Portrait head of Claudia Octavia, National Museum of Rome
|Empress consort of the Roman Empire|
|Tenure||13 October AD 54 – 8 June AD 62|
|Born||late AD 39/early AD 40
|Died||8 June AD 62 (age c. 22)
|Roman imperial dynasties|
|Augustus||27 BC – 14 AD|
Julio-Claudian family tree
Year of the Four Emperors
Claudia Octavia (Classical Latin: CLAVDIA•OCTAVIA) (late AD 39 or early AD 40 – 8 June AD 62) was an Empress of Rome. She was a great-niece of the Emperor Tiberius, paternal first cousin of the Emperor Caligula, daughter of the Emperor Claudius, and stepsister and first wife of the Emperor Nero.
Octavia was the only daughter of the Emperor Claudius by his third marriage to his second cousin Valeria Messalina. She was named for her great-grandmother Octavia the Younger, the second eldest and full-blooded sister of the Emperor Augustus. Her elder half-sister was Claudia Antonia, Claudius's daughter through his second marriage to Aelia Paetina, and her full sibling was Britannicus, Claudius's son with Messalina.
Rise of Nero
Octavia's mother was executed in 48, for conspiring to murder her father, the emperor Claudius, who subsequently married his niece (and Octavia's first cousin) Agrippina the Younger. Agrippina's son, from her first marriage, was Nero (birth name Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus).
Agrippina, through her plotting and manipulating, ended the engagement between Octavia and Lucius Silanus and persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero as his son and heir, and arranged for Octavia and Nero to marry on 9 June 53.
Life as empress
Claudius died on 13 October 54 and Nero acceded to the throne, possibly poisoning Octavia's full brother Britannicus in early 55 to do so. Tacitus states that from this moment Octavia became very unhappy, but learned to hide her affections and feelings around her husband/stepbrother. Octavia was caught up in the power struggles between Nero and his mother, which concluded when Nero murdered his mother in March 59.
Although she was admired as empress by the Roman citizen body, the marriage was unhappy. Octavia was an ‘aristocratic and virtuous wife' (in Tacitus's words), whereas Nero hated her and grew bored with her (according to both Tacitus and Suetonius), trying on several occasions to strangle her (according to Suetonius) and having affairs with a freedwoman called Claudia Acte and then with Poppaea Sabina. He excused this treatment of her when his friends showed their concerns about it. When Poppaea became pregnant with Nero's child, Nero divorced Octavia, claiming she was barren, and married Poppaea twelve days after the divorce.
Banishment by Nero and Poppaea and death
Nero and Poppaea then banished Octavia to the Campania region, and eventually to the island of Pandateria (modern Ventotene) on a false charge of adultery with Nero's former tutor Anicetus. When Octavia complained about this treatment, her maids were tortured to death.
Octavia's banishment became so unpopular that the citizens of Rome protested loudly, openly parading through the streets with statues of Octavia decked with flowers and calling for her return. Nero (badly frightened) nearly agreed to remarry Octavia, but instead he signed her death warrant.
A few days later, Octavia was bound and her veins were opened in a traditional Roman suicide ritual. She was suffocated in an exceedingly hot vapor bath. Octavia’s head was cut off and sent to Poppaea. Her death brought much sorrow to Rome. According to Suetonius, years later Nero would have nightmares about his mother and Octavia.
|Ancestors of Claudia Octavia|
In later fiction
The events of the divorce are dramatized in Octavia which is sometimes attributed to Seneca the Younger and, more recently, in Handel's lost opera Nero, Giovanni Francesco Busenello's opera L'incoronazione di Poppea (1643), Reinhard Keiser's opera Octavia (1705), and Vittorio Alfieri's tragedy Ottavia (1782). Octavia is also the subject of the massive German novel Die Römische Octavia (1677-1707) by Anthony Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, and a character in Robert Graves's novel Claudius the God (the sequel to I, Claudius) and the television series I, Claudius. She is the main character of "Octavia: a tale of ancient Rome," the beautiful book written by Seymour Van Santvoord, published in 1923.
In Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's musical, Nero, she is portrayed as mute, only singing in interior monologue. In the reading at Vassar, she was played by Lea Michele. She was played as a frightened, unwilling bride. She was very close to her brother Brittanicus, played by Michael Arden.
- E. Groag, A. Stein, L. Petersen – e.a. (edd.), Prosopographia Imperii Romani saeculi I, II et III (PIR), Berlin, 1933 – C 1110
- Suetonius – The Twelve Caesars – Claudius and Nero.
- Tacitus – The Annals of Imperial Rome.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Claudia Octavia.|
- E. Groag, A. Stein, L. Petersen – e.a. (edd.), Prosopographia Imperii Romani saeculi I, II et III, Berlin, 1933 – . (PIR2)
- Levick, Barbara, Claudius. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990.
- Barrett, Anthony A., Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996.
Agrippina the Younger
|Empress of Rome