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Poppaea Sabina (30-65) was a Roman Empress and second wife of the Roman Emperor Nero. The historians of antiquity describe her as a beautiful woman who used intrigues to become empress.


Ancestry and Early Life

Poppaea was the first child and daughter to Titus Ollius and an elder Poppaea Sabina. She was born in Pompeiimarker. 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, Italymarker) and he was an unknown minor character in Imperial Politics. Her mother an elder Poppaea Sabina was a distinguished woman, whom the Roman Historian 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 governor of Moesia from 12 - 35. 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 Greecemarker and in other provinces. This competent administrator enjoyed the friendship of the Roman Emperors. He died in the final days in 35, of natural causes. After her maternal grandfather died, 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, he was a 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. He was the leader of the Praetorian Guard during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. In 51, Agrippina the Younger, then married to Claudius and Empress, removed him from this position. She regarded him as loyal to 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 later after her death would be drowned on a fishing trip by the Emperor Nero.

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.


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. Modern sources, though, question the reliability of this story as Nero did not marry Poppaea until 62 Additionally, Suetonius says Poppaea's husband, Otho, was not sent away until after Agrippina's death, making it unlikely an already married woman would be pressing Nero to marry her. Still, Tacitus claims that, with Agrippina gone, Poppaea pressured Nero to divorce (and later execute) his first wife Claudia Octavia in order to marry her. Octavia was initially dismissed to Campania, and then imprisoned on the island of Pandateriamarker (a common place of banishment for members of the Imperial family who fell from favour), on a charge of adultery. Again, modern historians question Poppaea's pressure as Nero's true motive. Octavia had been married to Nero for over eight years and had produced no children, while Poppaea was pregnant.

The historian Josephus, on the other hand, tells 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.

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. 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. Cassius Dio claims Nero leapt upon her belly, but admits that he doesn't know if it was intentional or an accident.

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 miscarriage complications or in childbirth.

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 Augustusmarker. 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 Poppea). Although the opera shows her ambition to become empress (e.g. Act 1, scene 11) and even portrays her as being responsible for Seneca'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.

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 Poppea 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).

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 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!".


Primary Sources

External links

  • Poppea Sabina entry in historical sourcebook by Mahlon H. Smith

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