Claudia Octavia was born in AD 39 to Emperor Claudius and his third wife, Messalina, whom he married in AD 38. At the age of two, her brother, Britannicus, was born. Britannicus’s birth would have been a celebratory occasion for Claudius. He had an heir now. Suetonius tells us that Claudius would often pick little Britannicus up and show him to the troops, or the audience at the Games, either seated in his lap or held at arms’ length, and cry: ‘Good luck to you, my boy!’ which was loudly echoed on all sides. No doubt, this would have been a delightful and fun experience for father and son, but this kind of attention was a luxury that little Octavia would have never received from her father, at least not in public. Perhaps in private.
How much attention little Octavia received from her mother is also debatable. Messalina wasn’t the type to dote on her children. She didn’t have time. If she wasn’t busy taking lovers, she was busy plotting the deaths of others. Given Messalina’s proclivity for the outrageous, it is reasonable to believe that the palace would have been rife with all sorts of gossip about her. And little Octavia wouldn’t have been able to escape them.
In AD 47, Gaius Silius, a consul-designate and the most handsome young man in Rome, attracted the attention of Messalina. According to Tacitus, Messalina wanted him as her lover, so she forced him to divorce his wife. Facing death if he refused, Silius did as he was told. Soon his house was filled with imperial furniture and imperial servants. Though everyone knew of the affair, Claudius was clueless. Claudius’s ignorance of the matter was attributed to his general stupidity and passion for Messalina.
A year into the affair, Silius decided to drop the secrecy and marry Messalina. He told her that they didn’t have to wait until Claudius died of old age, that he was ready to adopt her children, and promised that her power would remain undiminished. He was going straight for the throne, and they had their supporters. Tacitus tells us that Messalina was hesitant. She feared that once Silius became emperor, he would do away with her because of her crimes. But the idea of being his wife appealed to her owing to its sheer outrageousness. So, she waited until Claudius was away when he left for Ostia, then celebrated a formal marriage with Silius.
It must have been very confusing for Octavia and Britannicus to learn that their mother had married another man during their father’s absence. Tacitus informs us that the imperial household shuddered, especially those in power, with everything to fear from a new emperor and particularly Messalina, who had sent many influential people to their deaths. Thus, it was organized that Claudius should know what his wife had done. Upon learning of the marriage, Claudius, panic-stricken, kept asking the Praetorian Guards if he was still emperor or was Silius still a private citizen.
According to Tacitus, Messalina and Silius were performing a mimic grape harvest when the news arrived that Claudius knew everything and was on his way. Death was coming for the couple, and they quickly separated. Silius fled to the Forum, pretending that he was there to conduct business as usual. While Messalina ran to the Gardens of Lucullus, for which she had its owner, Decimus Valerius Asiaticus, twice consul, prosecuted and forced to commit suicide. She also sent word to her children that they should go and seek their father’s embraces. She was banking on her children to stir up pity in Claudius not to kill the mother of his children. It is difficult to imagine the trauma these two young children were facing. The children were shown to their father, but the executioner of their mother had them removed.
Silius was arrested and, without putting up any defense, asked for a quick death which was granted. Their supporters, too, were put to death immediately. Messalina’s mother, Domitia Lepida, who didn’t have a good relationship with her, upon hearing the news of her daughter’s plight, was now overcome with pity and came to her and urged her to await the executioner. She said: ‘Your life is finished. All that remains is to make a decent end of it.’ Tacitus tells us that Messalina was still uselessly weeping and moaning when the guard, who was sent to execute her, violently broke down the door. After her execution, Claudius called for more wine and went on with his party, as usual, leaving two young children to mourn their mother’s death. One can imagine that Octavia, being older, would have tried to console her younger brother.
As bad a mother as Messalina was, her death would prove catastrophic for her children. The ex-slaves, who organized the execution of Messalina, now banded together to arrange another marriage for Claudius since Claudius himself, apparently, was incapable of deciding which woman he wanted to marry. Rivalry, we are told, was fierce among the women. Each wanted power and each cited her high birth. But it was Agrippina the Younger who won the prize, even though Claudius was her uncle.
Agrippina the Younger had been married to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, the son of Antonia the Elder and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Suetonius tells us that Gnaeus was of a despicable character. Once, driving through a village on the Appian Way, he whipped up his horses and deliberately ran over a boy and killed him. And when a knight in the Forum criticized him for his action, he attacked him and gouged out one of his eyes. When their son, Lucius Domitius (future emperor Nero), was born and everyone was congratulating him, he replied that any child born to him and Agrippina was bound to have a detestable nature and would become a public danger.
When Lucius Domitius was three, his father died and left him one-third of his estate, but Emperor Gaius (Caligula) stole his inheritance and banished Agrippina. Lucius Domitius was placed in the care of his aunt and grew up poor. His tutors were a barber and a dancer. When Claudius became emperor, he recalled Agrippina from exile and restored Lucius Domitius’s inheritance.
Soon upon returning from exile, Agrippina set the stage for her marriage to Claudius, for only through such a marriage could she guarantee her son’s future as emperor. According to Tacitus, Pallas, an imperial freedman and Claudius’s treasurer, pressed for him to marry Agrippina, emphasizing her noble birth, trustworthiness, and proven fertility. Agrippina, for her part, had already done most of the hard work by her seductive conduct whenever she was in Claudius’s presence. However, marriage between an uncle and his niece was considered incest by the Romans, so it had never been done. But Agrippina’s supporters argued that once marriage between cousins was considered incest too. They insisted that customs change according to circumstances. They further argued that many nations practiced this custom.
Once she was sure of her marriage to Claudius, Agrippina expanded her plans. She had to get rid of Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus to whom Octavia was betrothed. Agrippina wanted Octavia to marry her son. If Lucius Domitius was to be emperor, he had to marry Claudius’s daughter so marriage ties could connect the two families. There was no other choice. So, she fabricated the charge of incest against Silanus with his sister. Tacitus tells us that Silanus was praetor at the time and was completely unaware of what was going on. He suddenly found himself struck off the Senate, his engagement canceled, and he was forced to resign his office. He committed suicide on the wedding day of Claudius and Agrippina. How Octavia reacted to the news of her fiancé’s death cannot be gauged. She was only ten.
Once Silanus was out of the way, Agrippina induced Lucius Mammius Pollio, a consul-designate, by lavish gifts to petition Claudius to betroth Octavia to Lucius Domitius, as a more suitable arrangement. Claudius agreed. Next on the agenda was the adoption of her son. This was done expertly through Pallas, who was now Agrippina’s lover. According to Tacitus, Pallas pressed Claudius to consider the national interests and furnish the boy, Britannicus, with a protector. He cited that just as the divine Augustus, though supported by grandsons, advanced his stepson; and Tiberius, with children of his own, adopted Germanicus, so Claudius, too, ought to provide himself with a young future partner in his labors. Claudius forgot how Tiberius killed Germanicus’s sons, Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar, not to mention the possible murder of Germanicus himself.
At any rate, with legal adoption complete, the name Nero was given to Lucius Domitius. Tacitus informs us that authorities noted that this was the first known adoption into the patrician branch of the Claudii. The patrician Claudii were the Nerones and Drusi, the non-patrician the Marcelli. Nero now prematurely assumed toga virilis (adult toga) to qualify for an official career. He was also declared consul-designate and Prince of Youth. Gifts were made to the troops and public in Nero’s name, and at Games, held in the Circus, he was allowed to attract popular attention by wearing triumphal robes, while Britannicus was dressed as a minor. We are told that all centurions and military tribunes of the Praetorian Guards, who had shown sympathy towards Britannicus, were eliminated on various fictitious charges. Some were removed by the use of promotion as a pretext.
While all these events might have seemed bewildering to young Octavia, her brother might have started to have an inkling of what was going on, despite being only eight. In a meeting between the boys, Britannicus addressed his new stepbrother as Domitius and not Nero. Furious, Agrippina complained bitterly about it to Claudius, whereupon all of Britannicus’s tutors were either executed or banished. Even former slaves loyal to him were removed. Britannicus was now isolated and fully under the control of his stepmother’s nominees.
These would have been harrowing times for young Octavia and Britannicus. Two frightened children were caught in a web of malice because a cuckoo wanted to place her egg in their nest. When Nero was sixteen, he married fourteen-year-old Octavia. We do not know how each felt towards the other, but we do know that Nero ended up hating her. We are told that Nero hated her because she was the daughter of an emperor, she was popular with the people, and she was as virtuous as Nero was villainous.
With the marriage done, Agrippina moved to the next phase. If Nero was to be emperor, Claudius had to be removed before Britannicus came of age. Claudius would never choose Nero over his own son as the next emperor. A notorious poisoner by the name of Locusta was consulted. As Tacitus tells us, poison was sprinkled on a particularly succulent mushroom, which Claudius ate, but an evacuation of the bowls seems to have saved him. Agrippina called upon Claudius’s doctor, Xenophon, whose complicity she had already secured, to finish off Claudius. By pretending to help him vomit, Xenophon dipped a feather in poison and put it down Claudius’s throat, thereby killing him.
Tacitus tells us that appropriate steps were taken for Nero’s accession. Agrippina detained Britannicus, Octavia, and even their stepsister, Claudia Antonia, and blocked their approach to the Praetorian Guards with troops, while Nero was put in a litter and sent to them accompanied by Burrus, the Praetorian Prefect, and one of Agrippina’s creatures.
At the time, Octavia was fifteen years old, but she would have seen the writing on the wall. Her brother would never become emperor. We don’t know if she mourned her father’s death. She probably did. But she would have mourned her brother’s fate more. It is impossible for her not to have known that Nero would get rid of Britannicus at some point. If Nero was to remain emperor, Claudius’s biological son could not be allowed to live.
Agrippina was aware of the danger Britannicus would one day pose to Nero’s position, but she might not have been too keen to get rid of Britannicus in a hurry. Britannicus could be used as an insurance policy against Nero, should he ever get out of her control. Moreover, as long as Nero was married to Octavia, there was little cause to worry, at least in the immediate future. What Agrippina never anticipated was for Nero to fall in love with Acte, a former slave girl. She would never tolerate a servant girl as a daughter-in-law, not to mention that Nero would endanger his position as emperor by marrying her. Desperate, Agrippina decided to play the role of a lover to her own son to break up the relationship between Nero and Acte. Tacitus tells us that this move on the part of Agrippina did not deceive Nero, whose friends urged him to beware of her tricks.
We can only speculate what Octavia thought about it all. Maybe she thought nothing. By now, she would have been used to Nero’s villainy and callousness. The man was so shameless that when his friends criticized him for his mistreatment of Octavia, he retorted that just being an emperor’s wife ought surely to be enough to make her happy. It is likely that Octavia would have found this response more offensive than his affair with a former slave girl or even his mother since the true emperor was her brother, Britannicus.
The love affair between Nero and his mother did not last long. Angry, she let Nero hear her say that Britannicus was now grown up and he was the true heir to his father. Tacitus informs us that this worried Nero, so he decided to kill him. Since he couldn’t find a legitimate reason to have Britannicus executed, he arranged for him to be poisoned. He was poisoned during dinner with Octavia and Agrippina present. The poison was strong enough that he died immediately, but Nero made light of it and said that he was epileptic and had fallen unconscious. One can only imagine the terror and helplessness Octavia must have felt, witnessing her brother getting killed before her eyes, but her expression revealed nothing. According to Tacitus, Octavia, young though she was, had learned to hide her sorrow, affection, and every other emotion.
With her brother gone, Octavia was now completely alone, and her life was about to get a whole lot worse. Nero fell in love with a woman named Poppaea, who hated Octavia and knew that Nero had no hope of divorcing Octavia and marrying her as long as Agrippina lived. So, she nagged and mocked him incessantly that he was under the thumb of his guardian and master of neither Rome nor himself.
Nero then decided to kill his mother. We are told that poison was ruled out for two reasons: (I) Agrippina took antidotes against poison; (II) after what happened to Britannicus, death at the emperor’s dining table didn’t seem to be a good idea. The use of a dagger, too, was rejected since no one could come up with a way of stabbing her without detection. Then a scheme was put forward by Anicetus, an ex-slave who commanded the fleet at Misenum. He said a ship could be made with a section that would come loose at sea and hurl Agrippina into the water without warning. In this way, he said, no one would suspect anything. When the plan failed, Nero sent assassins to kill her. Tacitus tells us that Agrippina pointed to her womb and said: ‘strike here.’
With his mother out of the way, Nero divorced Octavia to marry Poppaea. The reason given for the divorce was barrenness. However, Poppaea was not satisfied with a simple divorce. She wanted Octavia dead. Thus, an accusation of adultery was brought against her. According to Tacitus, Poppaea incited one of Octavia’s household staff to accuse Octavia of adultery with a slave. An Alexandrian flute player called Eucaerus was designated for the role. Octavia’s maids were tortured, and some were induced by the pain to make false confessions, but the majority unflinchingly maintained her innocence. Nevertheless, she was banished to Campania under military surveillance.
Divorcing Octavia and banishing her did not sit well with the people, and they protested openly and loudly. Nero had no choice but to recall her and marry her again. This made people so happy that they overturned Poppaea’s statues and instead carried Octavia’s on their shoulders, showering flowers on them and setting them in the Forum and temples. The excited crowd even invaded the palace, where guards clubbed them and forced them back at the point of the sword.
Nero’s marriage to Octavia for the second time did not last long, for soon, he changed his mind, and Poppaea was reinstated. This time Poppaea was even more hateful of Octavia because people hated her and loved Octavia. She threw herself at Nero’s feet and cried that her life was now in danger from Octavia’s dependents and slaves. Again, Poppaea brought up the Alexandrian flute player, saying that would Rome prefer the child of an Egyptian flute player to be introduced into the palace. This argument is strange since she knew that Nero had already used Octavia’s barrenness as grounds for divorce.
According to Tacitus, an investigation was made, but nothing came out of it. So, it was decided to extract a confession of adultery from someone against whom a charge of revolution could also be concocted. A suitable person seemed to be Anicetus, the author of the collapsible ship. Nero summoned him, reminded him of his previous job, and told him that he could earn equal gratitude if he got rid of his detestable wife. All he had to do was to confess to adultery with Octavia. Great rewards were promised; refusal meant death. Anicetus had no trouble doing the crime. According to Tacitus, the confession he made to Nero’s friends, assembled at the council of state, even exceeded his instructions. Anicetus was removed to a comfortable exile in Sardinia, where he died a natural death.
Nero reported in an edict that Octavia had tried to win over the fleet by seducing its commander and then, nervous about her unfaithfulness, had procured an abortion. Since Nero couldn’t get his story straight regarding Octavia’s barrenness, it may be that he never actually consummated his marriage to her, so he didn’t know if she was barren or not.
In AD 62, Octavia was banished to the island of Pandateria. Tacitus tells us that no exiled woman ever earned greater sympathy from those who saw her. The order for her execution came a few days later. Octavia protested that she was no longer Nero’s wife but his sister. She invoked the name of her family. She even invoked Agrippina, in whose days her marriage, though unhappy, was at least not fatal. Her cries fell to deaf ears. Octavia was bound, and all her veins were severed. However, her terror retarded blood flow, so she was put into an extremely hot vapor bath where she died of suffocation. Yet that was not enough. Her head was cut off and taken to Rome for Poppaea to see. Thus ended the life of the most unfortunate princess in history. Octavia died at the age of twenty-three.
Three years later, in AD 65, in a fit of rage, Nero kicked Poppaea, who was pregnant with his child, and killed her. She had complained that he came home late from the races. A year later, Nero would be declared a public enemy by the Roman Senate. He was to be executed in the ancient style, which meant that he would be stripped naked, his head thrust into a wooden fork, and flogged to death by rods. Fearing the horror of such a death, Nero had his secretary, Epaphroditus, help him to stab himself in the throat. Nero died on June 9, AD 68, at the age of thirty-one, on the anniversary of Octavia’s murder. At his death, there was so much rejoicing in Rome that people ran through the streets, wearing liberty caps.
Nero’s death brought an end to the Julian-Claudian dynasty.