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Roman imperial dynasties
Julio-Claudian dynasty
Nero and Poppaea Sabina.jpg
Nero and Poppaea Sabina
Augustus 27 BC14 AD
Tiberius 14 AD37 AD
Caligula 37 AD41 AD
Claudius 41 AD54 AD
Nero 54 AD68 AD
Gens Julia
Gens Claudia
Julio-Claudian family tree
Category:Julio-Claudian Dynasty
Preceded by
Roman Republic
Followed by
Year of the Four Emperors

Poppaea Sabina (after AD 63 known as Poppaea Augusta Sabina) (30-65) was a Roman Empress as the second wife of the Emperor Nero. She was also the wife of the future Emperor Otho. The historians of antiquity describe her as a beautiful woman who used intrigues to become empress.


Early life

Birth in Pompeii

Poppaea Sabina was born in Pompeii in AD 30 as the daughter of Titus Ollius and an elder Poppaea Sabina.[1] Most evidence suggesting Poppaea's Pompeian origins comes from 20th century excavations of the town, destroyed in the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius. 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. 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 House of the Menander (a house in Pompeii named for the painting of the fourth century BC playright Menander that is found there). Although ancient sources do not directly state this, the legal documents in Herculaneum and evidence found in Pompeii for a prominent local family of the gens Poppaei makes Poppaea's Pompeian origins much more likely.[2]

It should be mentioned that although a Roman villa in nearby Torre Annunziata (formerly known as Oplontis), located not far from Pompeii, is referred to as the Villa Poppaea as though it were certain, it is most likely that this villa was not hers.



Titus Ollius was a quaestor in the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Ollius' friendship with the 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.


The elder Poppaea Sabina was a distinguished woman, whom Tacitus praises as a wealthy woman and a woman of distinction. Tacitus describes her as ‘the loveliest woman of her day’. In 47, she committed suicide as an innocent victim of the intrigues of the Roman Empress Valeria Messalina.

Statue of Poppaea in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia (Greece)

The father of the elder Poppaea was Gaius Poppaeus Sabinus. This man of humble birth was consul in 9 and was the governor of Moesia from 12 - 35.[1] During his consulship, the future Roman Emperor was born. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, he 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 Roman Emperors. He died in late December of AD 35 from natural causes. After his death, Poppaea assumed the name of her maternal grandfather.

Poppaea’s father died in 31. Her mother remarried Publius Cornelius Lentulus Scipio (I). Lentulus Scipio was a divisional commander in 22, consul in 24 and later a senator. Publius Cornelius Lentulus Scipio (II), was most probably Poppaea's step brother. Luntulus Scipio II served as consul in 56 and later served as a senator.

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 ten years of the reign of the Emperor Claudius. In 51, the Empress Agrippina the Younger, Claudius's niece and fourth wife, removed him from this position. She regarded him as loyal to Valeria Messalina's memory and replaced him with Sextus Afranius Burrus. Later under Nero he was executed. Poppaea had borne him a son, a younger Rufrius Crispinus, who, after her death, would be drowned by Nero while out on a fishing trip.

Marriage to Otho

Poppaea then married Otho, a good friend of Emperor Nero. Nero fell in love with Poppaea and she became Nero's mistress. According to Tacitus, she divorced her husband Otho in 58 and focused her attentions solely on becoming empress of Rome. Otho was ordered away to be governor of Lusitania (a decade later he became emperor briefly after Nero's death in succession to Galba). Suetonius places these events after 59.[3]

Empress and Marriage to Nero

According to Tacitus, Poppaea was ambitious, ruthless, and bisexual. He reports that Poppaea married Otho to get close to Nero and then, in turn, became Nero's favorite mistress.

Tacitus claims that Poppaea was the reason that Nero murdered his mother. Poppaea enticed Nero to murder Agrippina in 59 so that she could marry him.[4] Modern sources, though, question the reliability of this story as Nero did not marry Poppaea until 62.[5] Additionally, Suetonius mentions how Poppaea's husband, Otho, was not sent away until after Agrippina's death, which makes it very unlikely that an already married woman would be pressing Nero to marry her.[3] Some modern historians, however, 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.

Still, Tacitus claims that, with Agrippina gone, Poppaea pressured Nero to divorce (and later execute) his first wife and stepsister Claudia Octavia in order to marry her. Octavia was initially dismissed to Campania (which by coincidence is the same general geographic area that Pompeii, Poppaea's place of birth as noted above, is located in), and then imprisoned on the island of Ventotene (a common place of banishment for members of the Imperial family who fell from favor), on a charge of adultery. Once more, like with the death of Agrippina, modern historians question Poppaea's pressure as Nero's true motive. During his eight year marriage to Claudia Octavia, Nero had produced no children, and in AD 62, around the time that he divorced Octavia, Poppaea was pregnant. When this happened, Nero divorced Octavia, claimed she was barren, and he married Poppaea two weeks after the divorce.

The historian Josephus, on the other hand, tells us of a very different Poppaea. He calls her a deeply religious woman (perhaps privately a Jewish proselyte) who urged Nero to show compassion, namely to the Jewish people. However, she harmed the Jews by securing the position of procurator of Judaea for her friend's husband, Gessius Florus, in 64.[1]

She bore Nero one daughter, Claudia Augusta, born on 21 January 63, who died at only four months of age. At the birth of Claudia, Nero honored mother and child with the title of Augusta.


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 him spending too much time at the races. In a fit of rage, Nero kicked her in the abdomen, so causing her death.[6] Tacitus, on the other hand, places the death after the Quinquennial Neronia 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.[7] Cassius Dio claims Nero leapt upon her belly, but admits that he doesn't know if it was intentional or an accident.[8]

Modern historians, though, noting Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio's severe bias against Nero and the impossibility of them knowing private events, recognize that Poppaea may have simply died due to fatal miscarriage complications or in childbirth (in which case the second child also did not survive).[9]

When Poppaea died in 65, Nero went into deep mourning. Her body was not cremated, it was stuffed with spices, embalmed and put in the Mausoleum of Augustus. She was given a state funeral. Nero praised her during the funeral eulogy and gave her divine honors.


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."

References in art

Fifteen centuries after her time, Poppaea was depicted in Claudio Monteverdi's last opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppaea). Although the opera shows her ambition to become empress (e.g. Act 1, scene 11) and even portrays her as being responsible for Seneca the Younger's death, much of the opera (including the finale) has her expressing her love for Nero in passionate duets with him, thus apparently casting her in a more favourable light.

The Gothic metal band Theatre of Tragedy wrote a song titled 'Poppæa', inspired by her story on their myth-based album Aégis.

In film

Poppea appears as a character in several versions of Quo Vadis. In the 1951 film version, she is strangled to death by Nero after the Roman populace revolts against them both.

Another portrayal of Poppaea is featured in the 1932 film The Sign of the Cross. Here, 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 her husband, Emperor Nero, after offhandedly and uncritically at mentioning a minor glitch during his performance at the Quinquennial Neronia. Her corpse is later shown mounted on display.

References in popular culture

In Mel Brooks' 1968 film, The Producers, Leo Bloom is terrified at Max Bialystock when the large man stands over him, and, in reference to the ancient accounts 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!".


  1. ^ a b c Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth-E.A. (edd.), Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2003 | 1221.
  2. ^ Beard, Mary. The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (p. 46). Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.
  3. ^ a b Suetonius, The Lives of Caesars Life of Otho 3
  4. ^ Tacitus, Annals XIV.1
  5. ^ Dawson, Alexis, "Whatever Happened to Lady Agrippina?", The Classical Journal, 1969, p. 254
  6. ^ Suetonius, The Lives of Caesars Life of Nero 35.3
  7. ^ Tacitus, Annals XVI.6
  8. ^ Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIII.27
  9. ^ Rudich, Vasily, Political Dissidence Under Nero, p. 134

Primary sources

External links

Royal titles
Preceded by
Claudia Octavia
Empress of Rome
Succeeded by
Statilia Messalina

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