Portrait of Poppaea Sabina

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Poppaea was

2nd wife of Nero, her 3rd husband

2nd wife of Otho, her 2nd husband

  William Storage and Laura Maish
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  Poppaea Sabina (born ~30 AD, died 65) was a Roman Empress and second wife of the Roman Emperor Nero. The historians of antiquity describe her as a beautiful woman who used intrigues to become empress. She married Emperor Nero, her third husband. in 62. Poppaea seems to have died in childbirth. The ancient historians, Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, all of whom had both the means and the motive to blacken Nero's name [1] report stories along the lines of Nero causing the death by kicking her in the abdomen. Vasily Rudich, in Political Dissidence Under Nero: The Price of Dissimulation, regards this story as a mere rhetotical topos. Poppaea was deified and buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Before her death, Poppaea is thought to have lived in the now excavated villa at Oplontis.

Significant to the study of Poppaea's portraiture is the fact that her deification was officially recalled three years later when Nero became the first emperor to have his memory officially condemned by the senate. Certainly this damnatio is the reason for the rarity of portraits of Poppaea.

Dietrich Boschung, in the
Das romische Herrscherbild series concludes that, while the marble portrait's features are certainly Neronian, this portrait probably represents not Poppaea but Claudia Octavia, Nero's previous wife. His reason is that its hairstyle does not appear on coins of Poppaea. It is true that no coins of Poppaea show the two pairs of shoulder curls as seen in this portrait, but they are not seen on any coin portrait of Claudia Octavia either. We're not sure whether the bronze coins of Poppaea from Perinthus, Thrace (RPC 1756 and Moushmov 4424) were available to Boschung for his analysis, but their hairstyle is identical to that of this marble portrait, except for the pair of shoulder curls, which may have been simply to fine a detail for a coin engraver to include. Likewise, the few existing coins of Claudia Octavia more closely resemble the marble portrait in the Palazzo Massimo thought to depict Claudia Octavia.

       Large images   

Marble portrait, Rome, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. 124129



Poppaea Sabina. 26mm (12.37 gm).
POPPAIA SEBASTH. Draped and diademed bust  right / 
Headdress of Isis,
P-E to either  side; all within laurel wreath.
RPC I 1756; BMC Thrace pg. 149, 15.
Photo courtesy of
WildWinds (www.wildwinds.com)


Primary sources on Poppaea:

Tacitus, Annals xiii.45-46, xiv.63-64, xvi.6
Suetonius, Lives of Caesars Life of Nero 35, Life of Otho 3
Cassius Dio, Roman History LXII.11-13, LXII.27, LXIII

1. J



Copyright 2008 Bill Storage and Laura Maish. Created 5/25/2008

 Keywords: Poppaea, Poppea, Nero, iconography, ancient Rome, Roman coins, Museo Nazionale Romano, imperial portraiture, marble, bust