Roman Emperors Dir Claudia Octavia

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(Claudia) Octavia, wife of Nero

Donna Hurley

Octavia, properly Claudia Octavia, was the daughter of the emperor Claudius and his third wife Valeria Messallina. She was born in early 40 at the latest, but perhaps a year or two earlier, because her younger brother Britannicus was born in February of 41. [[1]] Like all imperial princesses, Octavia would be a pawn in the dynastic marriage game. Claudius was not a young man when he became emperor in January of AD 41, and he lost no time in establishing a potential line of succession for himself. Designated heirs could help stabilize a principate that was shaky from its inception and hopefully make him less vulnerable to a palace coup. He immediately married Antonia, a daughter by his earlier wife Aelia Paetina, to Pompeius Magnus, and he betrothed Octavia, still a very small child, to Lucius Junius Silanus, a cousin of several removes. [[2]]

Silanus was 15 or16 at the time. Claudius would advance and honor him as quickly as possible despite his youth. But Silanus would give way to a replacement candidate before he and Octavia could be married, for a new plan for the succession had taken priority. When Messallina was dead and a new marriage had been arranged between Claudius and his niece, Agrippina (the Younger), Octavia was transferred to Agrippina's son by an earlier marriage. The boy's name was still Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, but he would become the emperor Nero. In order to make room for this new fiancé, Octavia's engagement to Silanus was dissolved quickly and harshly. He was charged with incest with his sister and removed from the senate and so from his praetorship in the last days of AD 48. He committed suicide early in 49 on the wedding day of Claudius and Agrippina. [[3]]

The next year (AD 50) Claudius adopted his stepson Domitius and gave him the name Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar. This new situation made it necessary that Octavia be adopted out of her birth family and into another family so that the marriage between the two (now technically siblings) could still take place. They were married in 53 when they were minimally old enough. Their union, if it produced progeny, would dissolve the long conflict between the two major branches of the family. Nero was a direct descendent of Augustus through the female line and Octavia was descended from Augustus' sister, after whom she was named, and from Livia, Augustus' wife. [[4]]

Claudius died in AD 54, and Nero was hailed emperor at the age of sixteen. But uncertainty about the succession would linger, for there were those who would have preferred that Claudius' son Britannicus succeed his father. Britannicus was still too young, but it would not be long before he was technically an adult, and it could be argued that a natural son deserved precedence over an adoptive son. Neronian propaganda countered with the insinuation that the paternity of both Britannicus and Octavia was in question because of the their mother 's promiscuity. Nero soon (AD 55) had Britannicus poisoned. Octavia remained at the center of this contention. [[5]]

Furthermore, the carefully contrived marriage between Octavia and Nero was a disaster on a personal level. Nero soon embarked on a serious relationship with a freedman named Acte, and more importantly developed an active dislike for his wife. "Quickly feeling aversion to intimacy with Octavia, he replied to his friends who were finding fault with him that she ought to be satisfied with the outward trappings of a wife." [[6]] This antipthy was not likely to produce offspring who would unite the Julian and Claudian lines. By 58 Nero was becoming involved with a freeborn mistress, Poppaea, whom he would want to make his empress in exchange for Octavia. But the legitimacy of his principate derived from his relationship with his predecessor, and he was not so secure that he could do without the connection with Claudius provided through his mother and his wife. In 59 he was able to arrange for Agrippina's death, but it was not until 62 that he felt free to divorce Octavia and marry Poppaea. The initial grounds for putting Octavia aside was the charge that she was barren because she had had no children. But a more aggressive attack was needed when opposition arose from those who still challenged Nero's prncipate and remained loyal to Octavia as the last representative of her family. With the connivance of Poppaea, charges of adultery were added, Octavia was banished to Campania and then to the island of Pandataria off the coast, and finally killed. Her severed head was sent to Rome. [[7]]

The ancient tradition presents Octavia as a victim, a passive and pathetic figure. In reality she was used and indeed ill used. "Her wedding day was as a funeral for her, who was married into a house in which there was nothing but mourning since her father and then quickly her brother had been poisoned."[[8]] After the death of Britannicus and then of Agrippina, Octavia was the sole remnant of the domus Claudia, the Claudian house. She was the last to leave the stage. Her lonely isolation was the theme of a tragedy (Octavia) written by an unknown playwright not long after the death of Nero.


Barrett, A. A. Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the Early Empire. New Haven and London (1996).

Griffin, M. T. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. New Haven and London (1984).

Octavia, a Play Attributed to Seneca. R. Ferri, ed. Cambridge (2003).

[[1]] Suet. Cl. 27.1; Jos. AJ 20.149, BJ 2.249. When the historian Tacitus records her death, he erroneously reports that she was born in 42 (Ann. 14.64).

[[2]] Pompeius Magnus was of a prominent family that had its own designs on the principate; the marriage was intended to co-opt their ambition. Silanus was a great- great-grandson of Augustus descended through Julia the Younger. Tac. Ann. 12.3; Suet. Cl. 12.1, 27.2; Dio 60.5.7, 31.7; Sen. Apocol. 10.4.

[[3]] Tac. Ann. 12.2-4, 8-9; Suet. Cl. 24.3, 27.2; Dio 60.31.8, 32.2.

[[4]] Tac. Ann. 12.58; Suet Ner. 7.2; Dio 60.33.22, 11; Jos. AJ 20.150, BJ 2.249.

[[5]] Although it can be doubted that many of the poisonings alleged in the imperial family actually took place, that of Britannicus probably did. Poisoning is less certain in the case of Claudius. Tac. Ann. 12.67-9, 13.14-17; Suet. Cl. 44-5, Ner. 7.1, 33.2-3; Dio 60.34.3, 61.7.4; [pseudo-Sen.] Oct. 249, 536.

[[6]] Suet. Ner. 35.1 (translation mine); also Tac. Ann. 13.12, 14.1; Dio 61.7.1.

[[7]] Tac. Ann. 14.3-8, 59-64; Suet. Ner. 34.2-3, 35.2-3; Dio 61.13, 62.13.1-2; Jos. AJ 20.153.

[[8]] Tac. Ann. 14.63 (translation mine).

Copyright © 2006, Donna Hurley. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Donna Hurley

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