Monday, February 3, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: I am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

I am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith was one of my most eagerly anticipated releases of 2014, and I’m thrilled to have gotten hold of an ARC. Many years ago, Phyllis and I were in a writers’ group together. I got a taste of her writing then, and was certain that one day I would hold a book of hers in my hands. Awhile ago, I was a beta reader for a draft of I am Livia , and I’ve been rooting for it to be the one. When I learned it was to be published, I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to read it.

I am Livia whisks us back to Ancient Rome, to the Ides of March (well, just before), when Julius Caesar’s assassination is being plotted. One of the main conspirators is Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus, father of Livia Drusilla. The plotters need to include Tiberius Nero, one of Caesar’s close allies. In order to gain his cooperation, Marcus Claudianus has promised him Livia.
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Livia was the eldest daughter of a father with no sons. She was extremely well educated. Her father did not hesitate to discuss politics with her and imbued her with a sense of duty to Rome. Livia was well prepared for the role she had to play. She didn’t want to marry Tiberius but she did her duty, laying the foundation for her eventful life.

And so, the assassination takes place. Uproar follows, and the novel does a wonderful job of showing political upheaval through the eyes of a young woman of important status living through it with full comprehension of what is going on. Even more exciting is what follows: Caesar Octavianus’s (Caesar Augustus) revenge. The course of history is changed.

Livia meets the young man under innocuous circumstances at first. She watches his early political career. They think alike and are able to understand one another where others don’t. It’s a potentially dangerous affinity. Livia is both attracted and repelled. They are on opposite sides of the political spectrum and she knows that her father would hate everything he stands for.

I won’t summarize anymore of the book, because the unfolding of the history and the progression of the relationship is so intertwined and so fascinating. Livia has gotten a bad reputation in popular imagination (both in her own time and down through history) because she was an openly influential woman in a time when women were supposed to remain hidden in the shadows. The rumors of her misdeeds and her actual undeniable straying from the conventional paths of virtuous Roman matronhood are addressed in the pages of this first-person novel in Livia’s "own" words.

In this remarkable recounting of her own life, Livia comes alive. She maneuvers through earth-shaking historical events, always trying to protect her loved ones, serve Rome, and counsel mercy. Not only does Livia become a sympathetic and inspiring protagonist, but, seen through Livia’s eyes, Caesar Augustus becomes a flesh and blood man, brilliant, ambitious, arrogant, and yet vulnerable. This book superbly mixes strongly developed, emotionally complex characters with well-researched accurate history. It humanizes historical figures that had, for me, just been names on a timeline. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I hope it won’t be long before Phyllis Smith’s next book appears.


  1. Thanks for this review, Susan. I'm going to add this one to my wish list. I don't read a lot of historical fiction set in Rome, but those I have read have included Livia and I'd love to read more about her.

  2. I recently read this novel and reviewed it for my book blog. I loved it!! Glad you enjoyed it and am a bit envious that you've met the author! Happy reading!!