Poppaea Sabina lived her life as a patrician Roman woman on a top-tier stage in the middle decades of the first century A.D. For an author researching and writing about that time period, it would be hard to ignore her flamboyant rise and catastrophic fall.
Unlike most women of her day (see Flavia, Missing Woman), Poppaea Sabina’s life is well recorded in history, although some modern scholars believe that an anti-Nero bias may have influenced those reports.
Still, Poppaea’s life story is full of tantalizing tidbits.
She was born in Pompeii in A.D. 30, the daughter of Titus Ollius, who died the next year following a political purge, and Poppaea Sabina the Elder, who committed suicide in A.D. 47 as the result of more palace intrigue. During Nero’s reign, Poppaea Sabina the Younger’s first husband was executed, and after her death Nero drowned her son by that husband. Whew!
After the death of her first husband, the ambitious young widow set her cap for—and ultimately married—Nero’s best friend, Marcus Salvius Otho, thus winning a higher place in court and perfectly positioning herself to make a play for Nero. It’s at this point in time that Poppaea Sabina first appears in my novel.
While still very much married to Otho, Poppaea became Nero’s mistress, which must have caused friction between herself and her husband, and between the emperor and his long-time friend, Otho. Nero managed the situation by sending Otho to be governor of distant Lusitania (now Portugal), thus removing him from competition and giving Poppaea an excuse to divorce Otho and marry Nero.
In A.D. 62, Nero divorced the Empress Octavia (daughter of the late Emperor Claudius) and married Poppaea.
Poppaea soon bore Nero a daughter, named Claudia Augusta, but the child lived only a few months. She was pregnant again in 65 when she and, we must assume, her unborn child both died. There’s controversy over the manner of her death. Contemporary historians—perhaps with an ax to grind—reported that Nero kicked her to death following a quarrel. Modern scholars believe it’s possible she simply died in childbirth, a common occurrence in the first century. Poppaea was 35 years old at her death, which meant she had already outlived the average woman of her time.
Here are a few snippets from a Rubies of the Viper scene that features Poppaea as a young woman… before her relationships with either Otho or Nero. The occasion is a ladies-only dinner party in Rome; the women have taken note of Theodosia’s enormous, handsome slave, Stefan.
“Do you have only females at your villa, Theodosia?” asked a dainty young patrician in yellow.
The other guests howled in laughter.
“Poppaea Sabina is the only one who’d think that!” said Annia. …
“If it were mine, I’d love it! All those gorgeous men around, and no husband to spoil the fun!”
“And she pretends to be so modest.”
“You’re turning red, my dear. Are you ill?”
“They grow big in the country, don’t they? Got any more like him [Stefan] stashed away out there?”
“Hey, this isn’t fair!” said Poppaea Sabina, who had unwittingly introduced the topic. “I didn’t see him.”
“Bring him in then,” Livia said, “for Poppaea’s education.”
“Oh, Stefan may not be here right now,” Theodosia said, hoping it was true. “I told him he might go see a bit more of the city.”
Titters erupted around the table.
“He must be something special then,” Poppaea said. “What good is a bodyguard if he’s not around to guard your body when you need him?”
Livia snapped her fingers at the slave behind her couch.
“Go and see if the lady Theodosia’s bodyguard has returned from sightseeing in the city.” Her tone was droll. “If he has, tell him to come here at once.”
“Come here, Stefanus,” said Livia, pointing to the space between her couch and Poppaea Sabina’s. “We all want a good look at you.”
Stefan stepped warily across the room. Theodosia felt a swell of pride in him… until his eyes reached hers. They were seething.
Juno, I wish we were both anywhere but here.
Poppaea Sabina reached out and ran a single fingertip down Stefan’s arm; then she let it wander on down his leg.
“He’s magnificent! I’ve never seen a man this big so close up. Is he a gladiator?”
“Why not make a gladiator of him?” chirped Poppaea Sabina in her little-girl voice. Her yellow sleeve rippled as she poked a finger into Stefan’s abdomen. “Turn around, slave. Oh, just look at the muscles on his back! He’d be the best of the lot!”
“Tell you what,” Marcia said, “we’ll give your Otho credit for the new gladiator. He’ll surely win once the mob sees this fellow in action.”
“He’s not my Otho!” [said Theodosia.]
“Don’t be so coy. Think about it. Your fortune combined with Otho’s senatorial rank… You’ll be one of the most powerful couples in the empire. That’s not a bad swap for a single slave.”
“Maybe she wants him for something else,” Poppaea Sabina said, setting off another round of titters.
—text copyright © Martha Marks—