Ancient Rome and Judea: Nero and the Jews

Nero at the height of his power

Like his uncle Caligula, the emperor Nero has earned an unsavoury reputation in the annals of history, yet an interesting and overlooked aspect of his reign is the relationship between Nero and the Jews. Today’s post looks at this relationship in detail, considering where his favourable treatment of the Jews might have come from and mining our sources for deeper meaning.

The Background

Nero became emperor in 54 CE, inheriting the throne from his adopted father Claudius who several ancient sources accuse Nero of poisoning. Aged just 16, Nero was already married. His wife was Octavia, the late Claudius’ daughter, and a darling in the public eye.

Nero’s marriage to Octavia seems to have been one of initial indifference spilling over into outright hostility. In 55 CE, the year after taking the throne, Nero poisoned Octavia’s brother, the 13-year-old Britannicus, over the threat he posed to Nero’s claim to the throne. Both Octavia and Nero’s mother, Agrippina, were present at the meal where it happened. Both were horrified but held their tongue. For revealing their true feelings about Nero’s behaviour would have been tantamount to treason.

Bust of Octavia Claudia
Bust of Octavia Claudia

Nero’s relationship with his mother rapidly deteriorated. One cold March night in 59 AD, Nero had his mother murdered, stabbed in the womb in a villa in Misenum. Agrippina was Octavia’s last protectress, and Nero had long since grown bored of his empress. She was soon divorced, declared barren, and exiled to the island of Pandateria. In 62 CE, aged around 22, Octavia was forced to commit suicide: having her hands bound, her veins slit open, and her body held over a boiling vapour bath.

Nero marries Poppaea Sabina

Ancient sources name Poppaea Sabina, a young aristocratic woman with whom Nero had fallen in love, as the architect of Octavia’s death. According to Tacitus, Poppaea even ordered that Octavia’s head be brought to her, partly as proof of her forced suicide and partly to gloat over.

Nero married the already pregnant Poppaea Sabina in 62 CE, 12 days after divorcing Octavia. Our ancient Roman sources are unanimously hostile towards Poppaea Sabina, accusing her of masterminding the deaths of Octavia, Agrippina, and Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca. Yet as a closer look at the relationship between Nero and the Jews reveals, the truth was a little murkier.

Bust of Poppaea Sabina
Bust of Poppaea Sabina

Not only have we found archaeological evidence attesting to Poppaea’s popularity outside Rome, not least in references to her virtue and statues dedicated to her in Pompeii, but the Jewish author Josephus paints her in a conflictingly positive light.

An intermediary between Nero and the Jews

According to Josephus, Poppaea Sabina was a “deeply religious woman” who intervened on behalf of the Jews on two separate occasions.

Her first intervention came sometime between 60-62 CE. The trouble had started when Agrippa II, the great-grandson of Herod the Great, was visiting Jerusalem. Agrippa decided he would like to be able to look down over the Temple from his Hasmonean Palace so he could see the priests going about their business. For this reason, he had a large dining room built on a raised platform.

Painting by Alex Levin. Web:
Artist’s impression of the Second Temple. Painting by Alex Levin.

The priests were outraged by this, however, seeing it as an intrusion into their privacy. As a response they constructed a large wall, blocking his view over the Temple precinct. Problematically, this wall also blocked the view of the Roman procurator installed to keep order in the city.

The procurator Porcius Festus instructed them to pull down the wall, but they resisted on the grounds it was now part of the Temple. Desperate, the Temple officials sent a Jewish Embassy to Rome to appeal to the emperor. It would be the first meeting between Nero and the Jews.

The first meeting between Nero and the Jews

The deputation of twelve, including the High Priest and Temple treasurer could not have hoped the emperor would grant them their wish. After all, Nero’s uncle Caligula had turned Philo’s embassy away without so much as considering their case. Yet, to their great surprise, Nero ruled that they could keep their wall.

He did this – Josephus tells us – “as a favour to his wife who had pleaded on behalf of the Jews.”

Etching of Josephus - the source of this story
Etching of Josephus – the source of this story

This was not Nero’s only intervention in favour of the Jews. In 64 CE, Josephus himself travelled to Rome in the hope of procuring the release of some priests who had been imprisoned there. Along with the Jewish actor Alityros, a friend of Poppaea’s and a favourite of Nero’s court, Poppaea again managed to intercede, convincing her husband to secure their freedom.

That Poppaea Sabina had some predilection for the Jews is clear. Some say it even went further, and that she herself was a convert. Yet as always with history, nothing was black and white.

Before portraying Poppaea as a protectress of the Jewish people – perhaps even a convert – we should ask why she secured the position of procurator of Judaea for her friend’s husband Gessius Florus: the man whose actions ultimately sparked the Roman Jewish War.

Poppaea Sabina’s demise

Poppaea Sabina was Nero’s second wife. But she was not his last. She too fell foul of the emperor’s vile temper when the emperor kicked her in the stomach after she criticized him for spending too much time at the races.

Some sources say the blow to her abdomen killed her outright. Others suggest she may have died in childbirth from complications resulting from it. Ultimately we’ll never know, though her death didn’t necessarily signal the end of Nero’s favourable treatment of the Jews.

In the next post, we’ll be looking at another, underexplored aspect relating to Nero and the Jews: namely his behaviour in the aftermath of the Great Fire. And if you are planning to visit Rome, join me on my Jewish Ancient Rome tour to learn many more of these stories and see Rome from another perspective.