period: Poppaea Sabina

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Doctor Who ‘The Romans’

Ancient Roman period makeups: Poppaea Sabina

Poppaea Sabina, later Poppaea Augusta Sabina, (30–65 CE) was a Roman Empress as the second wife of the Emperor Nero. Prior to this she was the wife of the future Emperor Otho. The historians of antiquity often described her as a beautiful woman who used intrigues to become empress.

She was born into a prominent local family in Pompeii. Her father was a quaestor in the reign of the Emperor Tiberius who was ruined by his association with Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Her mother, Poppaea Sabina the Elder, was a distinguished woman, praised by Tacitus as ‘the loveliest woman of her day’, wealthy and distinguished. She committed suicide in 47 CE, apparently an innocent victim of the intrigues of the Roman Empress Valeria Messalina, having been charged with having adultery.

According to Tacitus, Poppaea was ambitious, ruthless, and bisexual. He claimed that Poppaea was the reason that Nero murdered his mother Agrippina in 59 CE though the timing makes this particular allegation unlikely to be true. Tacitus also claimed that Poppaea pressured Nero to divorce and later execute his first wife and stepsister Claudia Octavia in order to marry Poppaea; whether that is true or not Nero married Poppaea two weeks after the divorce. Josephus, on the other hand, described her as a deeply religious woman who urged Nero to show compassion to the Jewish people.

The circumstances of her death are uncertain. According to Suetonius, while she was awaiting the birth of her second child in the summer of 65 CE, Nero kicked her to death in a fit of rage; Tacitus placed her death a little later and referred to Nero’s kick as a ‘casual outburst’, while Cassius Dio claimed that Nero leapt upon her belly but admitted that he didn’t know if it was intentional or an accident. All of them were deeply biased against Nero and she may have simply died due to a fatal miscarriage or complications or in childbirth. Whatever, when she died Nero went into deep mourning, gave her a state funeral, praised her during the funeral eulogy, and gave her divine honours.