To Heaven on a Chariot: The Incredible Story of Poppaea Sabina

Paul Schubert

According to the Roman historian Tacitus, in AD 65 Poppaea Sabina was killed by her husband, Emperor Nero, who had lost his temper with her. She was heavily pregnant and a kick in the belly was enough to end her life. Is this true, or was Tacitus spreading evil slander about Nero? We may never know for sure, but evidence recently found on a frayed piece of papyrus indicates that there was another version of the story, where Poppaea Sabina made a loving farewell speech to Nero before darting off to heaven on a chariot driven by a goddess.

Nero and Poppaea: billion silver tetradrachm, struck in Alexandria, Egypt, AD 63/4.

A badly damaged sheet of papyrus

This piece of evidence comes from a huge find of papyrus scraps discovered in the outskirts of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a small town in Egypt, towards the end of the 19th century. A scribe had copied a poem in Greek, on both sides of a book’s page. By the time it had reached the hands of scholars working in Oxford, this brittle piece of papyrus had been badly damaged. Although the editing of such papyri is normally ascribed to a single researcher, in fact the nominal editor benefits from the critical reading of colleagues who spot mistakes or provide additional material that will help to interpret a damaged text.

In 2011, this papyrus eventually revealed the remains of a Greek poem written in hexameters, in a language imitating that of Homer. But it was composed roughly one millennium after Homer, either shortly after AD 65, or perhaps in the late third century, which is roughly when this surviving copy of the text was made. The author remains unknown: he may have been a minor poet living in Roman Egypt. Judging from the preserved remains of the text, he did not possess the skills of his Hellenistic forebears, and his style is quite ordinary; no allusions to the work of other known poets could be identified.

POxy.LXXVII 5105, 3rd cent. AD (reproduced courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society and the University of Oxford Imaging Papyri Project).

A young woman sets off for her last journey

Neither the beginning nor the end of the narrative is preserved. At the point where it becomes possible to decipher any meaning, there is a procession of wild animals, griffins and lynxes, presumably associated with Dionysus. They accompany the chariot of Aphrodite.

The goddess is paying a visit to a young woman who is heavily pregnant. Aphrodite tells her that she must leave her husband and follow her to heaven:

“My child, stop crying and hurry up; with all their heart, Zeus’ stars welcome you and establish you on the moon.”

Our lady is quite unhappy about this:

“She was leaving her husband, (a man) equal to the gods.”

She nonetheless gives him a parting speech before she climbs onto Aphrodite’s chariot.

A closer detail of the papyrus.

In the passage preserved on the back of the papyrus sheet, they speed off through heaven, passing several celestial bodies:

“Meteors stand with the short-lived shooting-star.”

They cross the orbit of the five planets that were known in Antiquity: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Eventually, they reach the abode of the gods, where our young lady receives a warm welcome.

Nero and Poppaea on horseback, marble relief by Isaia da Pisa, 1458–60 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA).

Who is she?

Although this story may sound almost familiar to those who are acquainted with Greece and Rome, it is not possible to pin down, either in mythology or in history, any narrative that corresponds precisely to the remains found on our papyrus. To make matters more difficult, the young lady is nowhere named. We are clearly dealing with a story about a mortal who turns into a goddess – in other words, an apotheosis (ἀποθέωσις). We know of several such transformations in mythology; there is also an abundant tradition from Egypt of Ptolemaic queens who receive divine status after their death. But none of them died young and heavily pregnant.

A close examination of the papyrus yields an important clue that allows a more precise identification. In four places, it is possible to read – with considerable effort – the name of Emperor Nero. Since his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, died while she was pregnant, she seems the plausible candidate. As we turn to Tacitus’ account of her death, however, matters become more complicated:

After the end of the games, Poppaea met her death by a chance fit of anger from her husband: she was pregnant and received from him a blow of the foot. I would not believe that she was poisoned, in spite of the account given by some authors (out of hatred rather than in good faith), for he wanted to have children and submitted to his love for his wife. (Tacitus Annals 16.6)

Tacitus adds in a later passage (16.21) that Nero grieved for his deceased wife, and that the Senate voted her “the honors of the gods” (deum honores) – a Latin equivalent of the Greek apotheosis. One reason for Nero’s sorrow was that he had no living child to succeed him: a first baby from Poppaea had died early; and the second was on its way when the mother met her sudden death. This detail may explain why, in our poem, the lady is instructed:

 “For Nero, you will guard your children for eternity.”

It thus seems that the woman who departs on Aphrodite’s chariot to become a new goddess is Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. In heaven, her task will be to look after Nero’s deceased children. In the poem preserved on the papyrus, her death is not caused by an act of violence on the part of Nero; on the contrary, the couple seems to enjoy a peaceful and loving relationship. But one may ask: does it often happen that a mortal turns into a deity?

Neronian bust, often thought to represent Poppaea Sabina (National Roman Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, Italy).

Apotheosis: humans become gods

Before the fourth century BC, Greeks were reluctant to accept the idea that a mortal could become a god; Heracles (Hercules) was the glaring exception that confirmed the rule. Leaving aside a few cases that opened a path for the new concept, we can identify a clear shift with the advent of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC): his many admirers gradually imposed the belief that Alexander had been fathered by Zeus; after his death, he acquired the status of a god.

Alexander’s successors in the kingdom of Egypt, the Ptolemies, also developed a cult around the figure of the deceased kings and queens. For instance, the poet Theocritus claimed in a poem of the third century BC (Idyll 17.34–52) that Berenice I, last wife of Ptolemy I Soter, did not go to the Underworld, but instead was taken by Aphrodite to her temple, where the queen shared divine honors with the goddess.

Shortly before the time of Poppaea Sabina’s passing, the Latin poet Ovid, reflected on the rule of Julius Caesar: he noted that, after Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, he was turned into a comet, the sidus Iulium (Metamorphoses 15.843–51). The concept of apotheosis was thus firmly established by the time Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC.

A few decades later, a man in the province of Judaea was said to have died, come back to life, and finally ascended to heaven: this is of course the account we find in the Gospels of the New Testament, based on the same pattern of apotheosis. Although the story of Poppaea Sabina leaving Nero on the chariot of Aphrodite is new to us, it fits well into the context of the early Roman Empire.

Silver denarius, struck in Spain in 19/18 BC: Emperor Augustus (l.) commemorates his adoptive father Julius Caesar as divine (divus), adducing the comet as evidence.

A kick in the belly or an ascension to heaven?

We shall never know for sure what caused the death of Poppaea Sabina. The odds are that, like many women of her time, she died during childbirth. The rumor according to which Nero killed her in a fit of rage is stuff for today’s tabloids, but it also corresponds to a rich tradition of similar stories that appear in ancient sources.

According to Herodotus (Histories 3.32.4), the Persian king Cambyses killed his pregnant wife by giving her a kick in the belly. The same vicious behavior is attributed to Periander, tyrant of Corinth (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 1.94). In the second century AD, the billionaire orator Herodes Atticus was also accused of having murdered his wife, who was eighth months pregnant, by having his freedman kick her in the belly (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 2.1.8).

From this ghastly list of assaults, we may conclude that it was a standard accusation levelled at kings, tyrants and rich celebrities. Does it prove a criminal pattern among powerful men in the Graeco-Roman world? Or are we dealing with a well-rehearsed literary cliché? In the context of the early twenty-first century, we might incline towards the first hypothesis. One last clue, however, seems to point in the other direction: it is the sad tradition surrounding the death of Nero’s predecessor, Emperor Claudius.

Nero assaults Poppaea: woodcut by Anton Sorg for Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus (“On Famous Women”), Ulm, Germany, 1479.

An emperor turns into a pumpkin, not a god

After Claudius died in AD 54, the philosopher Seneca wrote a wicked pamphlet entitled Apocolocyntosis (“transformation into a pumpkin”). The author invents a tongue-in-cheek variation on an apotheosis: as a contrast to the tradition that attributed divine status to deceased members of the imperial family, Seneca mocks Claudius by telling an absurd story in which the dead emperor utterly fails to attain such a respectable position.

In several passages of this short prose text, Seneca introduces fake quotations in the grand style of the ancient epics, as if someone had already written a poem on the apocolocyntosis of Claudius. The tone is unmistakably that of a parody; but a parody, to be effective, implies an underlying serious model. We may therefore assume that Seneca was implicitly referring to a genre of literary texts celebrating, not an apocolocyntosis, but the apotheosis of a deceased emperor – or a member of his family. But this is only an assumption: although multiple generations of scribes copied manuscripts of Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis until the Renaissance, we lack evidence of any serious ancient poems on an emperor’s apotheosis; or at least we did before the publication of this fragmentary poem on Nero’s wife.

The apotheosis of Claudius, sardonyx cameo attributed to Skylax, 1st century AD (once owned by King Louis XIV and now in the Cabinet of Medals, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France).

Bringing the past back to life

It seems highly probable that Poppaea Sabina died while giving birth to her second child. Sharp tongues circulated the story that Nero had killed her; but the emperor was truly saddened by the event, and the Senate confirmed Poppaea’s divine status. A poet went so far as to write an account of Poppaea’s ascension to heaven on Aphrodite’s chariot. His work must have pleased some readers, as copies of the text were made, at least till the late third century. One such copy remained hidden under the sands of the Egyptian desert before being brought back to light in the late 19th century, then deciphered and published a century later.

If it were not for this damaged piece of papyrus, we could easily stick to the image of Nero as a dangerous wife-murderer. This possibility remains, but new finds also help us to reconsider history in a new light. Ancient Greece and Rome are constantly evolving before our eyes.

Paul Schubert is Professor of Greek at the University of Geneva. He is also a papyrologist working on Greek texts found on old scraps of papyrus from Egypt.

Further Reading

Capponi, L., “Reflections on the author, context and audience of the so-called Apotheosis of Poppaea (P.Oxy. LXXVII 5105),” Quaderni di Storia 86 (2017) 63-79.

Gillespie, C., “Poppaea Venus and the Ptolemaic Queens: an alternative biography,” Histos 8 (2014) 122-45, available here.

McIntyre, G., “Deification as consolation: the divine children of the Roman imperial family,” Historia 62 (2013) 222-40.