Claudia Acte was a freedwoman of ancient Rome who became a mistress of the emperor Nero. She came from Asia Minor and might have become a slave of the Emperor Claudius, following his expansion of the Roman Empire into Lycia and Pamphylia; or she might have been purchased later, by Octavia, Claudius' daughter.
Relationship with Nero
The Emperor Claudius, uncle of Nero's mother, Agrippina the Younger, married his niece in 49 AD and therefore became Nero's stepfather. Claudius' daughter, Octavia (by his wife Messalina), became Nero's stepsister at the same time. Nero and Octavia themselves married in 53 AD, and Nero became emperor in 54 AD, after his great-uncle/stepfather died—apparently poisoned, in the belief of contemporary historians, by his niece/wife, Agrippina, Nero's mother.
A year into Nero's reign, encouraged by Seneca the Younger and Burrus, and against Agrippina the Younger's wishes, Nero took Acte as his mistress. Seneca especially was concerned that his young student would not be satisfied with his wife, Octavia, and might indulge in risky sexual exploits. This made Acte appear a safe outlet and a source of separation from Agrippina. Seneca and Burrus were on uneasy terms with Agrippina and were nervous about her political influence and methods, especially following the putative poisoning of her husband, the Emperor Claudius. However, the relationship with Acte was kept as quiet as possible so as to not damage Nero's politically significant marriage to Octavia. Otho, Claudius Senecio and Annaeus Serenus helped Nero and Acte with their secret meetings. Serenus, a protégé of Seneca, even pretended that Acte was his own mistress in order to avert suspicion.
The couple met when Nero was only 17, and their reportedly emotional, passionate relationship lasted at least three years. Nero expressed the desire to marry Acte and had a genealogy fabricated linking her royalty; he even bribed ex-consuls to prepare to swear to her royal birthright, a move that enraged his mother Agrippina, who was very conscious and proud of her own, well-established patrician ancestry.
Influence on the Empire
As Nero's mistress, Acte might have had the opportunity to exert considerable influence on the Roman Empire, though it is unknown what influence she actually had. It is claimed by Tacitus that Agrippina exercised some erotic power over her son and that Acte advised Nero to resist this power, out of fear for her own safety and with Seneca's encouragement; she warned Nero of the potential political repercussions with the military if incest with his mother were to become public. Nero and Acte's relationship reduced Agrippina's sway over her son and therefore her influence on the Empire. Agrippina's increasing efforts to separate Nero from Acte served only to increase his fondness for her; and the ensuing conflicts led Nero to take absolute control of the Empire and, eventually, to order his mother's assassination.
Records of Acte's household and estates in Velitrae, Puteoli and Sardinia attest to considerable wealth, accumulated while she was Nero's mistress. She had left the imperial scene in ownership of a household staff as well as property. After Nero's death, and along with two of his old nurses, Acte gave him a proper Roman burial, burning the body on a pyre with a coin under the tongue and covering each eye. She deposited his remains in the tomb of the Domitii Ahenobarbi, the family of Nero's biological father, in the Pincian Hills. She is said to have paid for the funeral at a cost of 200,000 sesterces. There were found many inscriptions of her slaves and freedmen. Modern research believes it improbable that she was a Christian, although some of her slaves seem to have professed the Christian faith. The epitaph of Acte was discovered at Velitrae.
Acte appears as a character in Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis, and in Myself My Sepulchre (also titled Nero) by Mary Teresa Ronalds, and is depicted as being a secret Christian in both. She also appears in the movie Nero. Acte is also the main character in Alexandre Dumas' novel Acte.
- Cassius Dio, Roman History 61.7.1
- Tacitus, Annals 13.12-13
- Cassius Dio 61.7.1; Suetonius, Nero 28
- Tacitus, Annals 14.2
- Suetonius, Nero 50
- CIL X 6599
- Tacitus, Annals, 13.12, 13.13, 13.46, 14.2, 14.63
- Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Nero 28, 50
- Dio Cassius, Roman History 61.7
- Bunson, Matthew (1994). Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. ISBN 0-8160-2135-X.
- Grant, Michael (1970). Nero, Emperor in revolt. ISBN 0-07-024075-2.
- Malitz, Jürgen (2005). Nero. ISBN 1-4051-2178-5.
- O'Brien, Peter (1999). "Acte". In Commire, Anne. Women in World History: A biographical encyclopedia 1. Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications, Gale Group. pp. 32–33. ISBN 0787640808.