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Sporus, Nero's Eunuch Empress

Empress Poppaea Sabina II
(AD 48 - 67)

Fourth wife of Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

Second wife of Emperor Marcus Otho Caesar Augustus

Nickname: Sporus

There are no certain ancient depictions of "Sporus" and many statues and busts of Nero's two wives called "Poppaea Sabina" were destroyed upon his fall.  Most of those that have survived are undoubtedly of the first Poppaea (his second wife), but a few may be of his fourth wife - a eunch who was given the same name but is known to history as Sporus.

As an example of the problem - the picture above shows a statue identified as "Poppaea Sabina" on display in the Olympia Archaeological Museum in Greece.  The exact date of this statue and an accompanying one of Nero is uncertain, but it's vaguely estimated to be from the "2nd half of the 1st century", which does match the wedding of Nero and Sporus in Athens in AD67.  It may well have been commissioned to gain favour with Nero by depicting his new wife.  This possibility is increased as the woman shown seems rather large and ungainly in build and height, which doesn't fit well with the references to the beauty of the first Poppaea.  Also, although her right breast is clearly defined under the tunic, she doesn't have the obvious rounded breasts that were the norm for statues of women during this period.  But there are other alternatives, e.g. the statue may show a priestess and the sculptor flattered the first Poppaea by copying a hairstyle that she was shown with on Roman coins.

 

Distinguishing between the two Roman Empresses called Poppaea Sabina is difficult given Sporus' facial resemblance to, and then imitation of, the first. Applying facial recognition software to these two photos of busts of "Poppaea Sabina" gives a high likelihood that they are of the same person.  However, the bust on the right shows a lighter built woman with smaller shoulders, although the neck is proportionally a little wider.  Neither bust has an Adam's Apple, possibly confirming that Sporus was castrated before puberty. There is a reasonable probability that the left bust is of Sporus, whilst the right is of the earlier Empress Poppaea Sabina.

 

In antiquity, busts and statues were often painted.  This photo is a bust of 'Poppaea Sabina' that's on display at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.  The photo has been tinted to give a better indication of how it might have originally appeared.  It's almost certainly of the first Poppaea, not the second (aka Sporus).  The neck is wide for a woman, and Sporus may actually have had a slimmer and longer kneck, despite being born male.  This seems to be a distinguishing feature between the two empresses.

 

 

This statue is described as "Empress Poppaea Sabina" and has her typical face but note the large hand, broad shoulders, and only a hint of breasts.  The neck is also very different from the bust shown above.  Overall, there is strong possibility that it is of Sporus. 

 

A wall fresco from a villa near Pompeii where the first Poppaea Sabina may have once lived.  Some experts identify the young woman pictured as being Poppaea whilst others claim that it is intended to show the Greek poetess Sappho, who died about BC 570.  Possibly it is both - with Poppaea serving as a model for a painting of Soppho.  Note that the woman is clearly more slightly built than the Poppaea in the two statues shown above.

 

Poppaea Sabina was renowned for her beauty and sexual attractiveness.  I found online this image claiming to be a modern reconstruction of her face, and it does have strong facial similarities to the villa painting that possibly shows Poppaea.  However, on investigation it seems to be intended to be image of the Greek Goddess Hera.

 

The second Poppaea Sabina (aka Sporus) appears in a re-enactment of Nero's suicide in the 2017 British TV documentary series Eight Days That Made Rome.  Nero was on the run with his last four loyal companions, and clearly she's not in the dress and regalia of an Empress!
 

 

Introduction

The story of 'Sporus' is so extra-ordinary that some historians consider that it's fictional.  But there are so many contemporary or near contemporary sources describing the events that denying that Sporus existed and was a eunuch creates far more problems than it solves.  One challenge with having so many sources is that they are often contradictory - e.g., Sporus may have been born a slave, a son of a freeman or even an illegitimate child of a member of the the imperial family - all hugely different.  For the purposes of brevity, I have generally adopted what seems to be the consensus view, but with the liberty of adopting a minority view or even speculating slightly myself when this seemed to better fit the overall story.

This page is not intended to be a scholarly article that can withstand robust academic challenge, but rather a readable and reasonably accurate interpretation of an extraordinary story.  It is clearly confusing to have two people with the same name, "Poppaea Sabina", so when I use just "Poppaea" I'm usually referring to Nero's second wife, whilst just "Sabina" means his fourth, aka Sporus.

 

Emperor Nero
Various images of Emperor Nero (38-67 AD), including a modern facial reconstruction.
The Beginning

Nero was born in AD 38 by the sister of Emperor Claudius, who adopted him as a son.  Nero married Claudius' daughter (his stepsister), Claudia Octavia, when he turned 16. This was a marriage of convenience as she always bored him.  But it cemented Nero's position as the next emperor - which is exactly what occurred a few months later after the poisoning and death of Claudius in October AD 54.

When the young Nero became Emperor he was initially very popular with both the army and population - but this would this slowly change to hate over his 14-year reign.


A bust of Marcus Otho (3 - 69 AD)
In AD 58 Nero encountered a renowned Roman beauty, Poppaea Sabina (AD 30-65)

Poppaea was a very ambitious woman who had recently divorced her first husband, Rufrius Crispinus.  Rufus had once been the leader of the Praetorian Guard but had since fallen out imperial favour (as Poppaea was undoubtedly aware), and would eventually be executed by Nero in AD66.  They had had one child together - a boy whom Nero would also later have killed, drowned in a "fishing accident".  Poppaea quickly re-married, choosing Marcus Salvius Otho, whose most attractive attribute was that he was a close friend of the Emperor.  Unfortunately for Otho, he bragged about the beauty of his new wife to Nero, thus bringing her to his attention.  Poppaea was soon regularly enjoying the emperor's intimate company.

Nero solved the problem of an inconvenient cuckold husband by dispatching Otho to become Governor of the distant province Lusitania - modern day Portugal - in AD69.  Poppaea did not accompany him and they were soon officially divorced, Otho was probably given no choice but to reluctantly consent to this.  Poppaea was now Nero's official mistress, with the ultimate prize of becoming Empress within her reach.

Poppaea was a vigorous and strongly willed woman, and her relationship with Nero proved to be tempestuous.  However Poppaea also worked hard to keep Nero interested in her.  She was very aware that her success with men and in particular Nero depended heavily on her exceptional looks, but she was eight years older than Nero and passing 30 (middle age at time when a good life span for even a Roman noble was 50-60 years).  She went to great lengths to maintain her appearance, most notably by copying the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (who had a similar challenge of maintaining her attractiveness to Roman Generals when in her 30's) by bathing in ass milk to stave off winkles and maintain her perfect alabaster-white skin.  Her mastery of cosmetics resulted in a style termed “Poppaean.”  Her obsession with her physical appearance was so great that after looking in the mirror one day, she reportedly prayed for death before her beauty faded - a wish which would be granted.


A statue known as the 'Bathing Venus' from c.100AD.  The face closely resembles Poppaea and may be a copy of a statue of her or (improbably) Sporus.  This statue in turn has been much copied or imitated. 
Very unusually for a Roman matron, Poppaea was natural red head - a colour which was stigmatised as being associated with barbarians.  However, when Nero wrote and recited a poem about her amber hair, many Roman women took to dying their hair with henna in an attempt to emulate Poppaea's tresses.

In May, AD62, Poppaea was able to tell Nero that she was pregnant with his child.  She now refused to continue just being his mistress and he resolved the situation by divorcing Claudia Octavia - an unhappy marriage at best - on the grounds that she was 'barren'.  Just 12 days later Nero and Poppaea married.   Nero had however underestimated the popularity of the staid and modest Octavia among the Roman population, and there were riots demanding her restoration.  He barely survived the situation by fabricating evidence of Octavia's adultery and banishing her to the small island of Pandateria, where she was brutally executed and beheaded on 9 June.

A Roman coin from AD 63 showing the images of both Nero and Poppaea.
Poppaea gave Nero a daughter, Claudia, on 21 January AD 63.  Whilst disappointed by the lack of a son, Nero nevertheless proclaimed his wife as Augusta (Empress).  Sadly, the baby died just four months after birth, however Poppaea had already consolidated her position as Empress to the extent that coins bearing her image were being minted and circulated - a rare honour.

In early AD 65 Poppaea became pregnant again, to the delight of Nero.  Unfortunately, this would not work out well - one night in that summer Nero returned late and probably drunk from the circus (Chariot races).  An argument ensued with the angry Poppaea, and in a fit of rage Nero kicked the pregnant woman in the stomach.  She died a few days later from the resulting internal injuries and pregnancy complications.

Whilst bewailing Nero's wickedness, contemporary sources don't doubt his passion and even love for his dead wife.  He was distraught at what he had caused and went into deep mourning.  Poppaea was given divine honours and a state funeral - a year's worth of Arabia's incense production was supposedly burnt at her funeral.

Nevertheless, the reality was that Nero badly needed a son and heir.  In early AD 66 he unexpectedly chose Statilia Messalina as his next wife - forcing her husband (with whom she had importantly born a son - proving her fertility) to commit suicide so that he could marry her.  Statilia was a pleasant but docile wife who would always keep a low profile, the opposite of Poppaea!

 

The Middle


Sporus was probably a young male sex slave - such as shown on the 'Warren Cup' made about AD 15.
Regardless of his latest (and so far unfruitful) marriage to Statilia, it seems that Nero desperately missed Poppaea.  At some point in early AD 67 he encountered a teenage boy (perhaps 15 or 16 years old) who had an extra-ordinary facial resemblance to his former wife, and the advantage that he was about 20 years younger than Poppaea was at her death.  Most likely the boy was a puer delicatus or deliciae (meaning sweet, dainty) - a young sex slave who due to his exceptional beauty had been drawn to the attention of the emperor. The boy's true name we will probably never know, contemporary authors always call him "Sporus", which seems to be an ironical nickname as it can be translated as "seed".  The female version of the name, "Spora", is never used in any source.


A Roman castration clamp dating to the second century AD that was recovered from the Thames River in London. 
Nero suggested that the boy be castrated - which of course was effectively an order.  It's possible that Sporus was "just" deprived of functioning testes by a method such as crushing them - which would have made him a spada.  However ancient sources refer to him as being a castrati, which is associated with the far more drastic procedures of the surgical removal of the testes, scrotum and sometimes even the penis. 


Modest but visible breast development in young castrati was common but not certain.
Sporus survived the very dangerous (no anti-biotics) and extremely painful (no strong anaesthetics) castration procedure.  After healing and pubic hair growth, the external appearance of his bottom may have approximated that of a woman.  However, he was too old for the castration to have much effect on his skeleton, e.g. height, build, size of hands and feet.  He/she was thus probably above average in height and size for a woman.  Nevertheless, the castration of young Sporus would have:

  • Stopped his voice from breaking (unless it already had)

  • Prevented an 'Adam's Apple'developing

  • Encouraged luxuriant head hair

  • Prevented facial hair growth

  • Resulted in a female type body hair pattern

  • Reduced his musculature

  • Encouraged female type fat deposits

  • Resulted in possible breast growth (gynecomastia)

Greek and Roman illustrations and statues show young spada and castrati with small breasts, and it's quite likely that Sporus had some breast growth after being castrated. 

Modern medical studies have found that an orchiectomy (castration) as a teenager results in noticeable breast development in about 50% of cases.  However, suggestions in modern books that Sporus and other Roman eunuchs may have been given plant-based potions that included 'estrogenic precursors' to help maintain a youthful appearance and feminise their body are no more than speculation, and these were unlikely to have any significant physical effect anyway. Theoretically the Romans could have used the ovaries of female horses (mares) and other animals as a source of oestrogen for physical feminisation, but there is no evidence that they did this. 

Nero declared that the castrated Sporus was now a woman, renamed her Poppaea Sabina and took her as his bride. 


A 19th century painting by Emilio Vasarri vaguely entitled "The Roman Wedding".
When offered for sale in 1997, it was suggested that it depicted Nero marrying Sporus.

The wedding was held in Athens, Greece, probably in June AD67.  Nero was on a year-long visit to Greece, where he tried (unsuccessfully) to become a renowned artist and actor.  The wedding was not a quiet event, but a full imperial wedding with traditional ceremony, although very little information about what this actually entailed has survived.  But we do know that Sporus was given a dowry, wore a bridal veil, and that there was a large wedding party afterwards - attended by Senators and members of noble families.  Cassius Dio says:

"All the Greeks held a celebration in honour of their marriage, uttering all the customary good wishes, even to the extent of praying that legitimate children might be born to them.”

Contemporaryy sources don't doubt the legality of the marriage contract, but there was one slight problem - Nero hadn't divorced Statilia!  Roman law permitted only one wife - but Nero was the emperor and this problem was conveniently overlooked.


This trio of paintings from the bedroom of a 1st century BC Roman villa gives some insight into how Sabina's first night as Nero's wife might have gone.  In the first, the chaste bride is still fully clothed and wearing a white tunica and yellow flammeum (bridal veil).  In the second she is doing her duty and pleasing her new husband.  In the third she has redressed and is conversing with her husband as the new head (
Domina) of his household.  Note the studiously bored servants - all desperate to overhear any talk that might affect them!

After their marriage Sporus became the new female head of the imperial household.  She was called "Sabina" by Nero, whilst attendants and officials called her "Lady" or "Empress" She 'parted' (i.e. styled) her hair as became a Roman noblewoman, and always dressed as a woman.  In public she wore the regalia and jewellery of an Empress.  The quiet and innocuous Stalilia was allowed to remain as Nero's junior wife, although an indication of her reduced status is that Calvoa Crispinilla - the occupant of the important post of "Mistress of the Imperial Wardrobe" - was reassigned to Sabina.


A mosaic of a Roman noblewoman at her morning toilet, aided by her maids and slaves.  Whilst not of Sabina it gives an indication of a daily life that involved elaborate and time-consuming preparation of her appearance and dress before even greeting her husband - let alone appearing in public.

Nero appeared to be devoted to his new wife.  She accompanied him everywhere in Athens and later Rome, and he was often seen fondling and kissing her whilst they were being carried around the city in a litter.  But the flatteries he whispered into Sabina's ear may also have been mixed with dire warnings of her fate if she didn't convincingly play her role as his wife.


A depiction of the Rape of Persephone
Whilst Nero might have actually been in love with Sporus/Sabina, we have only one, but very telling, hint in the sources as to her own feelings.  To mark the start of the New Year, on 1 January AD68 she gave to the emperor a ring depicting the Rape of Persephone - a mythical girl who was kidnapped by Hades and taken into the underworld to become his bride against her will.  

 

The End

Although the Greeks and Athenians lauded the emperor as became a rich benefactor, his attempts as an actor met with little success.  When the disappointed Nero returned from Greece to Rome in early AD 68, it seems that he was unaware of just how unpopular he had become, whilst Sabina's background and obvious infertility was now well known.  Suetonius records:

"A rather amusing joke is still going the rounds - the world would have been a happier place had Nero's father Domitius married that sort of wife."

Sulpicius Galba, the governor-general of Spain was encouraged by Marcus Otho (Poppaea's ex-husband) to lead a revolt against Nero.  The Praetorian Guard prefect Nymphidius Sabinus then persuaded his soldiers to also desert Nero and the end came in early June AD 68 when Nero awoke in his palace to find that the palace guard and his attendants had all left.  With just four loyal companions remaining - interestingly including Sabina but not Statilia - he fled to a small villa outside Rome.  The Roman Senate named Galba the new emperor on 8 June and declared Nero to be a public enemy. With arrest imminent he committed suicide on 9 June, comforted by Sabina in his final lamentations.  Nero allegedly asked Sabina to set him an example by committing suicide first - but she managed to escape this fate. 

The Senate officially condemned Nero’s memory - and all statues and portraiture of Poppaea Sabina were thus to be destroyed along with those of Nero.

 

Encore

The life of the still only 18 year-old Sabina became even more extra-ordinary after the death Nero.  She seems to have now accepted her life as a woman called Poppaea Sabina, and there are no hints in historical sources that she/he sought to change this after Nero's death.  As an ex-empress she was a very valuable prize to many important men, whilst the probable alternative of insisting that she was actually a male slave would have been easy to dismiss!

The first important man to claim Sabina (although he preferred to call her Poppaea) after the death of Nera was Nymphidius Sabinus.  He had apparently long been fascinated with her, and seized her whilst Nero's body still burned on a pyre.  Although age 68, in quick succession he took her as his mistress and then wife.  Sabinus aspired to become emperor and declared that he was a legitimate successor to Nero — a claim which he supported with the dubious assertion that he was the illegitimate son of the former emperor Caligula and now his marriage to the former Empress.  But the Praetorian Guard was not convinced that he could beat Galba whose army was now approaching Rome - likely resulting in their own deaths - and killed him before Galba finally arrived in October.


A bust of Servius Galba Caesar Augustus (1 BC - 68 AD)
Galba was already renowned for his avarice, and now proved to be a sickly and uninspiring leader who gained no affection from the population of Rome.  The new emperor was soon in serious trouble when the army turned against him when he failed to pay the soldiers a promised generous donative.  Also, Marcus Otho was dismayed that he had not been named Galba's successor and Suetonius wrote, “Disappointment, resentment and a massive accumulation of debt now prompted him to revolt." With the support and assistance of the Praetorian Guard, Otho masterminded Galba's assassination on 15 January, AD 69, and was proclaimed the new emperor.

Otho made a good start as one of his first acts as emperor was to appear before the Senate where he promised to “respect the people's sovereign will.”  He reinstituted gladiatorial games (which had been banned by Nero), rewarded the officials and soldiers who had helped him overthrow Galba, and restored the fallen statures of Nero and Poppaea. 

Many sources (both ancient and modern) assume that Otho's wife - Poppaea Sabina - was the same woman that he had married ten years earlier.  This lazy assumption is perhaps understandable given that Otho was a minor and short-lived Emperor, plus there was a lot of potential for confusion.  However it was incorrect.  Upon his arrival in Rome, Otho - now age 65 - had taken in the again newly widowed Sabina (aka Sporus) and despite the huge age difference treated her as being his former wife of the same name, and "had intimacy with Sporus”.  Whilst ancient sources fail to describe any wedding ceremony, Otho left no one in doubt that Sabina was his wife, and later the Empress.


A bust of Vitellius,
(15 - 69 AD)

Sabina would enjoy being Empress again for only three months.  A new usurper had emerged - Aulus Vitellius - who been appointed by Galba as the governor-general of Lower Germany only a few months earlier.  Otho tried to reach a settlement with him, but instead Vitellius marched on Rome.  On 14 April AD 69 the rival armies fought the Battle of Bedriacum; after bitter and bloody combat Otho's army lost and two days later he committed suicide.  Vitellius continued his march on Rome, where he made a triumphal entry and was recognized as emperor by the Senate.

Vitellius now claimed all the possessions of the former emperor, which included Sabina.  By this time Sabina was universally accepted as a legitimate former wife of Nero, and a twice Empress - including by Vitellius who needed to maximise the importance of his trophy.  But unfortunately for Sabina the latest emperor was not looking for a wife who would help cement his position, but rather for a way to emphasise his power.

Vitellius decided to hold gladiatorial games to endear him to the population of Rome.  He or one of his courtiers must have recollected Sabina's infamous gift of a ring to Nero so he decided that the highlight of the games would be a re-enactment of the Rape of Persephone, with Sabina playing the role of the maiden being ravished - with a brutal death very likely.  Upon learning of her planned fate, Sabina committed suicide by unknown means, age just 19 or at the most 20.

Vitellius soon became renowned for his cruelty, gluttony, and huge unpaid gambling debts - and in turn would be dethroned, tortured and killed in December AD 69.

 

Comment

Sporus must have been an extraordinary person with a gift for enchanting men and satisfying them sexually.  Despite being a male eunuch, she was accepted as being a reborn "Poppaea Sabina" by two of her former husbands (both emperors) and another important official.  None seem to have regretted their decision to marry Sabina/Sporus, brief though these marriages were. 

 

Paintings

The story of Poppaea Sabina and Sporus has attracted the interest of many artists.  A few examples are below.


Poppaea Brings the Head of Octavia to Nero, by Giovanni Muzzioli (1876)

 

Poppaea Sabina, by William Henry Longmaid (1887)
 

Poppaea Sabina in a painting dated 1580
 

Poppeae Sabina was a favourite historical subject of the English artist John William Godward (1861-1922), who painted many pictures of her.

Film:

The minor Italian film Fellini Satyricon (1969) is set in the Rome of Nero.
The bizarre and surreal adventures of the lead character, a teenage Romanian
boy called Encolpio who sold himself as a woman, "even when he'd be[en]
approached as a man", are surely inspired by Sporus.

 

Original Sources:

Modern Sources:

Historical Fiction:

  • Delicatus: from slave to empress in imperial Rome, S.P. Somtow, 2023

  • Sporus, Maryanne Peters, 2018

  • The Four Emperors, David Blixt, 2021


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Last updated: 4 May, 2021

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