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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Matrons of Awesome Part IX – Forgotten Daughters, Brigitte Bardot, and Claudian Goddesses.

September 30th, 2011 at 8:00

Some short ones this time!

19. Claudia Octavia

We know little about Octavia, daughter of the Emperor Claudius and his doomed wife Messalina, her except that she was used and abused quite outrageously in service to the imperial family.

As a teenager, she was married to her stepbrother/adopted brother Nero, in order to further promote his role as her father’s heir, ahead of her own brother Brittannicus. Mostly, Nero ignored her, which was the best outcome for everyone.

When her father died (cough, poison mushrooms, cough), Octavia found herself no better off than she had been before – except that now, the husband who was ignoring her was the emperor. It was Nero’s mother Agrippina, not his wife, who stood at his side as consort. Various exotic mistresses filled Nero’s bed, and his mother filled his heart. There was no room for anyone else. Then her brother Brittannicus was poisoned, and Octavia was left alone.

Nero wanted to divorce Octavia, but hadn’t realised just how popular she was with the ordinary people of Rome. There was an outcry, and Nero dropped the idea quickly. Instead, he framed her for adultery, and had her exiled, then executed.

Seneca, one of Nero’s chief advisors, wrote a tragedy, “Octavia,” which is particularly notable for the vicious caricature it makes of Agrippina’s character. In fact, Agrippina had fought for Nero to treat his wife more kindly, and to stay married to her. Though to be fair this was probably because she feared what might happen if Nero started choosing his own brides.

20. Claudia Antonia

Antonia was Octavia’s eldest sister, daughter of Claudius to one of his pre-Messalina wives. There is only one story told about Antonia. Towards the end of his life, having been divorced, widowed, etc. several times over, Nero had a bright idea to reclaim the popularity of his first marriage to Octavia by marrying her sister.

Antonia said no.

Nero killed her.

Les Weekends De Neron

21. Poppaea

Poppaea is another Roman woman in the vein of Messalina – the historians tell us she was a slut, and very little else.

She appears in various biblical epic and/or Italian porn films (Claudette Colbert and Brigitte Bardot, yay!) as the decadent Roman slapper who makes the virtuous Christians look oh, so much virtuouser.

Poppaea was Nero’s mistress long before she was his wife. According to Tacitus, that well known promoter of female virtue, she was depraved, promiscuous and unable to love any man. But she had other interests, such as Judaism, astrology and bathing in asses milk.

Oh, and apparently she was born in Pompeii, where they were so impressed about their ‘local girl makes good’ story that they briefly changed the name of their city to Poppaensis.

Poppaea bore Nero a daughter, and he was so delighted that he gave them both the title Augusta, and spent a fortune on ostentatious celebrations and thanksgivings. Then the baby died, and Nero was so devastated that he made his daughter a goddess. History does not record how Poppaea felt.

The Sign of the Cross, 1932

Some time later, when she was pregnant again, she dared to make a bitchy comment about Nero staggering home late after the races. He promptly kicked her in the stomach, which brought on a miscarriage that killed Poppaea too.

Nero made Poppaea a goddess along with their daughter. Supposedly he did this because he was so grief-stricken at losing his beloved wife.

Let’s all take a moment to feel sorry for him, shall we?

22. Claudia Augusta

Claudia Augusta, daughter of Nero and Poppaea, is an anomaly. She is the only baby (and only unmarried female person) ever to receive the title ‘Augusta’. She is the only baby of the Roman imperial family to be deified. She lived only eight days – barely long enough to be named.

As a goddess, she was named ‘Diva Claudia Virgo,’ and later shared a cult with her mother, Diva Poppaea. Their cult didn’t last very long. After Nero was killed (another strategic assassination), it wasn’t politic to support anything associated with him. Nero’s divine wife and daughter were firmly swept beneath the carpet, deliberately forgotten by everyone.

The dynasty that began with Augustus was done. But there was a new one just around the corner.

NEXT: Flavian Ladies

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The Matrons of Awesome series was originally posted on Livejournal (LJ user: cassiphone) in March 2006 for Women’s History Month.

I’m reprinting the (reworked) series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.

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