Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia by Matthew Dennison - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

From Livia To Soaemias

Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia


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It is impossible to write the biography of any but a few people in the ancient world. The materials which go to provide the content of a modern biography are lacking. There are few letters or diaries, few even partly reliable memories of contemporaries. Most of the authorities are not contemporary with the subject of the biography, and their accounts are rendered untrustworthy by our ignorance of their sources and signs of the authors’ political or religious bias. There is of course epigraphical evidence, and that of statues and coins, but this is as reliable as a publicist’s press release, for it was almost all intended to serve the purpose of propaganda. Finally, much that is stated by ancient historians, often writing long after the events they chronicle and with no personal knowledge of the people they describe, is little better than conjecture when it is not simply invented.

Nevertheless attempts to write such biographies continue to be made and one cannot but admire their authors’ pertinacity and ambition. Inevitably any honest biographer must litter his work with speculation and with a host of ‘perhapses’ and ‘might have beens’. It is no slur on Matthew Dennison and

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