Claudia Octavia – The neglected Empress

Poppea brings the head of Octavia to Nero by Bardazzi/Museo Civico di Modena, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Claudia Octavia, or just Octavia, was born in late 39 AD or early 40 AD as the only daughter of the Emperor Claudius of the Roman Empire by his third wife, Valeria Messalina. Her father became Emperor in 41 AD, and she had a younger brother named Britannicus born around that time. Her mother was killed in 48 AD, and her father remarried his fourth and final wife Agrippina the Younger. She had a son named Nero (born 37 AD) from an earlier marriage to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.

To the astonishment of many, Octavia’s father soon began to show a preference for Nero as his successor, instead of his own son Britannicus. Nero was officially adopted by Claudius in 50 AD and was given the title “Princeps Iuventutis” – Prince of Youth – in 51 AD. In 53 AD, Octavia was married to her adopted brother Nero after she was legally transferred to another clan to avoid incest claims. Apparently her stepmother Agrippina had planned this marriage even before her own marriage to Claudius, and in order to achieve it, she had (ironically) brought up a claim of incest to the man who was betrothed to Octavia – Lucius Junius Silanis, a great-great-grandson of Augustus. The following year, Claudius died at the age of 63 – just before Britannicus reached the age of legal manhood, which was 14. It was soon claimed that Agrippina had had a hand in his death. His will was never read because it most likely named Britannicus as joint-heir or because it did not name Nero as his sole heir.

Nevertheless, Nero succeeded his adoptive father as Emperor, making Octavia Empress. It appears their marriage was loveless and also childless. However, the leading political force was his mother, Agrippina. Coins were minted with their busts facing each other, and her titles were on the more important side of the coins, the “heads” side. However, Nero soon came to resent his mother, and at the age of 18, he declared his independence from his mother.

In 55 AD, Nero fell in love with a former slave by the name of Claudia Acte and began an affair with her to the horror of his mother. Octavia’s response is not recorded. In response to Agrippina’s lessening power of him, she threatened to transfer her support to Britannicus as a better candidate for the throne. Nero apparently had him poisoned at a family dinner. Agrippina then teamed up with Octavia to consolidate her own influence. Nero stripped his mother of her personal bodyguard and forced her to move out of the palace. She had now definitely fallen from grace.

Nero remained married to Octavia, but Acte had been replaced by the ambitious Poppaea Sabina, whose mother had been killed by Octavia’s mother. Poppaea Sabina believed that he only remained married to Octavia because he was still under his mother’s control and under her influence, Nero orchestrated an accident that was meant to kill his mother. She survived the accident but was finally assassinated in her villa after she shouted at her attackers to aim for her womb where she had carried Nero.

Poppaea Sabina became pregnant with Nero’s child and Nero then finally divorced Octavia, marrying Poppaea Sabina just 12 days after the divorce. Nero and Poppaea Sabina had Octavia banished to the island of Pandateria on a false charge of adultery. Octavia had been a popular Empress with the people, and the citizens protested her treatment, openly parading with statues of her and calling for her return. When Octavia herself complained, her maids were tortured to death. This frightened Nero, but he became more determined to get rid of her.

Poppea brings the head of Octavia to Nero (public domain)

Nero ordered her death and on 8 June 62 AD, she was bound and had her veins opened in a traditional Roman suicide ritual. She was then suffocated in a hot bath. Her head was cut off and sent to Poppaea Sabina. She was still only around 22 years old.1


  1.  Read more:

    Great Women of Imperial Rome by Jasper Burns

About Moniek Bloks 2747 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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