Poppaea Sabina

Nero's Mistress and Wife

Poppee - Femme De Neron, illustration from a manuscript, 1403
Anachronistic Poppee - Femme De Neron, illustration from a manuscript, 1403. Hulton Archive / Print Collector / Getty Images

Poppaea Sabina was the mistress and second wife of the Roman emperor Nero. Nero's bad acts are often attributed to her influence. Her birth year is unknown, but we know she died in 65 C.E.

Family and Marriages

Poppaea Sabina was born the daughter of a woman with the same name who committed suicide. Her father was Titus Ollius. Her paternal grandfather, Poppaeus Sabinus, was a Roman Consul and a friend of several emperors. Her family was wealthy, and Poppaea herself owned a villa outside Pompeii.

Poppaea was married first to Rufrius Crispinus of the Preaetorian Guard, and they had a son. Agrippina the Younger, as empress, removed him from his position, as he was too close to a previous empress, Messalina. 

Poppaea's next husband was Otho, a childhood friend of Nero. Otho would go on after Nero's death to briefly become emperor.

Then Poppaea became mistress of the emperor Nero, Otho's friend, and about seven years younger than she was. Nero appointed Otho to an important post as governor of Lusitai (Lusitania). Nero divorced his wife, Octavia, who was the daughter of his predecessor, the Emperor Claudius. This caused a rift with his mother, Agrippina the Younger.

Nero married Poppaea, and Poppaea was given the title Augusta when they had a daughter, Claudia. Claudia did not live long.

Murder Plots

According to the stories told of her, Poppaea had urged Nero to kill his mother, Agrippina the Younger, and to divorce and later murder his first wife, Octavia.

She is also reported to have persuaded Nero to kill the philosopher Seneca, who had supported Nero's previous mistress, Acte Claudia. Poppaea is believed to have stirred Nero to attack Christians after the Fire of Rome and to have helped free Jewish priests at the request of Josephus.

She also advocated for her home town of Pompeii, and helped it gain considerable autonomy from the Empire's rule. In archaeological study of the city of Pompeii, where volcanic tragedy preserved the city within 15 years of Poppaea's death, scholars have found evidence that during her lifetime, she was considered a virtuous woman, with many statues in her honor.

Nero and Poppaea were, according to some contemporaries, happy in their marriage, but Nero had a temper and became more and more erratic. Nero reportedly kicked her during an argument when she was pregnant in 65 C.E., resulting in her death, possibly from the effects of the subsequent miscarriage.

Nero gave her a public funeral and proclaimed her virtues. Her body was embalmed and buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Nero proclaimed her divine. He was even said to have dressed one of his enslaved males as Poppaea so he could believe she had not died. He had Poppaea's son by her first marriage killed.

In 66, Nero remarried. His new wife was Statilia Messallina.

Otho, Poppaea's first husband, helped in Galba's successful revolt against Nero, and made himself emperor after Galba was killed. Otho was then defeated by Vitellius' forces, and he subsequently killed himself.

Poppaea Sabina and the Jews

The Jewish historian Josephus (who also died in 65 BCE) tells us that Poppaea Sabina interceded on behalf of Jews twice. The first time was to free priests; Josephus went to Rome to plead their case, meeting with Poppaea and then receiving many gifts from her. In the second instance, a different delegation won Poppaea's influence in its cause to keep standing a wall at the temple that would keep the emperor from seeing the Temple's proceedings.


The main source for information about Poppaea is the Roman writer Tacitus. He does not depict kind acts, such as those reported by Josephus, but instead depicts her as corrupt. Tacitus, for instance, asserts that Poppaea engineered her marriage with Otho specifically to get closer to, and eventually marry, Nero. Tacitus does assert that she was quite beautiful but shows how she used her beauty and sexuality as a way of gaining power and prestige.

Cassius Dio

This Roman historian also villified Poppaea in his writing about her.

The Coronation of Poppaea

"The Coronation of Poppaea," or "L'Incoronazione di Poppea," is an opera in a prologue and three acts by Monteverdi, libretto by G. F. Busenello. The opera focuses on the replacement of Nero's wife Octavia by Poppaea. The opera was first performed in Venice in 1642.

Also known as: Poppea (Italianized spelling), Poppaea Augusta Sabina, Poppaea Sabina the Younger (to differentiate from her mother)

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Poppaea Sabina." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/poppaea-sabina-biography-3525460. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, February 16). Poppaea Sabina. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/poppaea-sabina-biography-3525460 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Poppaea Sabina." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/poppaea-sabina-biography-3525460 (accessed June 1, 2023).