It has been nearly 2000 years since the Roman emperor Nero kicked his pregnant and sick wife, Poppaea Sabina (hereafter Poppaea), killing her and what was probably the near full term fetus she was carrying. That Poppaea was murdered deliberately should not be doubted, for not long after her death Nero had her son by an earlier marriage, who was then still a minor, killed by being drowned (a fishing ‘accident’).
Given that domestic violence has a history that repeats itself with sickening regularity it is necessary to explain why this particular case should matter now. It is because at the time of her murder Poppaea was, with the sole exception of her murderer, the wealthiest and most powerful person in the world, whose attention was curiously focused not on Italy or Rome but on Judaea and Jerusalem. There is evidence to suggest that had Poppaea not been murdered the history of Judaism and Christianity would have been substantially different than it has been, especially with respect to the role of women.
That Poppaea’s murder some time in 65 CE might well have such importance can be justified, as a threshold matter, by considering what happened not long before then and not long afterwards. The Great Fire of Rome occurred in the summer of 64 CE and the First Jewish-Roman War began in 66 CE. Also around this time Paul, whose letter to the Romans had been delivered to Rome probably as early as 59 CE, apparently was executed and other Christians are reported to have been persecuted, allegedly because of their association with the Great Fire. It is unclear, however, whether such ‘Christians’ were identified as such by Romans at that time. That is especially important to keep in mind in considering the only eyewitness account that survives of Poppaea: an account of a meeting Josephus had with her some time in the year before she died.
Remarkable among other things about that meeting is the fact that Josephus was only in his 20s, roughly seven years younger than Poppaea. Her agreeing to meet with him suggests an unusually keen interest in a person that might otherwise have been deemed a junior official not qualified to have an audience with the Empress. Through her ‘kindness’ the pardon for priests with respect to some legal trouble that Josephus requested was granted and she sent him back to Judaea with ‘large gifts.’ Josephus records an earlier meeting he did not witness that Poppaea had with a delegation from a temple in Jerusalem who she helped to resolve a dispute with Roman authorities regarding a wall around that temple. Furthermore, he says she kept two of the temple officials with her afterwards, though for what reason and for how long he does not specify. Elsewhere, Josephus also attributes to Poppaea responsibility for the appointment of a Roman to an important administrative position in Judaea.
Josephus explains Poppaea’s advocacy for Jews in the temple wall case by saying she was ‘god fearing.’ There seems to me to be no justification for how scholars have shied away from the full implications of this. In ancient Greek as in English the term ‘god fearing’ is generic, but as a Jewish priest writing about a dispute involving a temple in Jerusalem it is unduly skeptical to doubt that what Josephus means is that Poppaea was Jewish, especially considering what else he reports she had been doing at roughly the same time. The only real issue should be whether she was also what today would be considered Christian. Paul himself even uses a Greek term analogous in meaning to the one Josephus uses to describe Poppaea to refer to what he clearly believed were Christian members of the Roman imperial household (Php 4:22). Again, there seems to be no justification for how scholars have shied away from the implications of this. It is a certainty given Poppaea’s interest in Judaism and her position as Empress of Rome that she knew women within the Roman Jewish community. It is reasonable to infer she would have known at some point at least one if not more of the ten women Paul mentions in Romans 16.
Ideally, it would be best to appeal to direct evidence for what Poppaea actually believed–something she herself wrote or dictated. No such evidence survives, yet there is one detail about her funeral that perhaps manifests her will, if not in a formal legal sense, at least in what she made known at some point before she died. Tacitus, who is the only source for this detail, says she was embalmed in the manner of foreign royalty (cremation was the norm for Romans at the time). Tacitus elsewhere betrays the fact that he did not distinguish between Jewish burial practices (which Christians also adopted) and those of Egyptians. Therefore, though it is possible Poppaea was actually embalmed, in the context of the other evidence for Poppaea’s religious orientation it is far more likely her burial was consistent with Jewish/Christian practice and should be taken as evidence of her will so to be buried.
What was, in effect, buried with Poppaea, what she may have been able to provide for with respect to Judaism and Christianity is, of course, impossible to say. It is possible, however, to raise questions about what Poppaea did before she died, or may have done had she lived, that ironically, precisely because they cannot be definitively answered, are perhaps the best way to get a sense of how much may have been lost in the violence done to her. For example, around the time when Poppaea lived Song of Songs, which some today argue may have been composed by a woman, came to be accepted as a canonical text–did she have anything to do with that? Around this time also the notion that Jewishness is matrilineal gained acceptance–did she have anything to do with that and does that relate to why after she was murdered Poppaea’s son by a prior marriage was murdered? What would the role of women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition have been had she lived? In particular, if Poppaea was Christian, given the role she appears to have envisioned for herself in Rome with respect to Judaea and Jerusalem, would the question today not be whether a woman should be pope but rather whether a man could be?
Click here for notes and references, including a PDF of a paper I wrote on Poppaea in the fall of 1976 for an excellent graduate level course on Tacitus at UNC/Chapel Hill (to which I happily hitchhiked from Duke) taught by Professor George W. Houston.
Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City. Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.