Poppaea Sabina

  By Praetor, 12 December 2007; Revised
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Poppaea Sabina

An Examination of the Duplicity in Historical Sources

Archaeological and Textual

When examining the prominent figures in the history of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, there is no single figure attracting such attention, and disdain, from Roman historians[1] as the Augusta (Empress)[2] Poppaea Sabina. Despite her renown, there is much disagreement about the character and actions Poppaea Sabina. Some historians, such as Tacitus[3] and Cassius Dio[4], vilify her as a demimondaine[5], whereas other historical sources, such as archaeological evidence in the remains of the city of Pompeii[6], and the writings of Josephus[7], proclaim her virtues. When examining the sources about her life, one can not help but to notice duplicity in the opinions on her life, actions and character.

Poppaea was born in the city of , the only daughter of ex-Quaestor Titus Ollius. Her mother, of the same name, was an elder of the community and regarded by many as a woman of virtue and grace. Tacitus went as far as to say she was the “loveliest woman of her day”[8]. Poppaea was not the only member of her family to rise to high station. Her maternal grandfather, Poppaeus Sabinus, was a Consul of Rome, a victorious military commander, receiver of a triumph and friend of the Roman Emperors. After her father died, his step-father and subsequent half brother both, in their own times, rose to the rank of Consul. The family owned several villas in the city of (known as the House of Menander and the House of the Gilded Cupids)[9], and she herself owned a villa in Oplontis[10], in the outskirts of Pompeii.

Poppaea herself, for better or worse, made her career out of marriage. Later she would be harshly criticised by Tacitus especially for the way she used her feminine wiles to climb the social ladder to the position of . Her first marriage was to a leader of the Praetorian Guard, Rufrius Crispinus. With Rufrius, Poppaea had a child, named after her husband. Rufrius, however, did not long hold his position. Agrippina the Younger, the new Empress, had him removed as she feared he was too fond of the previous Empress.

Her second marriage, of which Tacitus is very disdainful, was to a friend of Emperor Nero by the name of Otho, who would one day be Emperor himself. Tacitus claims that Poppaea married Otho solely to get closer to Nero, with the goal of becoming Empress[11]. The fact that Poppaea very rapidly became Nero’s mistress, and would become his wife seems to credit this belief, although whether it is really accurate is quite impossible to prove.


Nero seemed to take a rather quick liking to Poppaea, and she quickly became his favourite mistress, convincing him to divorce his wife. Poppaea quickly divorced Otho, who was promptly dispatched to Lusitania[12]. Within days she was married to Nero[13], and the new Empress of Rome. Most sources report the marriage to be a happy one, and Nero is most commonly believed to have had genuine love and affection for her[14]. This was, of course, until, in a fit of rage, he delivered a kick to her abdomen while she was pregnant, which led to her death[15]. Although some modern historians believe that it was more likely a result of miscarriage complications, rather than a direct result of the kick[16]. After Poppaea’s death Nero, rather than following Roman tradition and cremating her, instead embalmed her body with spices and had her buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus[17]. Tacitus had the following to say about her death and the funeral in volume XVI of Annals:


"After the conclusion of the games Poppaea died from a casual outburst of rage in her husband, who felled her with a kick when she was pregnant. That there was poison I cannot believe, though some writers so relate, from hatred rather than from belief, for the emperor was desirous of children, and wholly swayed by love of his wife. Her body was not consumed by fire according to Roman usage, but after the custom of foreign princes was filled with fragrant spices and embalmed, and then consigned to the sepulchre of the Julii. She had, however, a public funeral, and Nero himself from the rostra eulogized her beauty, her lot in having been the mother of a deified child, and fortune's other gifts, as though they were virtues. "
-- Tacitus, Annals XVI


It is, however, her activities as Empress that garner the Augusta Poppaea Sabina the most respect from both the people of Pompeii and from contemporary historians such as Josephus. As Empress, Poppaea continued to serve her home town of . She was instrumental in pushing for to become a ‘Colonia’, meaning that it was self-governing and had more political and civil rights in the Empire. There are numerous statues of Poppaea in the city, and one particular piece of ancient graffiti[18] says:

"Three cheers for imperial decrees; three cheers for the decisions of the Emperor and the Empress. Long live Empress Poppaea. "
-- Heinemann Ancient and Medieval History: Pompeii and Herculaneum pg. 110 and 111


This, as an honest expression of at least one member of the public’s opinion of Augusta Poppaea Sabina, this source is very reliable. While it does not necessarily mean that the entirety of was happy with the edicts of the Empress, it does show that actions taken by the Emperor and Empress did have a positive impact on the contentedness of least some citizens of the city. The ‘author’ of this particular piece of graffiti obviously believes that it was ultimately Poppaea’s influence that resulted in the decision, rather than the will of the Emperor.

Josephus also applauds Poppaea for her mercy and compassion, especially to the Jewish people. He relates the story of how Poppaea listened to his pleas, and consequently released a number of priests who had been arrested[19]. He applauds her also for being a very religious person[20], which he deems a very important virtue. However, he also criticises her for installing a husband of her friend as governor of , whose corruption is one of the primary causes he lists for the subsequent revolt in the province. Her use of power to further friends is more in line with what other Roman historians, such as Tacitus and Suetonius, seem to believe. Tacitus, for example, had the following to say[21]:


"A profligacy equally notorious in that same year proved the beginning of great evils to the State. There was at one Sabina Poppaea; her father was Titus Ollius, but she had assumed the name of her maternal grandfather Poppaeus Sabinus, a man of illustrious memory and pre-eminently distinguished by the honours of a consulship and a triumph. As for Ollius, before he attained promotion, the friendship of Sejanus was his ruin. This Poppaea had everything but a right mind. Her mother, who surpassed in personal attractions all the ladies of her day, had bequeathed to her alike fame and beauty. Her fortune adequately corresponded to the nobility of her descent. Her conversation was charming and her wit anything but dull. She professed virtue, while she practised laxity. Seldom did she appear in public, and it was always with her face partly veiled, either to disappoint men's gaze or to set off her beauty. Her character she never spared, making no distinction between a husband and a paramour, while she was never a slave to her own passion or to that of her lover. Wherever there was a prospect of advantage, there she transferred her favours. And so while she was living as the wife of Rufius Crispinus, a Roman knight, by whom she had a son, she was attracted by the youth and fashionable elegance of Otho, and by the fact too that he was reputed to have Nero's most ardent friendship. Without any delay the intrigue was followed by marriage. "
-- Tacitus, Annals XVI

Tacitus obviously has a very low opinion of Poppaea, believing her to have used her sexuality as a tool to further her political influence. While there seems to be much evidence to support this belief, Tacitus also has a number of biases. Tacitus, throughout his works, demonstrates a disdain for women involving themselves in political affairs[22]. Not only this, but Tacitus also writes extremely harshly about Nero, Poppaea’s husband. One of his harshest criticisms of Nero is his decadence[23], of which Poppaea seems to be a prime example. He even goes as far as to say Poppaea is not only a symptom, but a cause[24].

Tacitus, being the primary textual source on the life of Poppaea, may leave a distorted image of her life, deeds and character. The people of Pompeii and the historian Josephus both seem to hold her in high regard, although little remains to show to what extent, nor for what reasons. Suetonius only briefly deals with Poppaea, concentrating more on the facts of her life and death, commenting little on her own character, and rather using her person as a way to attack the character of Nero[25].

In the end, a comparison must be made between the wealth of writing by Tacitus in his Annals, with the small amount of archaeological evidence remaining, and the short writings of Josephus and Suetonius. While Tacitus’ perspective on Poppaea has obvious and distorting biases, it remains the only comprehensive record of her life and, in the mists of time, the real story of Poppaea may unfortunately be lost forever.



Josephus, Flavius

The Life of Flavius Josephus
Translated in October 2001 by William Whiston
Available Online: <http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext01/lfjos10.txt>
First Accessed: 2/12/2007
Last Accessed: 3/12/2007

Josephus provides little information of Poppaea Sabina. He does, however, provide first hand accounts of his own interactions with the Empress, and his opinion of her character and an example of her influence in the Empire. He provides one of the few sources which presents a positive impression of Poppaea, though this may be coloured by the deed in question, which benefited Josephus.

Unknown Pompeian

“Three cheers for imperial decrees; three cheers for the decisions of the Emperor and the Empress. Long live Empress Poppaea.”
Printed in Heinemann Ancient and Medieval History: Pompeii and Herculaneum, Pages 110 – 111

As a source on the opinions of the citizens of about the Empress Poppaea Sabina, this graffiti is extremely useful and reliable. It obviously reflects the opinion of the individual who was the ‘author’, and most likely reflected a view held by at least a number of citizens. Beyond a general opinion, however, the text is extremely limited in its usefulness, providing little information, and little context. However, it does demonstrate that the Pompeians believed that the Empress had the influence over the Emperor to bring benefit to their city.



Hurley T, Phillipa M, Murray C, Rolph J.

Antiquity 3
Published by Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2005
Page 19

This article provided stimulus, provoking the final choice in the assignment topic, whilst providing necessary information for further research. It went into little detail, but gave a selection of key facts that would prove useful.

Smith, Mahon H.

Poppea Sabina
Available Online: <http://virtualreligion.net/iho/poppea.html>
First Accessed: 2/12/2007
Last Accessed: 3/12/2007

This source was of no value in and of itself, but provided useful links to relevant texts, as well as quotations which pointed me to more useful sources.

Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei

Available Online: <http://www2.pompeiisites.org/database/pompei/pompei2.nsf/pagine/2b1a3655a59f723ec1256ad400449a47?opendocument&lng=eng>
First Accessed: 2/12/2007
Last Accessed: 3/12/2007

This source provided essential information on the place of residence owned by Poppaea in the city of Pompeii. This provided a further link to the city of Pompeii, in addition to it being Poppaea’s place of birth and city on which she bestowed her favour. Beyond this it was not very useful, as it focused primarily on the structure.


Lives of the Twelve Caesars
Nero Claudius Caesar and A. Salvius Otho
Available Online: <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6400/6400-h/6400-h.htm>
First Accessed: 1/12/2007
Last Accessed: 3/12/2007

Suetonius provided a rather brief account of the life of Poppaea. I found this most useful in providing a somewhat more moderate account of her life that that of Tacitus, and confirming certain facts about her life and her death as likewise detailed by Tacitus. Beyond this, Suetonius goes into little detail about Poppaea herself, instead preferring to user her person as a method of attack against the Emperor Nero. The way in which he took her from Otho, and the method of her death, were his primary focus, leaving Poppaea, as a person, mostly undescribed.


Volumes XII – XVI
Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb
Available Online: <http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html>
First Accessed: 2/12/2007
Last Accessed: 3/12/2007

This was my most useful source, from which I drew the bulk of my information. In addressing Poppaea Sabina, Tacitus was the most thorough and detailed of all my sources. It was extremely useful for providing references to support the arguments of my essay, as well as providing the wealth of the information available on the subject, on which my entire assignment is based. Unfortunately, Tacitus has an obvious bias against Poppaea as a person which would present more of a problem if I had not adapted the approach of my essay to address the bias in her representation. Consequently, as I was forced to acknowledge in my arguments, we must rely on Tacitus about many details of the life of Poppaea Sabina, as he is the only thorough source on the subject.

Unknown Author - Wikipedia

Poppaea Sabina
Available Online: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poppaea_Sabina>
First Accessed: 1/12/2007
Last Accessed: 3/12/2007

Wikipedia provided a basic overview of the topic, and a useful link to the website of Mahon Smith. Ironically, Wikipedia was actually a more detailed source on the life of Poppaea Sabina than the majority of others, despite being rather brief. Of course, the universally-accessible nature of the Wikipedia article, and the anonymous nature of its author or authors, means that all facts garnered from the article should be corroborated with other sources before being treated as facts. This said, when compared with other appropriate sources, it proved consistent.

References and Notes:
  1. ^ Poppaea Sabina is mentioned in numerous Roman historical sources including:
    a. Tacitus – Annals XVI
    b. Suetonius – Lives of the Twelve Caesars – Nero and Otho
    c. Josephus – The Life of Flavius Josephus
    d. Cassius Dio – Roman Histories
  2. ^ Tacitus – Annals XVI
  3. ^ Tacitus - Annals XVI
  4. ^ Cassius Dio - Roman Histories
  5. ^ A woman belonging to a class of women kept by wealthy lovers or protectors.
  6. ^ For example – Graffiti and Statues
  7. ^ Josephus - The Life of Flavius Josephus
  8. ^ Tacitus - Annals XVI
  9. ^ Toni Hurley, Phillipa Medcalf, Christina Murray, Jan Rolph – Antiquity 3
  10. ^ Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei - Oplontis
  11. ^ Tacitus - Annals XVI
  12. ^ Tacitus - Annals XVI
  13. ^ Suetonius – Lives of the Twelve Caesars – Nero
  14. ^ Suetonius – Lives of the Twelve Caesars – Nero
  15. ^ Suetonius – Lives of the Twelve Caesars – Nero
  16. ^ Unconfirmed theory sourced from Wikipedia. Included on the basis of medical opinion from a licensed medical practitioner.
  17. ^ Tacitus – Annals XVI
  18. ^ Heinemann Ancient and Medieval History: Pompeii and Herculaneum pg. 110 and 111.
  19. ^ Josephus – The Life of Flavius Josephus
  20. ^ Josephus – The Life of Flavius Josephus
  21. ^ Tacitus – Annals XVI
  22. ^ “There were some who rushed out of the Senate passionately protesting that if the emperor hesitated, they would use violence. A promiscuous throng assembled, and kept exclaiming that the same too was the prayer of the Roman people. Claudius without further delay presented himself in the forum to their congratulations; then entering the Senate, he asked from them a decree which should decide that for the future marriages between uncles and brothers' daughters should be legal. There was, however, found only one person who desired such a marriage, Alledius Severus, a Roman knight, who, as many said, was swayed by the influence of Agrippina. Then came a revolution in the State, and everything was under the control of a woman, who did not, like Messalina, insult Rome by loose manners. It was a stringent, and, so to say, masculine despotism; there was sternness and generally arrogance in public, no sort of immodesty at home, unless it conduced to power. A boundless greed of wealth was veiled under the pretext that riches were being accumulated as a prop to the throne”.- Tacitus, Annals, Book XII.
  23. ^ “With no less precipitation, Narcissus, Claudius's freedman, whose quarrels with Agrippina I have mentioned, was driven to suicide by his cruel imprisonment and hopeless plight, even against the wishes of Nero, with whose yet concealed vices he was wonderfully in sympathy from his rapacity and extravagance.” - Tacitus, Annals, Book XIII.
  24. ^ Tacitus – Annals XIV
  25. ^ Suetonius – Lives of the Twelve Caesars – Nero, Otho