While many people may believe that the family of an ancient Roman Emperor would live in luxury and peace, the truth was quite often the opposite. This was especially true for the famous Julio-Claudian Dynasty, to which Julius Caesar and the first five emperors of the Roman Empire belonged. One particular woman in that family realized just how far good fortune could fall. She learned this sad lesson as she watched her entire family succumb to suspicious or violent deaths before she, too, faced execution.
Octavia was the daughter of Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) and his third wife, Messalina. Based on the ages and dates reported by the historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), Octavia would have been born around the year, 45. Claudius and Messalina also had a son named Britannicus, who was born about four years before Octavia.
The tragedy in Octavia’s life began around the year 48, when her mother, Messalina, was executed after being accused of a very public, and very treasonous, affair. Emperor Claudius only waited a year after killing the mother of his children before he decided to remarry. In the year 49, he married his own niece, Agrippina the Younger. When Agrippina entered the imperial household as Claudius’ fourth wife, she brought along with her a son, named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbas, who was born from a previous marriage. Emperor Claudius quickly adopted the boy and gave him the much more memorable name of Nero.
In the year 53, when Octavia was only about eight years old, her father and stepmother arranged for her to marry Nero, who was sixteen at the time. During their approximate nine years of marriage, neither party found the arrangement enjoyable and no children were ever born from their union. Not long after her marriage, tragedy struck Octavia again. In the year 54, Emperor Claudius died a suspicious death. The ancient historians almost all unanimously accused Agrippina the Younger of causing the death by poisoning the emperor. Sadly, before she was even ten years old, young Octavia had lost both of her parents.
Due to Agrippina’s diligence and diplomatic skill, Nero was proclaimed emperor instead of Claudius’ son, Britannicus. Unfortunately, the new emperor still considered his stepbrother to be a threat. In the year 55, when Octavia was ten, Nero had her fourteen-year-old brother poisoned at a feast. Nero’s own mother, Agrippina, allegedly thought that the crime was appalling and she surprisingly became one of Octavia’s most powerful supporters. Yet, the relationship between the domineering Agrippina and the rebellious Nero continued to deteriorate until the year 59, when the emperor had his own mother assassinated.
As stated earlier, Octavia and Nero never had any chemistry between them, and this undoubtedly worsened when Nero killed Octavia’s brother. As a result, Nero was prone to having affairs—one of these extramarital relationships tragically proved fatal for Octavia. In the year 62, when she was twenty, Nero divorced Octavia in order to marry another woman, Poppaea Sabina. According to Tacitus, Nero first claimed that the divorce happened because Octavia was unable to have children, yet he later paradoxically accused her of having an abortion. Finally, Nero had his friend, Anicetus, confess to having an affair with Octavia. After delivering the confession, Anicetus was allegedly given rewards and a lavish place to retire. After Nero and Poppaea Sabina accused Octavia of having additional affairs, she was exiled to the island of Pandateria.
Not long after her arrival on the island, assassins were sent to claim Octavia’s life. Tacitus wrote a vivid and likely dramatized account of her death. He alleged that the assassins sliced at her with blades, hoping she would bleed to death. When she persisted in living, Octavia was thrown into a bath to speed up the blood flow. The Assassins apparently became impatient, though, and ultimately drowned her in the water. After the deed was done they reportedly removed Octavia’s head so that Poppaea Sabina would have proof that Nero’s former wife was dead.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Photograph of a Roman-Style bust from the Historian’s Hut archives, atop a Public Domain scene of ancient Rome painted by J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851)).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.