warning: contains (potential historical) spoilers for Domina seasons 1 & 2
Ancient history is a gift to screenwriters, because you can make up most of what’s going on and still claim to be completely historically accurate. Domina takes full advantage of that to produce what might be the most historically accurate period drama ever made, even though it might not bear any resemblance to the actual lives of the actual people portrayed.
Making a TV show about the ancient Roman Empress Livia is not like making a show about, say, Winston Churchill. If you’re writing a screenplay about Churchill, you’ve got access to letters, calendars, portraits, photographs, recordings, diaries, newspaper reports, memoirs… the list goes on and on. That means you have loads of material to use and adapt for your film or TV show, but it also means it is impossible to be completely historically accurate, because you will always need to tweak and adapt things to create a more compelling drama.
Someone writing a screenplay about Livia, on the other hand, has a few statues, a few letters, and some histories and biographies written by ancient authors decades or even centuries after she died, and that’s about it. And those histories and biographies are more interested in her husband and son than in her. So anyone writing a screenplay about her has no choice but to make up most of what we see on screen, no matter how historically accurate they want to be, because we simply don’t know anything beyond the bare facts of her life. But in a way that is a gift for writers, because they can take the bare bones of history and then just make it up – creating a really compelling drama.
Heads-up for spoiler-phobes: we’re about to talk about Livia’s whole life history, so as well as the currently airing second season, this article may spoil possible future seasons of Domina for anyone unfamiliar with the history.
What Do We Actually Know About Livia?
Livia Drusilla was a Roman aristocrat who was born 30 January 59 BCE. After Julius Caesar was assassinated by a conspiracy of senators, her father fought with the conspirators against Caesar’s heirs – Caesar’s BFF Mark Antony and his great-nephew/posthumously-adopted-son Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus – and died by suicide after losing at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. (Fair warning, the family trees get pretty confusing because everyone appears on their own family tree half a dozen times. Domina refers to Caesar’s adopted son as “Gaius” throughout, to avoid having to change his name, so we will do that here too – historians call him “Octavian” if talking about 44-27 BCE, and “Augustus” after that).
Livia’s first husband was another aristocrat, Tiberius Claudius Nero. When Mark Antony and Gaius fell out, TCN took Antony’s side and they all ended up besieged by Gaius’ army at a town called Perusia. The family had to run for their lives when Antony’s forces lost the siege. At this point, they had a young son, Tiberius, who was only two years old. They joined up with another enemy of Gaius (Sextus Pompeius) for a little while, then peace was declared and Gaius declared an amnesty, and they went back to Rome.
In 39 BCE, Gaius and Livia met at a dinner party. She was pregnant with her second son (Drusus), and his wife Scribonia was pregnant with his daughter Julia. Scandalously, Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia got divorced immediately and Gaius divorced Scribonia on the day she gave birth to Julia, and they married each other while Livia was still pregnant with Drusus.
Gaius eventually won a civil war against Antony and became the Emperor Augustus. Although he held absolute power, he always pretended to be only a first among equals, and his slow consolidation of his power is one of the things dramatized in Domina. But although Livia had at least one miscarriage during their marriage, they never had biological children together. They had a very complicated family tree, made more so by the fact Gaius’ sister Octavia had five biological children by two different husbands and had adopted four of her second husband Mark Antony’s other children (one of these, Iullus Antonius, is a character in Domina. The other three were Antony’s children with Cleopatra, but the show mystifyingly decided to skip Antony and Cleopatra, so they have been adapted out).
Many of the various daughters, sons, nieces and nephews were married to each other in an attempt to create a dynasty and provide a clear monarchical-style heir to Gaius, but all of Gaius’ potential heirs died except for one – Livia’s eldest son, Tiberius. He eventually became Emperor when Gaius died, and that is when it really became clear that Rome was no longer a Republic, but a monarchy in which the step-son/son-in-law/adopted son of the ruler inherited his father’s power. Livia eventually died during Tiberius’ reign aged about 87.
What About All the Murders?
The main historical sources for Livia’s life are three ancient Roman historians. Cassius Dio wrote centuries after she died, relying mainly on earlier histories. Suetonius and Tacitus were both writing several decades after Livia died. Suetonius wrote very gossipy biographies – he is the one who said her great-grandson Caligula wanted to make his horse a consul, for example – and Tacitus wrote year-by-year histories, in which he makes clear his dislike for emperors who abuse their power – emperors like Tiberius, Caligula, and Livia’s great-great-grandson Nero. All of them give slightly different versions of events. Ancient history reads a lot like George RR Martin’s Fire and Blood, the source novel for House of the Dragon (Martin is very well read in ancient and medieval history). There are different versions of events and lots and lots of rumours about what was “really” going on behind the scenes. But in this case, there is no George RR Martin to ask for a “real” version, the screenwriters have to make it up.
The idea that Livia was a serial killer was a real rumour that was reported by Tacitus and Cassius Dio. One of the things that really bothered Tacitus was the idea that when one man is in charge of an Empire, that one man might be overly influenced by women – especially women he is having sex with, or by his mother (or both at once, if you can believe what Suetonius says about Nero and his ma). Tacitus basically accuses her of being a multiple murderer in order to secure power, and Cassius Dio reports rumours that she had been offing Gaius’ other heirs to make way for her own son.
The accusation falls into the ancient Roman stereotype of the wicked stepmother. In Roman law, when a couple divorced, the children stayed with their father. The father might then have more children with a new wife. The fear was that the second wife would somehow harm the older children of her husband in order to favour her own children. In Livia’s case, when her first husband died, her older children came to live with her and Gaius. The historical fact that Gaius’ repeated attempts to secure an heir by adopting his own grandchildren failed because they kept dying, and that Livia’s son ended up becoming the next Emperor, combined with this stereotype, came together to produce the rumours reported by Tacitus and Cassius Dio, that Livia was murdering them all to make sure her own son inherited.
Was Livia Really Trying to Restore the Republic?
If we’re trying to work out what really happened, then by far the least historically convincing idea in Domina is the suggestion that Livia was secretly trying to restore the Republic. Whether she engineered a marriage to Gaius for political power, or whether she was forced to marry him when he took a fancy to her, we don’t know. But we do know that they stayed married for 50 years despite not having any surviving biological children together (a reason for divorce in Roman culture), she helped him run the Empire, and her son became the next Emperor. If she was secretly trying to restore the Republic the whole time, she did not do a very good job of it.
So why write her that way, then? Well, because the series needs a sympathetic lead character. Modern viewers don’t tend to be overly supportive of Emperors who seize power by murdering hundreds of people and their descendants who maintain it, so modern screenplay writers look for a way to create characters the audience can root for. Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius and its 1976 television adaptation did it by making Livia’s doomed younger son Drusus and his son, the eventual Emperor Claudius, Republicans who want to restore power to the Senate. Domina also picks out Drusus as a useful potential Republican, but makes Livia (not his biological father, whom he barely knew) the reason for that.
And in theory, it could be true. It seems very unlikely, but it is not impossible. Domina very rarely if ever goes outside established facts (even Antony and Cleopatra’s children could be running around in the background somewhere and just not talked about). It is entirely possible that Livia was, indeed, secretly scheming to avenge her father and restore the Republic, but something went wrong in between the original plan and Gaius’ eventual death – probably the death of Drusus, which left her with the less stable Tiberius as her only remaining option.
Brutal, Troubled Tiberius
Domina’s depiction of Tiberius is really fascinating, and also matches up with what we might call real historical rumour as well as some actual facts. All the histories agree that Tiberius was, basically, a terrible human being. He is responsible for even more murders than Livia supposedly was, many of them actual factual “executions” (not just people who died of fever and rumours went around that they had secretly been murdered, like Marcellus).
As an Emperor, Tiberius was at first brutal, holding lots of treason trials leading to summary executions, and later uninterested, withdrawing to the island of Capri and ruling from there. But the really awful rumours the historians spread about him are impossible to prove or disprove because they mostly involve second-hand gossip about things that apparently happened in his private villa on the island. We are not going to report them here because they are genuinely horrifying and deeply disturbing, and frankly we are clinging to the hope that they have been wildly exaggerated and are not really true.
The other thing we know about Tiberius is that once he became Emperor, he fell out with Livia entirely. He did not want to share the organisation of the Empire with her as Gaius had, and they had a big disagreement after Livia helped out a friend who was accused of murdering yet another of their relatives and heirs (supposedly at the instigation of Tiberius himself). After a few years, he cut off all contact with her, and according to Suetonius when she finally died, he put off coming to her funeral so long that the corpse started to putrefy.
I, Claudius depicted Tiberius as a troubled and rather grumpy man who experienced a long and slow decline into brutality as the result of a series of losses (of his father, then being forced to divorce his first wife Vipsania, then the death of Drusus). By the time Livia finally achieves her objective of making him emperor, which he has half-reluctantly gone along with, he is no longer interested.
Domina takes a similar approach but implies that Tiberius has serious mental health problems of some kind from much earlier. Other characters’ references to “bad Tiberius” and Antonia the Elder treating him as a different person in the dark-as-pitch final scenes of season two imply some kind of combination of sociopathy and multiple personality disorder that Romans would not be able to name or diagnose, but could only recognise the symptoms of. The show also makes much more of his early childhood trauma at the siege of Perusia and their flight from it, including making a really sinister incident out of Suetonius’ reports that the then-two-year-old nearly gave the family away by crying twice during their escape.
That horrifying final scene not only chimes quite well with some of the worst rumours about Tiberius in later life, it is also one of a few running themes that foreshadow later events, again all based on real historical rumour. As history buffs will know, all those references to refusing food or to smothering are probably leading somewhere…
Quibbles and Minor Inaccuracies
Domina is not immune from the sorts of minor inaccuracies that always pop up in historical dramas. Although Roman wedding veils were correctly depicted as yellow in season one (they should be “flame-coloured”, i.e. yellow or red), for some reason the wedding veils in season two are incorrectly white. The method by which Livia kills the Vestal Virgin Turia in season two is actually the real method of execution used on Vestal Virgins who were found guilty of breaking their vows of chastity, for the same reason – to avoid any human damaging their sacrosanct body – but no Vestals were executed under the reign of Augustus or Tiberius. And on that subject, the Romans were quite big fans of Sappho’s female homoerotic poetry and were not usually too worried about what women did with each other, since it could not lead to pregnancy (it was their wives having sex with other men that bothered them). There is also what appears to be a typing error in one of the introductory title cards in season one, which proclaims the year to be 25 CE when it is quite clearly 22 CE, as it takes place after the death of Marcellus. But these are minor quibbles.
So much of Domina is pure invention, we have no idea what the real people would think if they saw it. We really hope a lot of the ancient rumours were not true, and suspect the idea that Livia was secretly trying to restore the Republic is unlikely. The series also includes entirely fictional characters like Antigone and Tycho, and attributes even more deaths to secret family murders than the ancient rumour mill did, like Marcella.
But even those things might have happened. Unlikely as it is that Marcella was drowned by her husband and his lover/her cousin, Iullus Antonius and Julia really were lovers, and it is, theoretically, possible. Although Roman histories sometimes include some references to former slaves of well known Romans, like the Republican politician Cicero’s freedman and secretary Tiro or the later Emperor Claudius’ freedmen Narcissus and Pallas, they do not do so very often, so Antigone and Tycho could very well have existed and there be no record of them. Domina might just have a claim to be the most historically accurate period drama ever made – even though its characters might be completely unrecognisable to the real people involved.
Domina seasons one and two are available on Sky Atlantic and NOW
You can read good modern translations of Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars and Tacitus’ Annals at poetryintranslation.com – but please note a content warning for very disturbing material in Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius.