As a follow up to my last post on Poppaea Sabina, I want to focus on Poppaea’s interest in astrology, one of the few facts about her that can be confirmed independently of the hostile (and hence questionable) depiction of her by the Roman historian Tacitus, who, apart from Josephus, is the primary source of information about her. Indeed, she may have practiced astrology, for as Empress she was given a celestial sphere on her birthday by the poet Leonidas, who said it was a gift “worthy . . . of her learning.” Another possible indication of Poppaea’s special interest in astrology is the fact that a large banquet hall in the Roman imperial mansion built during Nero’s reign (recently discovered), probably conceived of and designed before Poppaea’s death (perhaps with her input), had some rotational feature, effectively making it a planetarium.
Though Tacitus thus would appear to be accurate on Poppaea’s interest in astrology, there is good reason to be wary of sharing his negative opinion about it. He never expressly explains himself on the issue, but it is not hard to spot what bothered Tacitus about astrology and hence Poppaea. Famous for his appreciation of freedom of speech, Tacitus wistfully looked back on a time when that was a freedom enjoyed only by men. By contrast, ancient astrology was but one part of a comprehensive philosophy of nature that viewed the entire cosmos as governed equally by male–and female–powers.
In addition to its sexual egalitarianism, fundamental to this philosophy was the recognition of the similarity of principles underlying otherwise separate phenomena (cf. the universality of laws of modern science). Thus, corresponding to the male and female powers of the celestial sphere (represented by the signs of the zodiac) was the theory that male and female seeds in the terrestrial sphere contributed equally to human reproduction (the “two seed theory”). This theory is first attested in Parmenides (Fragment 18), who lived in Campania, the same region of Italy in which Poppaea had family roots. Though there were competing theories of reproduction in antiquity, the relationship of the two seed theory to astrology would have been decisive for Poppaea. In any case, by the first century CE advances in medical knowledge effectively confirmed the validity of the two seed theory. As a woman who was pregnant three times in her life and who as Empress had access to the finest physicians of her time it is likely such advances would have been known to Poppaea.
With this context of ancient astrology’s relationship to a philosophy of nature and in particular the two seed theory, a consideration of some basic facts of Poppaea’s life suggests she had uniquely personal reasons to focus not just on Judaism in general (for which Josephus provides evidence) but on one Jew in particular. Poppaea was born no later than 32 CE, a year that is as good a guess as any for the year of the crucifixion of Christ. While we have to guess, Poppaea did not. As Empress only thirty years after the fact, she had the means and opportunity to obtain whatever information she wanted to know about Christ’s crucifixion from whatever source–including eyewitnesses. As an astrologer she had the motivation: depending on the details of her own thinking about astrology any potentially significant event on or around her own date of birth would have piqued her curiosity, to say the least.
Absent direct evidence of what Poppaea believed, a Latin astrological poem composed only a decade or so before she was born, clearly with the intention of reaching an imperial audience (the Astronomica), provides a reasonably sound basis for inferences. In it there is reference to people being reborn after their burial and having a second life. While Poppaea thus might have had reason to associate her birth date with that of Christ’s second ‘birth date,’ she would have had another reason to be interested in the concept of a second birth: in 63 CE she lost Claudia, her first child by Nero, after only a few months.
In addition to the story of Christ’s second birth, Poppaea would likely have been drawn to at least one version of the story of his first birth because of its relevance to female spirituality. Luke’s account of the story of Christ’s conception appears to derive from the account of a female eyewitness (Mary) and to be predicated on the two seed theory, with Mary’s seed contributing equally with that of God (see my post on Luke for details). Rather than speculate on whether such an account was circulating in Rome when Poppaea was alive, it is worth wondering if Poppaea might have been able to learn of it directly, that is, from an eyewitness.
It seems to me not a leap of faith, but a reasonable inferential step to take, to conclude that as a mother, particularly when she was grieving over the loss of her daughter, and as an astrologer, Poppaea would have been strongly attracted to one or more elements of the story of Christ’s conception, birth, and resurrection, especially if the story included obvious astrological motifs such as stars (Matthew 2:2 and Revelation 22:16) or a heavenly city (Revelation 21:2; cf. Astronomica 5.739). Because the story of Christ’s conception was, for Poppaea, a Jewish story, if she interpreted it as predicated on the two seed theory she could have cited it as part of an argument for the matrilineal principle of Judaism. Indeed, given that for most of her time as Empress her only living child was from a prior marriage (who she may have had custody of), it is easy to appreciate both Poppaea’s motivation to make such an argument as well as her leverage as Empress to prevail in so doing.
There is no shortage of skeptics with regard to practically every detail of what may or may not have happened in the 1st century CE. Yet, the evidence for Poppaea is such that it is misleading, at a minimum, simply to ignore it. To claim that in antiquity “the parent that mattered was, of course, the father” and therefore that the matrilineal principle appears “like a bolt out of the blue” is to act as if Poppaea did not even exist. Poppaea deserves better. Women who identify in whatever way with the Judaeo-Christian tradition deserve better.
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.