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Bust of Poppaea Sabina at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
|Empress of the Roman Empire|
|Tenure||AD 62 – AD 65|
|Died||AD 65 (aged 34–35)|
Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome
|House||Julio-Claudian Dynasty (by marriage)|
|Mother||Poppaea Sabina the Elder|
|Roman imperial dynasties|
|Augustus||27 BC – AD 14|
Year of the Four Emperors
Poppaea Sabina (AD 30 – AD 65)—known as Poppaea Sabina the Younger (to differentiate her from her mother) and, after AD 63, as Poppaea Augusta Sabina—was a Roman Empress as the second wife of the Emperor Nero. She had also been wife to the future Emperor Otho. The historians of antiquity describe her as a beautiful woman who used intrigues to become empress.
Poppaea Sabina the Younger was born in Pompeii in AD 30 as the daughter of Titus Ollius and Poppaea Sabina the Elder. Most evidence suggesting Poppaea's Pompeiian origins comes from the 20th century excavations of the town, destroyed in the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79. For instance, legal documents found during excavations in nearby Herculaneum described her as being the owner of a brick- or tile-work business in the Pompeii area. In particular the sumptuous Villa Poppaea at Oplontis near Herculaneum is thought to have been her main residence outside Rome.
It is very likely that Poppaea's family came from Pompeii, and the common belief is that they might have been the owners of the Casa del Menandro (a house in Pompeii named for the painting of the 4th century BC playwright Menander that is found there).
Titus Ollius was a quaestor in the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Ollius' friendship with the infamous imperial palace guardsman Lucius Aelius Sejanus ruined him before gaining public office. Titus Ollius was from Picenum (modern Marche and Abruzzo, Italy) and he was an unknown minor character in imperial politics. Titus Ollius died in 31.
Poppaea Sabina the Elder, her mother, was a distinguished woman, whom Tacitus praises as wealthy and "the loveliest woman of her day". In 47, she committed suicide as an innocent victim of the intrigues of the Roman Empress Valeria Messalina, having been charged with committing adultery with former consul Decimus Valerius Asiaticus.
The father of Poppaea Sabina the Elder was Gaius Poppaeus Sabinus. This man of humble birth was consul in 9 and was the governor of Moesia from 12 - 35. Passed during his consulship was the Lex Papia Poppaea, a law meant to strengthen and encourage marriage. Sabinus received a military triumph for ending a revolt in Thrace in 26. From 15 until his death, he served as Imperial Proconsul (or governor) of Greece and in other provinces. This competent administrator enjoyed the friendship of the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius. He died in late December of AD 35 from natural causes. After his death, Poppaea Sabina the Younger assumed the name of her maternal grandfather.
After Titus Ollius's death, Poppaea's mother married Publius Cornelius Lentulus Scipio the Elder, suffect consul, in 24. Her siblings included step-brother Publius Cornelius Lentulus Scipio the Younger, consul in 56, and half-brother Publius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus, suffect consul in 68.
First marriage to Rufrius Crispinus
Poppaea's first marriage was to Rufrius Crispinus, a man of equestrian rank. They married in 44, when Poppaea was 14 years old. He was the leader of the Praetorian Guard during the first 10 years of the reign of the Emperor Claudius until 51 when Claudius' new wife Agrippina the Younger removed him from this position. Agrippina regarded him as loyal to the deceased Messalina's memory and replaced him with Sextus Afranius Burrus. Later, under Nero, he was executed. During their marriage, Poppaea gave birth to his son, a younger Rufrius Crispinus, who, after her death, would be drowned by Nero while out on a fishing trip.
Second marriage to Otho
Poppaea then married Otho, a good friend of the new Emperor Nero, who was seven years younger than she was. According to Tacitus, Poppaea married Otho only to get close to Nero. Nero fell in love with Poppaea, and she became Nero's mistress.
Poppaea later divorced Otho and focused her attentions solely on becoming Nero's new wife. Otho was ordered away to be governor of Lusitania. (A decade later, he became emperor after Nero's death in succession to Galba.) Sources differ on when Poppaea divorced Otho: while Tacitus dates the divorce to 58, Suetonius dates it to after 59.
Marriage to Nero and Empress of Rome
Tacitus depicts Poppaea as inducing Nero to murder his mother, Agrippina, in 59 so that she could marry him. Modern scholars, though, question the reliability of this story as Nero did not marry Poppaea until 62 and point to Sueton's dating of the divorce from Otho. Some modern historians theorize that Nero's decision to kill Agrippina was prompted by her plotting to set Gaius Rubellius Plautus (Nero's maternal second cousin) on the throne rather than as a result of Poppaea's motives.
With Agrippina gone, Poppaea pressured Nero to divorce and later execute his first wife and stepsister Claudia Octavia in order to marry Poppaea. Octavia was initially dismissed to Campania, coincidentally the same general geographic area that Pompeii, Poppaea's place of birth, is located. She was then imprisoned on the island of Pandateria (modern Ventotene), a common place of banishment for members of the imperial family who fell from favor because of a charge of adultery.
During his eight-year marriage to Claudia Octavia, Nero produced no children, and in AD 62, Poppaea became pregnant. When this happened, Nero divorced Octavia, claimed she was barren, and married Poppaea 12 days after the divorce. She bore Nero one daughter, Claudia Augusta, born on 21 January 63, who died at four months of age. At the birth of Claudia, Nero honored mother and child with the title of Augusta.
According to Cassius Dio, Poppaea enjoyed having milk baths. She would have them daily because she was once told "therein lurked a magic which would dispel all diseases and blights from her beauty."
Tacitus and Suetonius portray Poppaea as an ambitious and ruthless schemer. The Jewish historian Josephus paints a very different picture. He calls Poppaea "a religious woman" who urged Nero to show compassion to the Jewish people. However, in 64 she secured the position of procurator of Judaea for Gessius Florus, her friend's husband, who was harmful to the Jews.
The cause and timing of Poppaea's death is uncertain. According to Suetonius, while she was awaiting the birth of her second child in the summer of 65, she quarreled fiercely with Nero over his spending too much time at the races. In a fit of rage, Nero kicked her in the abdomen, causing her death. Tacitus, on the other hand, places the death after the Quinquennial Neronia (in 65 AD) and claims Nero's kick was a "casual outburst." Tacitus also mentions that some writers (now lost) claimed Nero poisoned her, though Tacitus does not believe them. Cassius Dio claims Nero leapt upon her belly, but admitted that he did not know if it was intentional or accidental. Modern historians, though, keep in mind Suetonius', Tacitus', and Cassius Dio's severe biases against Nero and the impossibility of their knowing private events, and hence recognize that Poppaea may have died due to fatal complications of miscarriage or stillbirth.
When Poppaea died in 65, Nero went into deep mourning. Poppaea's body was not cremated but embalmed after the Egyptian fashion. She was given a state funeral and divine honors, and entombed in an as yet unidentified "Tomb of the Julii". Nero supposedly burned a year's worth of Arabia's incense production at her funeral.
After that in 67, Nero ordered Sporus, a young freedman, to be castrated and then married him; according to Cassius Dio, Sporus bore an uncanny resemblance to Sabina, and Nero even called him by his dead wife’s name.
Fifteen centuries after her time, Poppaea was depicted in Claudio Monteverdi's last opera L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppaea) of 1642. Her story clearly was chosen to appeal to the titillation favored in the nascent culture of the Venetian public opera theaters, and its prologue immediately explains that it is not a drama that promotes the triumph of virtue. Poppaea is portrayed as cynically plotting to become empress of Rome by manipulating the emperor Nero into marrying her, and her machinations include the execution of Seneca the Younger, who opposes her plans, which are successful at the end of the drama.
Poppaea is a principal character also in Handel's opera Agrippina of 1709, but as a victim, not a perpetrator, of deceit and manipulation. Here the schemer is Agrippina, Nero's mother, intent on promoting her son's claim to the throne. Poppaea, the ingenue, is portrayed as the object of desire of Claudius, Nero, and Otho, each of whom served for a time as Roman Emperor, whose rivalries Agrippina attempts to leverage to her advantage. Once Poppaea sees through Agrippina's deceit, she responds in kind, but only in order to be united with Otho, portrayed as her one true love.
Poppaea appears as a character in the several cinema and TV versions of Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis. In the 1951 film version - in which she is played by Patricia Laffan in a widely-praised performance - she is strangled to death by Nero, who blames her for turning his 'loyal subjects', the Roman populace, against him. (This form of murder may have been suggested to the screenwriters by Suetonius' claim that Nero made several attempts to strangle his first wife, Octavia.)
Another portrayal of Poppaea is featured in the 1932 film The Sign of the Cross. She is seen bathing in asses' milk. Daringly for the time, she is portrayed (by Claudette Colbert) as being openly bisexual, suggestively inviting a female slave to bathe with her in the asses' milk, but lusting after Roman soldier Marcus Superbus (Fredric March).
Poppaea is portrayed by Catherine McCormack in the 2006 BBC docu-drama Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. In this interpretation, she is kicked to death by Nero after offhandedly and uncritically mentioning a minor glitch during his performance at the Quinquennial Neronia. Her corpse is later shown mounted on display.
In Mel Brooks' 1968 film The Producers, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) is terrified at Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) when the large man stands over him, and - in reference to Cassius Dio's account of Poppaea's death - screams: "You're going to jump on me. I know you're going to jump on me – like Nero jumped on Poppaea... Poppaea. She was his wife. And she was unfaithful to him. So he got mad and he jumped on her. Up and down, up and down, until he squashed her like a bug. Please don't jump on me!"
In the 2013 Polish film 'Imperator', done entirely in Latin, Poppaea is played by pl:Ewa Hornich. Here Poppaea is depicted as outliving Nero and meeting her death in Germania after reuniting with Otho.
- Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth-E.A. (edd.), Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2003 | 1221.
- Beard, Mary. The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (p. 46). Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.
- Ronald Syme, The Augustan Aristocracy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 299
- Suetonius, The Lives of Caesars Life of Otho 3
- Tacitus, Annals XIV.1
- Dawson, Alexis, "Whatever Happened to Lady Agrippina?", The Classical Journal, 1969, p. 254
- Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars Life of Nero 35.3
- Tacitus, Annals XVI.6
- Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book 62, p. 135
- Rudich, Vasily, Political Dissidence Under Nero, p. 134
- Counts, Derek B., "Regum Externorum Consuetudine: The Nature and Function of Embalming in Rome", Classical Antiquity, Vol. 15 No. 2, Oct., 1996; pp. 189-190: 193, note 18 "We should not consider it an insult that Poppaea was not buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus, as were other members of the imperial family until the time of Nerva"; 196, note 37, citing Pliny the elder, Natural History, 12.83 on incense at Poppaea's funeral. doi:10.2307/25011039 – via JSTOR (subscription required)
- Smith, William (1849). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 3. C. C. Little and J. Brown; [etc., etc. ]. pp. 1411, 2012. LCCN 07038839.
- Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars Nero XXXV
- (in French) Minaud, Gérard, Les vies de 12 femmes d’empereur romain - Devoirs, Intrigues & Voluptés , Paris, L’Harmattan, 2012, ch. 4, La vie de Poppée, femme de Néron, p. 97-120.
- Donato, Giuseppe and Monique Seefried (1989). The Fragrant Past: Perfumes of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Emory University Museum of Art and Archaeology, Atlanta.
- Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Annals xiii.45–46, xiv.63–64, xvi.6
- Suetonius, Lives of Caesars Life of Nero 35, Life of Otho 3
- Cassius Dio, Roman History LXII.11–13, LXII.27, LXIII.9, LXIII.11, LXIII.13
- Media related to Poppaea Sabina at Wikimedia Commons
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