Rome, 65 AD. The beloved wife of Nero, Poppaea Sabina, died for complications due to her second pregnancy. The inconsolable first citizen then decided to look for a solution to placate his sorrow. Certain historians believe that it was Nero himself who killed the woman, with a heavy kick to the woman’s belly which led to Poppaea and the foetus death. Still possible, but the uxoricide seems rather unlikely with today’s knowledge of that part of history.
Below: statue of Poppaea, picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
In 66 Nero decided to proceed to his 3rd wedding, this time with his lover Statilia Messalina, widow of Marcus Julius Vestinus Atticus, Roman consul that Nero forced into suicide maybe for betrayal maybe as he longed for his wife.
but the emperor was not satisfied
The difference between Messalina and Poppaea was way too far apart so Nero appointed his soldiers to find him someone who visibly resembled Poppaea. The person was found but there was something not exactly the same:
it was in fact a man
Nero, who had a taste for violence, decided that the sex of the guy, a Roman freedman, was not an insuperable obstacle and forced on him a surgical castration.
Below: statue of Nero in the Capitoline Museums. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The young freedman was Sporus, from the Greek Σπόρος= Seed. There is no evidence whatsoever whether the guy was consenting or not to the operation, but it is easy to hypothesize he was dreaming about a completely different existence.
what was certain is that he had no chance to oppose to the sanguinary Emperor’s will
Nero and Sporus got married in Greece at the end of 66 beginning of 67 AD and Sporus was dressed as a real empress. From that point onwards he was known as Sabina Empress of Rome and was by Nero’s side for all the public ceremonies around the empire.
Sporus was Nero’s second husband
before him the emperor had married Pythagoras, but in that union Nero was the one playing the female role
Suetonius talked about Nero and Sporus relationship in his scandalous tales about the sexual aberrations of Nero, along with the rape of a Vestal Virgin and the incest with his mother Agrippina. Cassius Dio explained how Sporus was slightly resembling Poppaea and that Nero would call him with her name. After the many centuries gone it is complex to understand the whole truth, but we are aware of certain other curious facts about this imperial couple.
Below: Agrippina crowning Nero. Relief from Aphrodisias, today Turkey. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Shortly before the death of Nero, during the calends of January, Sporus gifted his spouse with a ring representing the “rape of Proserpina”, where the ruler of the underworld Pluto kidnap Jupiter and Ceres daughter, forcing her to become his wife. The artwork is magnificent, but it came across as a bad omen for the fall of Nero.
Some time later, in June 68, Nero came to terms with the 14 years of his politics and the election from the Senate of Galba as a new Princeps Senatus. The emperor decided to run away from Rome, followed by Sporus, Epaphroditu, Neophytus and Phaon yet not by his wife Messaline, remained in Rome. Arrived around the villa of Phaon, not too far from the city, Nero decided that he had enough of running away and decided to stop by with the intention to kill himself.
He then invited Sporus to begin the crying that were typical of an Empress in the eventuality of the death of her Emperor, and asked him to follow him to the Underworld. It is not clear what Sporus said, but what many supported was the idea that the trans-wife of Nero was the one to lead the dagger towards the neck of the man, bringing death to one of the most popular sovereigns of the ancient world.
Below: painting by Vasiliy Smirnov, “Nero’s death”
Sporus, for his part survived the death of his King. He was in the first line to organise the luxurious funerals of Nero and carried the ashes to the Mausoleum of the Domizi on the Pincio hill.
After the death of the husband, Sporus was given to the care of the Praetorian prefect Nymphidius Sabinus, who convinced the Praetorian guard to defect from the command of Nero. Nymphidius treated Sporus as a wife, changing her name in Poppaea. The prefect tried to be elected as an Emperor instead of Galba, but he was killed by his own guards.
Below: statue of Poppaea, Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Greece
We do not know what happened to Sporus in those months, but shortly after he reappeared in the chronicles by Otho’s side, Roman Emperor for 3 months from January to April 69. Otho did not choose Sporus randomly; he was in fact the first husband of Poppaea and according to some the means through which the woman had set up her wedding with Nero.
Sporus is the second person with whom both Otho and Nero shared the bedroom, and for Sporus it will even be his last one. Otho was dethroned in April 69 and Sporus was doomed to become the sacrificial victim during a reenactment of the “Rape of Proserpina”, the same scene that was represented in the ring that Sporus had given to Nero. The show was staged in a gladiator field.
The unlucky Sporus, castrated by Nero,who was forced to be by Nymphidius’s side then the one of Otho, was then compelled into public humiliation by the Emperor Vitellium, who wanted him death amongst the screams of the Roman Arena.
Sporum decided that, at least in death, it would have been him the one to decide for his own destiny. He then chose to commit suicide, leaving the world he knew not between screams, laughter and noise, but in the solitude of his own room. He was probably not even 20 years old.