Acte (fl. 55–69 CE)
Acte (fl. 55–69 ce)
Imperial freedwoman and mistress of the Roman emperor Nero. Pronunciation: ACT-ay. Name variations: Claudia Acte or Akte. Born in Asia Minor and brought to Rome as a slave in the imperial house of Nero or Claudius; flourished between 55 and 69 ce.
Became the mistress of Nero (55); helped to avert the incest of Nero and Agrippina (59); assisted at Nero's funeral (69).
Acte repaid his very genuine love with a fidelity which survived his faithlessness.
—Bernard W. Henderson
Among the group of four or five women who loved and influenced the Emperor Nero, the freedwoman Acte stands out as the one whose motives are least suspect and whose faith in a notoriously promiscuous man lasted to his death. The figure of Nero's mother Agrippina the Younger looms large in the first five years of the young emperor's reign, and Acte's entrance into his life coincides portentously with two signal events in Agrippina's career.
Acte was apparently a lowborn native of Greek Asia Minor; she was bought as a slave by the imperial household of Nero or of his great uncle and adoptive father Claudius. Though slavery in Rome certainly meant membership in a class of subservient non-citizens, slaves (especially Greek-speaking slaves) were not necessarily uneducated or unsophisticated by the standards of high society. Indeed, the fact that Acte was procured for the emperor's staff may be an indication of her particular aptitude in noble circles. At some point, she (or her father) was legally manumitted or "freed"; this means that theoretically she could have attained a fairly high social standing in Neronian Rome. However, the 17-year-old Nero fell in love with her in 55, and this precipitated a power struggle in the imperial court.
It was clear to the young ruler's elder advisors, Seneca (the Stoic philosopher) and Burrus, that the affair must be handled delicately: Nero's attraction to his wife Octavia (39–62 ce) was waning, and the force of his potentially destructive libido was already known. As Tacitus, the best ancient commentator on the situation, observed, "It was feared that prohibition of his affair with Acte might result in seductions of noblewomen instead." Added to Seneca's fear, perhaps, was the carefully considered possibility that as a rival to Agrippina for Nero's attention, Acte might help to break that redoubtable woman's influence on policy.
To this end, Seneca had the liaison carefully shielded at its inception, and persuaded one of his friends to put his own name to Nero's gifts to Acte. According to Tacitus, by the time Agrippina found out about the affair, her opposition was fruitless. Deep in the throes of love, Nero had even begun to make noises about marrying Acte, smoothing over the gross social disparity between them by claiming her descent from the royal family of Hellenistic Pergamum (the Attalids), a patent fiction. Agrippina's reaction to this development was violent—she displayed a rage at "having an ex-slave as her rival and a servant girl as her daughter-in-law," says Tacitus. Not surprisingly, this sort of opposition produced only an intensification of Nero's desire for his new love. When Agrippina realized she had lost the battle for her son's obedience, she changed her tactics and went so far as to offer her own bedroom for the couple's "secret, surreptitious, sensual meetings." But the about-face was too obvious, and the disaffection of mother and son became permanent. Nero sealed the change in situation by the murder of Agrippina's son and his own stepbrother Brittanicus, a perceived rival to the throne.
The next report we have of Acte is in 59, in connection with one of Agrippina's most notorious misdeeds. Tacitus relates that she was so desperate to maintain the power she had held at court that she one day appeared before her drunken son "all decked out and ready for incest." Seneca had Acte called in to help avert disaster, and she helped willingly: "She feared for Nero's reputation—and for her own safety." Tacitus tells us that Acte's efforts were a success insofar as she was able to convince Nero that his mother had been boasting about her intimacy with him, and by warning him that the army (a very conservative body) would never tolerate the sacrilege of incest. Soon after, Nero had his mother Agrippina killed.
After a few years, it seems that the emperor's single-minded devotion to Acte faded. The assassination of Agrippina occurred amidst the machinations of the aristocratic and ambitious matron Poppaea Sabina to marry Nero, a goal that would necessitate his divorce of his wife Octavia, and which his mother had opposed. His eventual marriage with Poppaea in 62 ce is indication that if Nero was ever really serious about marrying Acte, he finally decided, or was persuaded, that such a union was not expedient. During Nero's principate, his love life and politics were often inextricably entwined. Yet we have some evidence of Acte's continued love for, and proximity to, Nero through these years: an inscription records her consecration of a temple to the goddess Ceres in Pisa with a prayer that Nero's love for her not be lost and his marriage with Poppaea be prevented. There is also reason to believe that Nero's move away from Acte as an object of marriage had more to do with political and social considerations than any loss of love. Tacitus informs us that M. Salvius Otho—senator, close confidant of Nero, husband of Poppaea Sabina, and himself future emperor—was banished by Nero after Poppaea Sabina cast aspersions on Acte's character.
The last we hear of Acte is her administration of Nero's funeral rites with a few others after his deposal and suicide in 69 ce. The fact that she alone of all Nero's women (his third wife Messalina deserted him and lived on with high social standing) deigned to honor a cruel, unjust, and probably insane man after his death is testimony not only of the fearlessness of her devotion, but also of the authenticity of their love.
Besides her consecration of the temple to Ceres (which is preserved in a wall of the present-day Cathedral in Pisa), inscriptions found on waterpipes, bricks, and pottery have given us some information about Acte's life away from court. She was apparently very well off, having a good number of slaves and estates in Italy and Sardinia. A late antique rumor that Acte became a Christian is a romantic one with little basis in fact.
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Peter H. O'Brien , Boston University