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The real-life Wicked Witch of Rome

A new TV series tells the story of Livia Drusilla, who became the most powerful woman in the world as the wife of the first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar.

As viewers might expect from a show set in Ancient Rome, Domina, offers up plenty of sex, violence and political backstabbing. 

Within the opening episodes, Livia (played by two actresses in different stages of her life) bludgeons a would-be rapist to death with a large rock and senators are slaughtered on Augustus' orders. 

But the shocking scenes have nothing on Livia's compelling real-life story that saw her accused of killing her grandsons, exiling her 'wanton' stepdaughter and poisoning her own husband in her quest to secure dynastic power.  

Taking its title from the female form of 'Dominus', the Latin word for master, Domina focuses on the wives, sisters, mothers, daughters and mistresses who used their influence at home and in the bedroom to wield soft power in Ancient Rome.  

And no one was more successful at this than Livia. 

Most powerful woman in the world: New eight-part Sky Atlantic series Domina tells the story of Livia, who became the most powerful woman in the world as the wife of the first Roman emperor Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus Caesar. Pictured, Kasia Smutniak as Livia

Future emperor: Tom Glynn-Carney as the young Gaius Octavius (second from left) in Domina

Born about 58 years before the birth of Christ, Livia came from an upper-class Roman family living under a strict moral code, which was even stricter for women. 

As has come to be expected of historical dramas, Domina does away with this and gives Livia (played by two actresses, Nadia Parkes and Kasia Smutniak) far more freedom than she would likely have been afforded. 

In the first few episodes she has a fling with the rebel Sextus Pompeius and asserts herself by violently bludgeoning a would-be rapist to death with a stone. 

Livia came to womanhood in violent times. She was 14 when Julius Caesar was murdered on the steps of the Capitol, the blood running into his scarlet boots.

Domina starts the following year, in 43 BC, with the wedding of the then 15-year-old Livia to her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero, who was 30 years her senior. 

That same year, three of the most powerful men in Rome, including Mark Antony and the future Gaius Octavius - Julius Caesar's adoptive son - organised a massacre of Rome's key Republicans, offering incentives to deliver their chopped heads on a platter. 

On the run: The series starts in 43BC, the year after the assassination of Julius Caesar, with 15-year-old Livia (played by Nadia Parkes) preparing to marry her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero, who is three times her age. The first two episodes cover Livia in exile (pictured)

Despite hiding in wells, sewers and roof-spaces, 300 senators and 2,000 of the nobility were massacred. 

Among those who backed the wrong side were Livia's father Livius (played in Domina by Game Of Thrones' Liam Cunningham) and her husband.

As civil war raged, Livia, Tiberius and their young son Tiberius fled Rome in fear of their lives. 

The first two episodes cover their time on the run and exile in Perugia and Sicily and their eventual return to Rome once an amnesty is declared.

Villain? Livia has been depicted as a ruthless murderess who is willing to stop at nothing to gain control. Pictured, a bust of Livia

Critics have compared the early episodes to Game Of Thrones, with Octavian and his trusted sidekick Agrippa ordering massacres and seducing women. 

By the time she returned to Rome in 39 BC, Livia was pregnant with her second child. 

It is then she was introduced to Gaius Octavius, known by historians as Octavian, who is said to have fallen in love at first sight despite being married to Scribonia at the time.

A marriage between Octavian and Livia was mutually beneficial. 

Livia found herself back in Rome a social outcast without a fortune, while Octavian could see marriage to a woman from an old Republican family could help build bridges. 

Domina puts a rather more romantic spin on the situation, which likely would have been largely out of Livia's control, and shows her pursuing the man who up until recently had been her father's sworn enemy.  

As soon as Scribonia gives birth to a daughter, Julia (later known as Julia the Elder), Octavian divorced her. Some reports say this happened on the same day. 

Weeks later in January 37 BC, Octavian took her as his new wife. She had given birth to her youngest son, Drusus, three days before. 

Guest star: Domina features a powerful performance by that grande dame of European cinema Isabella Rossellini (right) playing Balbina, a brothel madam who’s an early enemy of Livia

Although the circumstances of their marriage was far from auspicious, it was destined to last. The pair remained married for 51 years until Augustus' death in 14 AD. 

Livia, the first feminist? 

‘In a way we can say that Livia was one of the first feminists,’ says Kasia Smutniak, who plays her as an adult.

‘She fought for her rights, and rights for women. She used power to survive. She was a tough woman who was both feared and cherished.’ 

Simon echoes those thoughts. ‘Livia changed the game for Roman women who followed her,’ he says. ‘Her riches-to-rags-to-power story is utterly compelling.’

Yet for many this eight-part Sky drama will be the first time they have heard of her. That was the case for Nadia Parkes, who appears as the young Livia. ‘I forgot women even existed in Roman times,’ she laughs. 

‘I think the extent of my knowledge of that period is the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar. 

'So I uncovered a whole world I didn’t know about – all these wonderful women who existed with their own feelings and stories and their own desire for power: the things we associate with being a powerful woman nowadays existed then – it’s just not in the history books.’

While the Emperor was known for his voracious sexual appetite, Livia was said to be the only woman who he cared for. 

This is seen in the fact that the pair remained married even though Livia never produced any children with Augustus, which was seen as a wife's primary purpose.  

In a sign of his respect, he also gave Livia power over her own finances, which was almost unheard of at the time. She became the most powerful woman in history.  

Seemingly content to tolerate her husband's affairs, the major problem for Livia was that Augustus wanted to create, in essence, a hereditary monarchy. 

That would exclude her sons from her first marriage, Tiberius and Drusus.

The rivals who stood in her way went down like ninepins, although historians are divided over whether all of their deaths were orchestrated by Livia. 

Marcellus, Augustus's nephew and son-in-law through his marriage to Julia the Elder, was the first to go in 23 BC after being struck down with a fever. 

Some historians have put the blame on Livia, claiming she was jealous that he had been tipped to succeed Augustus, although the Emperor himself disputed this. 

Other accounts say he could have died of typhoid or the plague.   

Following the death of her cousin Marcellus, Julia the Elder was married twice more: first to Augustus's trusted general and friend Agrippa then to her stepbrother Tiberius in 11 BC, following Agrippa's death the previous year. 

Writing some 70 years later, Roman historian Suetonius suggested Tiberius was not impressed with Julia's character. By 6 BC the couple were divorced. 

Scandal struck in 2 BC when Julia the Elder was accused of adultery and treason. Reluctant to execute her, Augustus exiled her to a rocky islet off the Italian coast. 

Some claim Livia was behind this whole affair because she fed the puritanical Augustus stories of her daughter-in-law's wanton immorality.  

Lucius and Gaius Caesar, Julia's sons and grandsons of Augustus, also died mysteriously abroad.  

Tacitus, who wrote some 100 years after the events took place, suggest it was due to Livia's 'secret hand' but no other historians mention the rumour.

Postumus, Julia's youngest child and Augustus's biological grandson, was also murdered while unarmed shortly after Augustus' death in AD 14 on the islet to which his mother had been exiled.

Losing side: Liam Cunningham as Livius, Nadia Parkes as young Livia, Enzo Cilenti as Tiberius Claudius Nero in Domina

The identity of the killer is still open to debate, but some believe Livia to be behind the plot because it removed any potential remaining threats to Tiberius' claim to the Imperial throne.  

Most famously, Livia has been assumed guilty of poisoning Augustus, wishing to hasten his death so she could see her own son Tiberius on the throne.   

A near contemporary historian records Livia smearing poison on some figs and offering them to him with her own hand. However historians have debated the legitimacy of these records. 

Regardless of whether Livia was responsible for Augustus' death, it certainly seems her husband did not suspect his wife of any foul play. 

Historical figure: The part of Gaius is taken by Matthew McNulty, recently seen in the BBC’s 19th-century horror-drama The Terror

In his will, he left one third of his property to Livia, and the other two thirds to Tiberius. He also adopted her into the Julian family and granted her the honorific title of Augusta. 

These dispositions permitted Livia to maintain her status and power after her husband's death, under the new name of Julia Augusta.

Her son Tiberius went on to become Emperor of Rome and was succeeded by her grandson Claudius and great-grandson Caligula. 

This goes far beyond the scope of Domina, which starts in 43 BC, the year after the assassination of Julius Caesar, and continues until the late 20s BC, by which point Gaius Octavius had been given the name Augustus, and he had laid the foundations of his supreme control.

'It is a political drama, but it’s told from the point of view of the wives, the daughters, the mothers, the sisters and the mistresses at a time when policy came to be made in the bedroom and not the Senate of Rome,' series writer and creator Simon Burke, told the Radio Times.

He was eager to get the historical facts correct, but admitted to some invention. 

We were very authentic and very accurate because Sky Italia really wanted something based on fact,' he told BT. 

'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.' 

'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.'

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