Author: Phyllis T. Smith
Genre: historical fiction
Pages: 375 (ARC edition)
Published: May 1 2014
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Her life would be marked by scandal and suspicion, worship and adoration…
At the tender age of fourteen, Livia Drusilla overhears her father and fellow aristocrats plotting the assassination of Julius Caesar. Proving herself an astute confidante, she becomes her father’s chief political asset—and reluctantly enters into an advantageous marriage to a prominent military officer. Her mother tells her, “It is possible for a woman to influence public affairs,” reminding Livia that—while she possesses a keen sense for the machinations of the Roman senate—she must also remain patient and practical.
But patience and practicality disappear from Livia’s mind when she meets Caesar’s heir, Octavianus. At only eighteen, he displays both power and modesty. A young wife by that point, Livia finds herself drawn to the golden-haired boy. In time, his fortunes will rise as Livia’s family faces terrible danger. But her sharp intellect—and her heart—will lead Livia to make an unbelievable choice: one that will give her greater sway over Rome than she could have ever foreseen.
Though not without a few stumbles over its near four hundred page length, Phyllis T. Smith provides a lively, believable rendition of the life of one of Rome's most famous women with I Am Livia. The woman born Livia Drusilla, though later known by the name Julia Augusta, remains an intriguing woman thousands of years after her life and death. Both before and after marrying Gaius Julius Caesar, Livia was a formidable woman with both a keen mind and the ambition to go with it. Though a debut, the time and care spent crafting and recreating the life of Octavius's equal is readily apparent and reflected in the narrative. Phyllis T. Smith had both passion for and knowledge about these characters and this story and it shows.
A thoroughly unconventional woman for her time, Livia's life is often a story of unlikelihoods. From the daughter of one of the conspirators of Julius Caesar's assassination to the wife of Caesar's heir, Livia never did what was expected. Though she had an able mind, and eventually became one of Augustus's most valued advisers in his governing, Livia was supposed to be hampered by her sex. She refuses to be any kind of weak throughout the entirety of I Am Livia. She isn't always a scrupulous or honest person, but she is merciful and kind when needed. I loved that Livia wasn't a passive bystander in her own life. By all means, the real Livia wasn't, so Smith's determined version of the daughter of the Julii is credible and likeable.
The book chronicles a wide swath of Livia's life, encompassing from Caesar's death on the Idea of March to her first marriage to Tiberius Nero to Octavius being anointed First Citizen of Rome. Though that is a lot of time to cover, with several important world events during that span, Smith has an even hand on pacing. The book moves slowly, but naturally. It can be frustrating that all the action and battles are removed from Livia's POV, especially when they are so pivotal to the story, but the "letters to home" frame with Tavius worked well enough to keep the tension in the story.
I left this novel sorry to go, even after four hundred pages of politics and plotting. For all her faults and flaws, Livia was a remarkable woman. One who aimed to do more good than harm, but would passionately fight to defend her family. She was a complicated woman that many failed to understand in her own day and to see her story told with such care and impartiality is refreshing. Octavius may be the undoubtedly more remembered figure, but Livia Drusilla was just as pivotal in caring for Rome as her husband was.