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The Apotheosis of Poppaea

Sebastian Anderson

A papyrus published in 2011 (P. Oxy. 77.5105) containing 84 partially preserved hexameters describes the catasterism of a pregnant wife of Nero. She is presumed to be Poppaea Sabina, who died while pregnant (Tac. Ann. 16.6; Suet. Nero 35.3; Dio 63.28.1), rather than Octavia, who was divorced for being sterile (Tac. Ann. 14.60.1; Suet. Nero 35.2). Since the papyrus is dated to the third century C.E., the editor, P. Schubert, is skeptical about the date of composition, noting the implausibility of continued interest in Poppaea two centuries after her death (ed. pr. 62-64).

            In this paper I argue that the apotheosis poem should be dated to the Neronian period and that its language deals specifically with contemporary political issues–Nero’s divorce of Octavia and the resultant civic unrest directed at Poppaea. Later sources, especially the pseudo-Senecan Octauia and Tacitus’ Annales, attest to these events as well, but from an anti-Neronian perspective. Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the way that Roman emperors utilized catasterism for political communication (Bechtold 2011; De Jong and Hekster 2008). This new poem, I suggest, belongs to this tradition and demonstrates how Nero shaped public opinion concerning Poppaea.   

The fragment begins with Aphrodite coming to tell Nero’s wife that she is welcomed among the stars. The editor suggests that Aphrodite’s role is influenced by the goddess’ appearance in Ptolemaic apotheoses like that of Berenice I (ed. pr. 61). I argue, however, that a more significant connection exists between Aphrodite and Poppaea. Dio records one of her posthumous honors being a temple financed by the matronae of Rome and dedicated to “the divine Sabina Aphrodite” (63.26.3-4), and it has been observed that since Livia the diuae associated themselves with Venus (Kragelund 2010: 560). Aphrodite’s appearance in the poem, therefore, should be understood in the context of the cult that Poppaea received.

Two themes that emerge in the poem are the wife’s devotion to her husband and her role as heavenly caretaker for her deceased children, a portrait that is in contrast to Tacitus’ Poppaea, who “did not distinguish between husbands and adulterers” (Ann. 13.45.3) and whose goal of marriage entails the murder of Agrippina and divorce of Octavia. Such unscrupulous pursuit of Nero is in the poem refashioned as a wife’s loyalty as she looks after him even in death (23-35, 68, 74), which also affirms Nero’s divine protection.

 Tacitus, however, presents Octavia in such a light: though she is modest, Nero is intolerant because of her ancestry and favor with the people (Ann. 14.59.3; Murgatroyd 2008). After the divorce, the newly married Poppaea claims to fear Octavia’s supporters, who temporarily remove her likenesses from the Capitoline, and alleges that she is planning a rebellion (Ann. 14.60.5-61). Nero’s delay in divorcing Octavia had also been motivated by fear of revolt (Ann. 14.59.3; cf. Holztrattner 1995: 53-54). A popular uprising occurs as well in the Octauia, when the chorus plans forcibly to remove Poppaea (682-89; 780ff.). It has been suggested that the revolt in support of Octavia was more serious than Tacitus’ narrative indicates (Ferri 2003: 3-5; cf. Rudich 1993: 66-9), a claim for which the poem provides some support.

When during her apotheosis Poppaea utters her final words atop the palace, it is, I contend, a response to such public unrest. She first says, “I did not burden the throne, husband, if I protected you” (27). This sounds more like an apologia than a farewell, and I believe the line acknowledges the unpopularity mentioned by Tacitus and responds to it by asserting that she defended the legitimate princeps. Note too how her speech is made atop the palace amidst rejoicing (25-26), which claims for her a popularity that other sources say she lacked. This poem provides evidence of Nero’s effort to rehabilitate Poppaea’s reputation and maintain control of the state by affirming its stability at the top. It also affords us a new perspective on Poppaea.

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Women, Sex, and Power

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