Poppaea & Paul: Was This About A Female Challenge To Male Privilege? by Stuart Dean

Poppaea Sabina as portrayed on a Roman coin minted 62-65 CE.
Poppaea Sabina as portrayed on a Roman coin minted 62-65 CE.


As suggested in my first post on Poppaea it is likely she knew one or more of the women Paul refers to in Romans. Of particular interest is the woman Paul refers to as his ‘mother’ (Romans 16:13).  If Poppaea knew her she surely knew about Paul.  If that was the case, then it seems all but certain Poppaea was among those members of the imperial household to whom Paul refers at Philippians 4:22.  Corroboration of that may have been in the source(s) of an anecdote Saint John Chrysostom tells, attributing Paul’s incarceration and execution to Nero’s anger at his interaction with a woman with whom Nero was erotically involved.

Though it is difficult to place much reliance on Chrysostom’s anecdote without more knowledge about his source(s), in the aggregate the evidence for Poppaea knowing about or even meeting with Paul is relatively strong, especially when compared to the sort of evidentiary problems with which ancient historians regularly grapple.  Furthermore, it is easy to spot the issue Poppaea would have focused on (that precisely because it relates to sexuality could have led in antiquity to the sort of distortion or misunderstanding of her motivation in meeting with Paul) that may underlie Chrysostom’s anecdote: circumcision.  The problem with understanding that issue today, however, ironically relates to modern perceptions of no relevance whatsoever to the ancient evidence.

For Paul circumcision was a defining issue: he himself characterizes his message as “good news about foreskin” (Galatians 2:7), saying of those who disagree with him: they are “dogs . . . doing bad things . . . mutilation” (Philippians 3:2).  At that time circumcision was not a tradition in Judaism but an innovation only about two centuries old.  It was not then and at no time until the 20th century was it ever deemed a medical procedure (and then primarily only in the US).  Some Hellenized Jews disagreed with those who insisted upon it, using various versions of the Greek word for ‘cut’ to characterize it, all of which had strongly negative connotations (one of the earliest usages of ‘circumcise’ (literally meaning ‘to cut around’) is in describing the circular cut members of a foreign tribe made to remove scalps from their diseased enemies).  Paul manifestly felt it could not have a place in the future he envisioned for Judaism.  Nevertheless, as a man already in his sixties it is likely he did not appreciate the implications that Poppaea might have seen in his message not only as Empress, but also as a mother then in her thirties with one son and surely the hope of another to come, as a basis for challenging the belief in male privilege the rite of circumcision implies.

If Poppaea met Paul when she was Empress their discussion would hardly have been one sided, but as a Jewish woman what could she cite as authority to challenge male privilege?  Unquestionably, Song of Songs (“Songs”), but not in Hebrew, rather in the Greek version that would have been known to her and other Hellenized Jews.  That version would have sounded like one of Sappho’s wedding songs, conferring on Songs an imprimatur like no other.  Indeed that, perhaps more than anything else, explains its popularity among Jewish women and hence its inclusion in the Bible–something that is otherwise inexplicable.

It is otherwise inexplicable for the main reason Songs in Greek sounds like Sappho: the explicitness of its female sexuality.  It has been argued Songs 5:5 could be interpreted as “a not-too-cloaked reference to a woman’s orgasm,” but based on the Hebrew that sort of argument has met with considerable pushback.  In the Greek version, however, the door’s bolt is kleithron, a word that, with only a minor tweak in pronunciation, would have likely been recognized as a pun on kleitoris (clitoris)(even with gender and case ending differences) by all but the most prudish or naive of Poppaea’s day.

Such a description of an orgasm would have been taken by Poppaea and other Hellenized Jewish women as an unmistakable legacy of Sappho’s influence (for all the many echoes of Sappho just in Songs 5:2-6 click here).  That is important because though Hellenistic culture generally celebrated the human body as itself a manifestation of the divine (e.g., nudity in Greek athletic competition and in Roman public bathing), Sappho’s description of her own orgasm (S. 31) especially influenced Greek medical thinking on the importance of orgasm to human health.  Eventually this led to the prescription by ancient Greek physicians of masturbation for men and women who for whatever reason did not have partners.

The acknowledgment that sexuality is as healthy as it is holy implicit in Songs relates to philosophical principles underlying ancient medicine and law Poppaea surely appreciated.  Consistent with the celebration of the human body as divine is the close association the word ‘physician’ has with ‘nature’ (physis in Greek), evincing the reverence for nature vital to the practice of medicine.  Greek physicians would never endorse or condone altering the body a person is born with absent an immediate medical need to do so.  Related to this reverence for nature among Greek physicians was the reverence for nature among Roman jurists, reverence that underlies the modern doctrine of human rights with which each person is born.  Genital mutilation was deemed criminal, with an exception appearing in one legal text long after Poppaea only for the “sons of Jews,” a phrase that suggests it was possibly predicated on otherwise archaic Roman law deference to a father’s authority effectively to treat his wife and children as slaves (mutilated genitalia typically constituted indicia of slavery).

Related to such reverence for nature is the sexual egalitarianism of the philosophy of nature closely associated with the region of Italy where Poppaea had family roots (for which reason and others it is fair to attribute to Poppaea a belief in, as I argued in my last post).  The influence of such egalitarianism was pervasive.  For example, it can be detected in the recognition by Greek physicians of the anatomical equivalence of the clitoris and the tissue surrounding it to the glans penis and the tissue surrounding it, recognition that is manifested in the fact that another word for clitoris in ancient Greek was simply ‘what is under the skin.’  By contrast, in slicing off the skin to expose the glans penis, circumcision subverts that equivalence, betraying a belief in male privilege–a belief Poppaea, from her perspective in Rome, would have viewed as literally and figuratively provincial.


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.

Author: Stuart Dean

Independent researcher and writer

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