Andrew Lund ACF Abstract FY13

"Power, Presages, and Portrayal: Suetonius' Representation of Livia"           

92nd Anniversary Meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) Southern Section

Soon after her marriage to Octavian, Livia Drusilla received a présage foretelling his sovereignty: an eagle dropped into Livia’s lap a white hen clutching a laurel sprig in its beak.  (A “présage” is an all-inclusive term that Vigourt uses to describe any and all types of divination, including omens, portents, and prodigies [2001: passim; Nice 2003].)  This présage, however, brings to mind a number of striking similarities between the Livia story and another eagle présage—this time on the part of Tanaquil, foretelling Lucumo’s supreme power (Liv. 1.34.8-9).  Whereas Livy depicts Tanaquil as an overly assertive and power-hungry manipulator of men, going so far as to hide the death of her husband so as to ensure that Servius Tullius would become king (1.41.1-7), Suetonius’ portrait of Livia (Galb. 1) stands out for its comparatively benign treatment of the empress.  What is more, Livia’s hiding the death of her husband so as to ensure the succession of Tiberius—a connection to Tanaquil which has not gone unnoticed (e.g. Rutland 1978; Bauman 1994)—is noticeably absent from the De Vita Caesarum.  I argue, then, that while Livia’s eagle présage brings to mind the specter of a woman in power, Suetonius does not portray Livia as the menacing threat that is Livy’s Tanaquil.  Instead, he diminishes this threat by detailing Livia’s divinatory prowess, by using language and rhetorical strategy to distance Livia from the realm of politics, and through the simple—though effective—use of precedent.

While scholars have noted a connection between the tales of Suetonius and Livy (e.g. Flory 1989; Murison 1992; Reeder 1997), less attention has been paid to the role of Livia in the story of her eagle présage.  Inasmuch as “[w]omen… did not divine nor did amateurs make prophecies without the assistance of a professional seer” (Ogilvie 1978 [1965]: 144, following Enking 1959: 78), Livia acts in an unconventional way.  She does not seek priests for guidance and explanation—as would have been expected (e.g. North 2006 [2000]: 27-8)—but instead acts independently.  Moreover, by reading this strange event as a présage, we may take into consideration the Roman belief that présages “were expected to be sent to the person in the best position and with the greatest responsibility to act upon the message, that is, the person with the most real power and influence” (Ripat 2006: 159).  Livia in Suetonius’ account, not a priest or a magistrate, had the requisite power and influence to act upon the présage. 

Present in both narratives, then, is the specter of a woman exercising power.  The two episodes signal just how much power Livia and Tanaquil wield, a power which contributes to the varying accounts of Livia’s eagle présage in Pliny the Elder (HN 15.136-37), Suetonius (Galb. 1), and Cassius Dio (48.52.3-4).  Suetonius’ version, however, stands out for its comparatively benign treatment of Livia, providing us with a rather different glimpse of Livia than do Dio and Pliny.  Suetonius achieves this by distancing Livia from politics (it was the Caesars, and not Livia, who began the imperial custom of wearing laurel crowns from the grove [Galb. 1]), and through simple precedent: Livia was not the first woman to receive and interpret an eagle présage, and is therefore not so transgressive.   

Scholars have noted that Suetonius did document carefully his assertions when he wanted to call authors “to account for inaccuracies” (Hurley 2001: 9).  By diminishing the negative connotations of the Tanaquil story through his portrayal of Livia, then, Suetonius may well have been trying to correct what he saw as a misrepresentation of Livia: Livia is no Tanaquil.  Instead, Suetonius’ Livia, quite unlike Livy’s Tanaquil, uses her religious and divinatory prowess in a way that does not threaten male authority.      

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