An ancient map named this suburb city of Pompeii as Oplontis. Today, the modern town is known as Torre Annunziata. What remains of the Roman suburb is a well-preserved villa ten meters below the modern street level where visitors can roam a massive residential complex that archeologists believe once belonged to Nero’s wife, Poppaea Sabina.
Buried during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the rooms still tell a compelling story about the daily lives of its former inhabitants. The first room at the entrance of the villa is the atrium, a grand sitting room with an opening in the roof and a corresponding tub in the center of the floor that collects rainwater. A brick oven looks as though it could still be fired up and the adjacent triclinium still boasts red frescoes. There are latrines with top slabs and a channel below. At the entrance to the bathroom, a tub once contained water used to clean out the channel. The bath rooms are particularly impressive, including a caldarium and tepidarium that once had an advanced system of hot and warm air flowing along the walls and under the floor. Roofless indoor gardens still depict lush vegetation on the walls and vast gardens are lined with marble sculptures. Archeologists have also created casts out of the roots of tall trees they found here, which are believed to have been sycamores.
The villa truly comes alive with the history of Poppaea Sabina (30-65 A.D.). Apparently, she was cruel, bisexual, and enjoyed taking milk baths, especially with her female servants. Born in Pompeii and possibly living at what today is called the House of Menander, her mother committed suicide when Poppaea was seventeen. At the age of fourteen she had already married Rufius Crispinus, a man of Egyptian origin and leader of the Praetorian Guard. (The military group that assisted emperors in campaigns and were known for their intrigues and assassinations.) But Poppaea divorced him and married Otho, a good friend of Emperor Nero. Then, Nero fell in love with her and she became his favorite mistress. Some sources, including Tacitus, claim that seeing her advantage, Poppaea convinced Nero to kill his mother, Agrippina. After Nero’s mother was out of the way, she pressured Nero to divorce and later execute his wife, Claudia Octavia. Poppaea then became pregnant and bore Nero one daughter who died at four months of age. Two years later, while she was pregnant with their second child, Nero killed her.
Tacitus describes her death this way:
“Soon after the games Poppaea died. She was pregnant, and her husband, in a chance fit of anger, kicked her. Some writers record that she was poisoned; but this sounds malevolent rather than truthful, and I do not believe it – for Nero wanted children and loved his wife. She was buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Her body was not cremated in the Roman fashion, but was stuffed with spices and embalmed in the manner of foreign potentates. At the State funeral, Nero mounted the platform to praise her looks, her parenthood of an infant now deified, and her other lucky assets which could be interpreted as virtues.
Publicly Poppaea’s death was mourned. But those who remembered her immorality and cruelty welcomed it….”
Of course, archeologists debate whether Poppaea resided here at all. The villa was heavily damaged during the earthquake of 62 A.D. and left abandoned thereafter, so by the time ash from the Mt. Vesuvius eruption covered the villa, nobody inhabited these fresco-filled rooms.