The birth of Poppea (in Latin Poppaea Sabina), has been set between 30 and 32 AD, daughter of Titus Ollius (praetor during the ruling of Tiberius) and Poppaea Sabina the Elder.
Of great beauty and inteligence, feature inherited by her mother died suicidal in the year 47, Poppaea married first Rufius Crispinus, prefect of the praetor during the empire of Claudius, with whom she had a son. Later, once divorced, she married Otho, future Roman Emperor and close friend of Nero, back then the current Emperor. This choice, according to a certain historiography, was due to the intention of the woman to get closer to Nero. As for a second theory instead, it would have been Nero to ask to his friend Otho to marry Poppaea for then taking her as a lover, like the custom would allow without too much scandal.
Below: statue of Poppaea. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Either way, the Emperor, in turn bound to Claudia Octavia, daughter of the Emperor Claudius who had adopted him, fell in love with Poppaea. After having had her as his lover, he sent his former friend Otho, who in the meantime had become a rival of Nero politics, to rule the suburban areas of Lusitania, today Portugal, and married Poppaea in in 62 AD. This was not the only action that the governor had to perform before marrying the beautiful woman: he found himself forced to commission the murder of his own mother, Agrippina the Younger, who would firmly oppose to the new union. It is likely to imagine that Poppaea herself had a word on the plot against her mother in law to be, then Nero repudiated his wife Claudia Octavia for her sterility and convinced her to commit suicide.
Below: Agrippina crowns Nero. Relief from Aphrodisias, today Turkey. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
In particular, according to the tradition, the Empress consort was exiled in the island of Pandataria (now Ventotene), hold against a wall, got her veins slit and then placed in a warm bath in order to fasten the process of exsanguination. Eventually the body was beheaded in order to show the head to Poppaea, the new Empress.
It has never been clarified whether it was Nero who seduced Poppaea or it was the other way around. However the doubt led the historians to hypothesise the figure of the woman, in the best case scenario, as a ruthless manipulator and fierce sorceress, a femme fatale, to use a modern term.
The relationship between Poppaea and Nero though was a relationship destined to terminate rapidly as well as violently. The young empress, after giving birth to Nero’s first daughter in 63 AD, Claudia Augusta, who died as a stillborn baby, was newly pregnant shortly after; in 65 AD, while pregnant for the second time she got kicked in her abdomen by Nero due to a heated argument and this caused the woman’s death. The version, today historically accepted but still in 2nd position from the femicide ante litteram, imagine the young woman dying for some sort of complications of the ongoing pregnancy.
Below: statue of Nero in the Capitoline Museums. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Even the place in which the death occurred is debated but, instead of imagining the Imperial rooms of Rome, it is preferred to imagine the the Villa of Oplontis, today Torre Annunziata near the Vesuvius, as the place where the quarrel burst. The villa, like the whole area of Oplontis, was buried by lava and pumice during the eruption of the volcano in 79 AD.
Below: Calidarium of Poppaea’s villa in Oplontis. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Even Nero’s life did not last much longer though. Deposed, with the Senate against him for fear to be killed, the man escaped and got killed by the freedman Epaphroditos. It was June 68 AD. As the historian Suetonius stated, on the point of death the controversial Emperor said “Qualis artifex pereo”, meaning “what an artists dies in me”.
Another intense episode which indirectly involved Poppaea happened: according to Cassius Dio, historian and Roman politician, after the death of his second wife, Nero started the hunt looking for someone resembling the perished woman who he was still in love with. Curiously the face which better accomplished such a task was the one of a man, the young freedman Sporus. Once Nero confirmed the exceptional resemblance, ordered the immediate castration. The young boy became an eunuch and Nero was then free to proceed with the marriage. Sporus remained by the Emperor’s side even when this latter married in more traditional ceremony the noblewoman Statilia Messalina, all the way to the last moments of the Emperor’s life.
Below: painting by Vasiliy Smirnov, Nero’s death
Nero had many relationships but probably the woman who loved the most was the charming Poppaea. Shortly after the death of the young lady, the Emperor, perhaps in order to find peace for the crime committed, decided to deify her and, to this day almost 2 millenniums from her birth, Poppaea is one of the most known and emblematic women from the Roman history.