Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ancient Roman Women – Claudia Octavia

So let's move on to the second special request generated by the overview of ancient Roman women - Claudia Octavia, daughter of emperor Claudius and wife of emperor Nero.

This is quite a fairytale, about a girl whose mother dies and is replaced by an evil stepmother, but our heroine faces all difficulties with bravery, and she eventually marries a prince. Then the prince chops her head off. End of story. Ok, our Octavia is anything but a heroine. I mean, even after we got used to the passiveness of Cinderella and Snow-white, Claudia Octavia still deserves a monument named after her, for being the most passive victim of all times.

She just didn't have any chances, with a family like hers. Claudius took everybody by surprise (including himself) by becoming emperor in 41 AD. He already had a daughter, named Claudia Antonia (and here we go), with his second wife, Aelia Paetina, but, as all Romans, desperately needed a male heir, so he married Valeria Messalina, who was also accidentally his second cousin. And yes, it's THE Messalina, the ultimate image of debauchery and promiscuity.

The happy couple had two children – Claudia Octavia and Britannicus – until Messalina decided to re-marry but forgot to inform her royal husband first, and was therefore put to death. Since all his marriages turned out so well, Claudius decided to try his luck one more time, with his first cousin, Agrippina, who already had a son, Nero, about the same age as Octavia and Britannicus (just a bit older than Britannicus, but those few extra months would prove crucial for the power transfer).

Messalina and her two children. Image CC via Wikipedia. 

So, let's review what we have so far: Octavia was the daughter of a man considered both mentally and physically challenged and of a woman who was just about to go down in history as the biggest prostitute of all times. She witnessed her mother being put to death, and then got Agrippina as stepmother, already famed for her intrigues and blood thirst.

Now let's watch things going from bad to worse. As all girls of her standing, Octavia got engaged very young to a guy named Silanus, as her father was looking for political alliances. When the situation changed, the engagement between Octavia and Silanus was dissolved, pushing Silanus to commit suicide on the same day that Claudius married Agrippina. Spectacular.


A new marriage was arranged for Octavia, this time to Nero. Of course, they were technically siblings, so Octavia was probably adopted into a different family – how much worse could a new family be, anyway?

Let's fast forward a bit among the next pile of corpses: Claudius died, possibly poisoned by Agrippina, Britannicus died, possibly poisoned by Agrippina and / or Nero, Agrippina died, on Nero's orders. We can reasonably assume that Octavia suffered from the loss of her father and brother, but it would be her stepmother's death that had the biggest impact on her life. Agrippina managed to keep Nero relatively under control for a while, and she insisted on him staying married to Octavia, to justify his claim to the imperial position. From the paternal side, Nero's family was not particularly illustrious, so the marriage to a Julio-Claudian was imperative.

But, with Agrippina out of the way, Nero could do what he pleased, and historians of the time are more than happy to report that he hated being intimate with Octavia. (That's Rome for you, no privacy for the famous, even in the bedroom. Feels so familiar, somehow.) There have also been allegations that Nero tried to strangle Octavia on several occasions – though he strikes me as mad, but not the kind of mad that would get violent on a personal level.

When one of Nero's mistresses, Poppaea Sabina, got pregnant, he finally decided to divorce Octavia, claiming she was sterile, and married Poppaea a couple of weeks later. The divorce caused a general outcry of sympathy, so Nero tried to hide Octavia from the public, by having her exiled to an island under an accusation of adultery. So... his mistress was already pregnant with his child, but Octavia was the one charged with adultery. The Romans thought so too, so the manifestations of sympathy for Octavia increased, and people demanded to have her back, thus forcing Nero's hand to use the ultimate solution: he had her killed. There was a pathetic attempt to make it look like a suicide, by opening her veins in a hot bath, but it was kind of hard to buy the suicide version, considering that Octavia's head was subsequently cut off and sent to Rome, as a gift for Poppaea.

If it's any consolation, Poppaea herself also had a gruesome death, a few years later. Then Nero reconsidered his alliance with the descendents of Claudius and tried to marry Octavia's sister, Claudia Antonia. She refused, and was also killed. Typical Julio-Claudian style: marry the emperor, get killed, don't marry the emperor, get killed.

Tacitus plays up the anti-neronian propaganda by describing Octavia as an “aristocratic and virtuous wife” - as if anyone needed more incentives to feel sorry for her. And there's that awful tragedy called “Octavia Praetexta”, which survived to this day, mostly because people believed it was written by Seneca. Seneca himself has a lot of sins to burden his memory, but this is not one of them.

Oh, and, while trying to do some research online about Octavia, I found very little useful information, of course, but my trusted search engine threw this back at me: “Claudia Octavia is on Facebook. Join Facebook to connect with Claudia Octavia and others you may know”. Maybe I should check my Facebook account more often.