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.