Who was Livia Drusilla? The true story behind Roman drama Domina on Sky Atlantic

Livia Drusilla is the focus of Sky Atlantic series Domina, which explores the power politics of Ancient Rome. Here's everything you need to know about her and the key men in her life.

By Becky Gamester-Newton Published: 13 May 2021 - 2.43pm
Kasia Smutniak plays Livia Drusilla in Domina

Domina is available on Sky Atlantic with a NOW Entertainment Membership from Friday, May 14.

Domina may not be the first TV show about Ancient Rome – but it’s the first time we’ve really examined the period through the lens of the era’s women.

Livia Drusilla (Kasia Smutniak) is the central character to the show, so if you’d like to know more about the woman and other key figures on which the show is based then read on.

*Warning: Domina is based on real people, so there are plot spoilers ahead*

Is Domina based on a true story?

Domina on Sky Atlantic

Largely, yes – the show’s production team were keen to be authentic as possible.

“We were very authentic and very accurate because Sky Italia really wanted something based on fact,” said creator Simon Burke.

“What happened and when it happened and where it happened and who did it, those things are written down in sources which we have and we were very faithful to those.”

However Burke recognises that some creative licence was needed for the show – and that some characters like slaves (such as Antigone, played by Melodie Wakivuamina and Colette Dalal Tchantcho) and the brothel owner Balbina (played by Isabella Rossellini) were invented.

“But in between you have the how and the why, and that was what we were just able to take a very different, invented fictional direction. Within the framework of stuff that really happened, we were able to invent new reasons for why it happened while staying faithful to history.

“We didn’t invent any characters except slaves or murderers or the owners of a brothel.

“But it’s about the first royal family of Rome and those characters are well-known - where they were born, where they died – and those characters are all faithfully represented. What we know of their character, we will put that in. If nothing is known at all about them, then fine – we can invent as much as we want.”

Here is the lowdown on the real-life figures behind four key characters in Domina - Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, Tiberius Claudius Nero, Gaius Julius Caesar and Livia Drusilla herself.

Livia Drusilla

Kasia Smutniak plays Livia in Domina

Livia Drusilla was born on January 30, 58 BC, and died in AD 29.

Her father was Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus.

Her first husband was her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero and their son, Tiberius, was the future emperor.

She was pregnant with her second son, Nero Claudius Drusus, when Gaius Julius Caesar - later the emperor Caesar Augustus - arranged for her to divorce Nero and marry him.

They stayed married for 51 years, with no children, though she had one miscarriage. She enjoyed advising him on his policies and petitioning on his behalf.

In 35 BC Gaius Julius Caesar gave her the unprecedented honour of ruling her own finances and even dedicated a statue to her. She owned copper mines, palm grove estates and papyrus marshes and had her own circle of clients.

When Gaius Julius Caesar died, she was adopted in his will and took the name Julia Augusta. She inherited one third of his property, with the other two thirds going to Tiberius.

Livia is rumoured to have poisoned Gaius with fresh figs, and may also have been behind the death of his nephew Marcellus.

Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus

Liam Cunningham plays Livius in Domina

Livia's father was born with the name Appius Claudius Pulcher into the Claudii Pulchri family, but was adopted by Marcus Livius Drusus when he was a small child. This was unusual, as most adoptions in Ancient Rome happened when the adoptee was an adult.

He married a plebeian - a commoner - called Alfidia and they had a daughter, Livia Drusilla. There is a suggestion that Livia had an older sister given the use of Drusilla but this is unclear. It is probable that he had married before, given his age at this time.

Livius was a supporter of the Roman Republic and opposed the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, who was assassinated by Brutus and Cassius in 44 BC. He joined the pair in the war against Gaius and Mark Antony.

In 42 BC he arranged for his daughter Livia Drusilla to marry Tiberius Claudius Nero.

He fought alongside Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Brutus and Cassius committed suicide when they were defeated, and Livius killed himself in his tent to avoid being captured by the victors.

Tiberius Claudius Nero

Enzo Cilenti plays Nero in Domina

Nero was a politician and the first husband of Livia Drusilla – but was forced to divorce her in 38 BC so she could marry Augustus.

He served as a quaestor (a public official) to Julius Caesar in 48 BC and commanded his fleet in the Alexandrian War.

After his victory over the Egyptian navy, he was given a priesthood.

In 41 BC he fled Rome with his wife Livia and their son Tiberius and joined Mark Antony’s brother Lucius in Perusia (now known as Perugia). When the town fell to Gaius Julius Caesar’s men in 40 BC he fled to Praeneste (now Palestrina) and then Naples.

He tried and failed to raise a slave battalion against Gaius, then took refuge with Sextus Pompey, who was then a pirate leader in Sicily.

After three years of fleeing Gaius, the family returned to Rome – only for Gaius to force Nero to divorce Livia so he could marry her, even though she was pregnant with Nero’s second child. Nero gave Livia away at her wedding to Gaius, before raising and educating his two sons as agreed.

Nero died in 33 BC, after which his sons went to live with Livia and Gaius.

Gaius Julius Caesar

Matthew McNulty plays Gaius in Domina

Gaius Julius Caesar – also known as Octavian and Caesar Augustus – has been deemed by historians to be one of the most effective yet controversial leaders in history.

His maternal great-uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, and Gaius was named in Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir.

He formed the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus to defeat Caesar’s assassins. When they won the battle of Philippi, they divided the Roman Republic among themselves and ruled as dictators.

The Empire grew hugely under his rule, and he also reformed taxation, developed road networks, established an army, police and fire-fighting services and is credited with rebuilding much of the city.

He died aged 75 in AD 14, with rumours claiming his wife Livia had poisoned him.

Domina is available on Sky Atlantic with a NOW Entertainment Membership from Friday, May 14.

 

Copyright for second image: Sky UK Ltd.

Copyright for all other images: © Antonello & Montesi

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