Stories about women’s contributions in history should include those self-serving females who stopped at nothing to climb the power ladder. Poppaea, my fifth blog post on women in history, is one of them.
In the first century, women’s greatest challenges were birth-control, and for ambitious women born into high society, it was access to the emperors. Today women’s most significant battles are the freedom to control our own bodies and more seats at the table. When we are ignorant of history, we keep making the mistakes of the past. We study the past to make better decisions in the present.
Around 1 AD, Caesar Augustus founded the Roman Empire believing that family ties and domesticated women were the foundation of civil society. With the exception of a few like Poppaea, women were ruled by men. In 54 AD, Nero became the Roman emperor, and eight years later, he took Poppaea the Younger as his second wife. She governed alongside her husband for three years with cruelty and vindictiveness.
Poppaea’s mother, Poppaea the Elder, was considered at her time to be the most beautiful woman in Rome. She was accused of adultery by the wife of Emperor Claudius, who preceded Nero. With few options to save face, she committed suicide. Historians suggest this left an indelible impact on her young daughter and played a part in her ruthlessness in feeding her ambitions. We’ll never know for sure but it sounds plausible.
Poppaea inherited her mother’s beauty, making it easy for her father to make a worthy marriage arrangement for his 13-year-old-daughter—typical age for a Roman girl. Crispinus Refrius was the chief of the security service that guarded Nero. The Praetorian Guard were the military elite, well-compensated through connections and higher wages. A senator and a historian of the Roman Empire, Tacitus, wrote that she “captivated Rome with her witty conversation, virtuous appearance, and lax morals.” Refrius and Poppaea had a son together (that Nero had killed after she died). He writes that her second marriage with Otho, a close childhood friend of Nero, had one purpose, to bring her even closer to the emperor. Caught up in her beauty and sexuality, Otho must not have considered the possibility that her “I love you” declarations were rungs on a ladder, access to the highest halls of power.
Professor Joyce E. Salisbury, in a lecture, says, “Otho made the mistake of raving about the beauty and charm of his new wife when he was in the presence of his friend, Emperor Nero, who asked to meet her. Nero, who was seven years younger than Poppaea, immediately took her as his mistress and sent her husband Otho packing to govern Lusitania, a distant province of the empire covering most of what is now Portugal and part of Spain.”
Skimming across time and battles where rich men sent poor men to fight their wars (they still do), removing Otho was easy, getting rid of Nero’s first wife, Octavia, popular with the people, more difficult. Nero, already fed up with his first wife’s public support, had her banished to an island, murdered, and her head delivered on a platter to Poppaea. A sort of wedding gift before diamonds were said to be a girl’s best friend. Pregnant Poppaea moved from the status of mistress to wife.
Even without social media, when citizens of Rome learned of Octavia’s death, they paraded through the streets with statues of Octavia calling for her to return. They blamed Poppaea for the death of their beloved Empress. Poppaea didn’t waste time worrying about the feelings of the masses; she had bigger fish to fry, Claudia Acte, and Agrippina. The first was Nero’s favorite mistress. He had no intention of ending the relationship, no matter how mad or marvelous Poppaea was. But as the phrase goes, when momma ain’t happy, nobody is happy, Nero caved. But unlike his treatment of Octavia, he gave his soon to be x-mistress a palace to live out her life for services rendered. Getting rid of her mother-in-law turned out to be more difficult for Poppaea. Agrippina, Nero’s mother, played a large role in her son becoming emperor (at the age of 16) and intended to rule through him.
Over and over, Poppaea taunted Nero about his attachment to his mother. Agrippina felt her influence slipping and even tried seducing her son. Scandalized by Agrippina’s behavior, her popularity waned. Finally, Nero was convinced that his mother’s death was the only way to free himself from her influence and ordered one of his loyal men to kill her.
Even after all this, Poppaea continued facing situations that vexed her. Nero’s nightmares about murdering his first wife and mother kept him thrashing around making decent sleep for Poppaea impossible. How could she have known that her husband’s consciousness would stir, and moral values would kick in? Plagued with regret, Nero descended to greater excesses with people looking more and more to Poppaea for guidance. She gives birth to a daughter (Claudia), and Nero rewards her with the title of Empress. However, Claudia’s life only lasted four months.
Poppaea’s greatest impact stemmed from her spiritual interests, Judaism. It appears based on her actions that she saw Christians (a sect of Jews who followed Christ’s teachings) as an impediment or at least as competitors to the Jewish conservative faith followers. She convinced Nero to a start large-scale persecution of Christians. At that moment in history, she was the wealthiest and most powerful woman in the world.
Before Poppaea and Nero ruled the Roman Empire, there existed a large Jewish community. By this time, conflicts within Judaism between the traditionalists and those who favored Jesus’s teachings were going from low simmer to boil. Professor Salisbury: “The quarrels became so public that they spilled into the streets, causing Emperor Claudius, Nero’s predecessor, to expel Jews to restore public order.” In other words, the disharmony in the Jewish community was not new.
In July of 64 AD, a fire broke out in Rome lasting six days. When the smoke cleared, with horror, people saw that ten of Rome’s fourteen districts had burned, three completely. With ashes cooling, people’s fears turned to anger. People looked for someone to blame. Unpopular Nero was a logical target. Rumors (fake stories) spread that Nero had done it. He was responsible. The facts were not on the side of the rumor mongers.
“[Nero had] opened public buildings and even his own gardens for the homeless,” Salisbury explains, “and he brought in food to feed the newly destitute. But nothing quelled the popular muttering.” Confirming that one good deed after a dozen evil acts does not balance the scales. But to say that Nero fiddled while Rome burned is not supported by historians of the time.
Nero needed a scapegoat and entertainment to distract from his inadequate leadership. Although sources don’t say he’d conferred with his wife, it’s the right piece in the puzzle; he blamed Christians. He decreed that followers of the risen Christ were responsible for the fire, causing the first massive persecution of Christians through the Roman Empire.
“The [first century] historian Tacitus tells us that ‘mockery of every sort was added to their deaths.’ Some Christians were covered with animal skins and torn apart by vicious dogs. Others were nailed to crosses, to be crucified either in imitation of Christ or simply as one of the Roman means of killing prisoners.”
“In time, Christians would see this event as the beginning of a struggle between good and evil—Christianity versus Rome—that would shape both the religion and the empire,” from a lecture on the Great Courses, Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals.
Poppaea was pregnant and hopeful this child would be the heir to the throne. Instead, Nero is said to have kicked her in the stomach, causing a miscarriage and her death from blood loss. Soon after, her young son from a previous marriage was drowned. By 68 AD, Nero inconsolable after Poppaea’s death, had lost most of his support in the Senate and fled intending to kill himself. When he couldn’t quite muster the courage, he persuaded his loyal secretary to do this one last job.
Poppaea’s life was similar to the lives of others at the heights of power in the Roman Empire. As today, some were seduced by wealth and power, acting with no regard for others. Poppaea’s mix of spirituality and cruelty launched the early Christian period, from 64 AD to 313 AD, known as the Age of Martyrs.