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 79 AD 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 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 having committed 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 a step-brother, Publius Cornelius Lentulus Scipio the Younger, consul in 56, and a 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 ten 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. Nero fell in love with Poppaea and she became Nero's mistress. According to Tacitus, Poppaea divorced Otho in 58 and focused her attentions solely on becoming empress of Rome and Nero's new wife. 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.
Empress of Rome and marriage to Nero
Deaths of Agrippina the Younger and Claudia Octavia
Tacitus claims that Poppaea was the reason that Nero murdered his mother. Poppaea induced Nero to murder 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. 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. 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.
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 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, on a charge of adultery. During his eight-year marriage to Claudia Octavia, Nero had produced no children, and in AD 62 Poppaea became pregnant. When this happened, Nero divorced Octavia, claimed she was barren, and married Poppaea twelve days after the divorce.
The Jewish historian Josephus makes questionable claims of a very different Poppaea. He calls her a deeply religious woman who urged Nero to show compassion to the Jewish people. However, in fact, in 64 she secured the position of procurator of Judaea for her friend's husband, Gessius Florus, who was harmful to the Jews.
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.
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, 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 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 simply 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 a young freedman, Sporus, 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.
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) of 1642. Her story was clearly 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 even 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.
The Gothic metal band Theatre of Tragedy wrote a song titled "Poppæa", inspired by her story, on their myth-based album Aégis.
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. 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).
In the 1976 BBC TV series I, Claudius, Poppaea was played by Sally Bazely.
In Quo vadis, international co-production TV mini-series from 1985 based upon a novel by 19th-century Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, Poppaea was portrayed by Cristina Raines next to Klaus Maria Brandauer as Nero.
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 mentioning a minor glitch during his performance at the Quinquennial Neronia. Her corpse is later shown mounted on display.
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!"
The Theatre of Tragedy song Poppaea references her.