Octavia, Wife of Nero: Seneca’s Tragedy – Roman Empress Octavia’s Marriage, Exile and Death on the Roman Stage

Portrait head of Claudia Octavia

Octavia was the daughter of the Roman Emperor Claudius and his wife Messalina. Her mother was executed in their childhood for committing adultery, and her father remarried Agrippinna. He later adopted her son Nero as his political heir.

In 52 AD, at the age of twelve, she married her step-brother Nero. Ten years later he sent her into exile on charges of adultery and married his mistress, Poppaea. Within a month she was executed.

The Octavia was probably published after the death of the Emperor Nero, because it contains strong political criticism. However, it has traditionally been assigned to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, Nero’s boyhood tutor, who was also condemned to death by the emperor.

Seneca is best known for his moralistic letters and essays on clemency, death and virtue. His tragedies, as was the Roman tradition, dealt with mythological themes, drawn from the dramas of Classical Athens.

For example, Euripides’ Women of Troy and Hippolytus were adapted by Seneca from the original Greek to suit the Roman stage.

The Octavia is unique in that it deals with a real woman and a real story.

The play opens after the death of Octavia’s brother Britannicus, the true heir to the throne. Although Britannicus’ death was reportedly the result of an epileptic fit, the character Octavia accuses Nero of poisoning her brother.

Octavia’s maid urges her mistress to submit to Nero, but the empress declares that heaven and hell will unite before she will join herself to her husband.

Following a choral interlude, Seneca takes on a cameo role. He warns Nero that if the Emperor continues to rule by terror, and if he carries out his plan to divorce Octavia and marry his mistress Poppaea, then the people will rebel.

Nero, true to character, ignores his old tutor’s advice. Octavia is to be exiled to the island of Pandateria, and Poppaea will be established in her place.

Octavia leaves the palace, and preparations for the wedding between Nero and Poppaea go ahead. Agrippina, whom Nero had ordered killed in 59 AD, appears as a ghost to rebuke her son. Nero ignores her.

The chorus protests Nero’s unfair treatment of his wife. According to Suetonius, the people of Rome rioted in the streets and carried to the palace a statue of Octavia garlanded with flowers. Nero almost gave into them, but Poppaea demanded that he remain unyielding, and Octavia was suffocated.

In the Octavia, Nero decides to punish the people by burning down Rome and executing his ex-wife. Octavia resigns herself to death.

Not mentioned in the Octavia is the death of Nero’s second wife, Poppaea: in 65 AD, four years before a rebellion forced Nero to commit suicide, he pushed Poppaea down the stairs to her death.