children. As she matures, she uses her influence to push for peace and to protect her family. She feels confined by the traditional role of a wife, but wants to be a true partner to her husband, especially on an intellectual level. And even as she gains power, she struggles for simple things, like the right to control her own property.
I Am Livia is an enjoyable account of the life and feelings of an extraordinary woman who lived more than two thousand years ago. It can be a bit sentimental at times, but it’s a decent read about an exciting period in history.