The Historical Background to the Pseudo-Senecan Octavia

  • Alenka Cedilnik University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts
Keywords: ancient texts, Octavia, Nero, ancient history


The paper presents the historical background of the Pseudo-Senecan play Octavia. The work of an unknown author, it depicts the sad fate of Nero's first wife and daughter of Claudius, Octavia, who was exiled because of Nero's impending marriage to Poppaea Sabina and soon executed in exile. As to the protagonists' destinies, the basic plot largely follows the accounts of the extant historical sources, except for the length of the action, which is reduced to three days; in point of fact, the precise sequence of the events concerning Nero's marriage to Poppaea and divorce from Octavia is unknown. Since the extant sources on Octavia's life are few and provide little information, the details of her destiny remain unclear.

The historical background of the play, the developments at the Roman court affecting Octavia, extends from the year 48, when Octavia's engagement to Lucius Junius Silanus was broken off in anticipation of Agrippina's marriage to Emperor Claudius early in 49, to be followed by a new engagement  to Agrippina's son, the later Emperor Nero, to 62, when Nero's planned marriage to Poppaea Sabina led to Octavia's exile and speedy execution on a false charge of adultery. In this temporal frame, the paper highlights the following milestones in Octavia's life: Agrippina's appointment of the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca as tutor to her son Domitius (later known as Nero) in 49 AD; Claudius' adoption of Agrippina's son on 25 February 50 AD; the proclamation of thirteen-year-old Nero's coming of age in March 51; Nero's marriage to Octavia in 53; the death of Claudius and Nero's rise to power in 54; Nero's murder of Britannicus in 55, and of his mother, Agrippina, four years later (59); Nero's affair with Poppaea Sabina, whom he had met in 58, and their wedding in 62, as well as Octavia's exile and execution in the same year. But despite the close bearing of these events on Octavia's fate, she is largely or completely ignored in most written sources on the topic. Rather than attempt to disentangle the many questions raised by Octavia's little known life, the paper thus gives a mere outline of her life story, trapped in the dynastic intrigues of the contemporary Roman court, which are luridly depicted in the tragedy Octavia, formerly attributed to Seneca.


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How to Cite
Cedilnik, Alenka. 2011. “The Historical Background to the Pseudo-Senecan Octavia”. Keria: Studia Latina Et Graeca 13 (1), 29-40.