The Roman empress who used forensic science to identify her rival’s head

Image of Lollia Paulina from "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum" by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589).  From Wikipedia.

Image of Lollia Paulina from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum” by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589). From Wikipedia.

In 49 AD, a Roman soldier carried a decaying human head into Rome to present it to the wife of Emperor Claudius, Julia Agrippina.  Julia Agrippina, also known as Agrippina the Younger, had ordered the suicide of Lollia Paulina, her formal rival. She instructed a colonel in the Roman guard to supervise the suicide then bring back the head so she could verify Paulina’s demise.  But the head’s facial features were distorted, so Agrippina had to find another way to confirm death. When Agrippina remembered that Paulina had unique teeth, she opened the mouth and looked inside.  Sure enough, this woman’s head had the same dental features that Paulina was known to possess.  Agrippina’s rudimentary dental exam is the first known example of an identification using forensic dentistry.

Forensic dentists compare radiographs taken before death (antemortem) with radiographs taken of an unidentified body after death (postmortem) in order to ID human remains.  Forensic dentists also analyze bite-marks recovered in abuse cases and from crime scenes.  Rather than being fueled by a quest for scientific knowledge, this first, ancient forensic dental exam was triggered by Agrippina’s morbid need to know that she had permanently eliminated a perceived enemy, Lollia Paulina.

Lollia Paulina (15 AD-49 AD) was born into a wealthy Roman family in 15 AD.  She inherited a fortune from her paternal grandfather, Marcus Lollius, who served as a Roman senator and counsel.  She had one son with her first husband, Publius Memmius Regulus, who was prefect of Macedonia and a senator.

At the beginning of the reign of the infamous Emperor Caligula (12 AD-41 AD), Paulina lived in Macedonia with Publius Memmius Regulus.  But when Caligula heard about Lollia Paulina’s beauty in 38 AD he commanded her to immediately divorce Regulus and become his third wife.  But fickle Caligula divorced her six months later and decreed that she could never remarry.

Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD and was succeeded by his uncle Claudius (10 BC-54 AD).  In 48 AD, Emperor Claudius was in the market for his fourth wife.  The search came down to Lollia Paulina and Julia Agrippina, Caligula’s sister and Nero’s mother.  According to Tacitus (58 AD-117 AD), a Roman historian, Agrippina was eventually chosen because the marriage would, among other things, unite the two branches of the Julio-Claudian family.

Marble head of Julia Agrippina from the Getty Villa Collection.  Image credit: Dave & Margie Hill via Wikipedia

Marble head of Julia Agrippina from the Getty Villa Collection. Image credit: Dave & Margie Hill via Wikipedia

Ancient historians describe Agrippina like a power-hungry femme fatale and have implicated her in the deaths of about ten people, including Claudius.  In keeping with this archetype, Tacitus writes that, despite being empress, Agrippina still felt threatened by Paulina so she plotted to eliminate her permanently.

She found someone to accuse Paulina of sorcery then had Claudius charge and put her on trial.  Tacitus reports that Claudius argued that Lollia Paulina’s actions constituted a ‘national danger’ and her tendency for causing trouble had to be stopped.

Paulina was ultimately found guilty of the charges. She was banished from Italy, her property was confiscated, and most of her fortune was taken away.  But this was not enough for the empress.  She ordered Lollia Paulina to commit suicide in 49 AD.  This order was enforced and supervised by a colonel of the Roman guard.  To confirm Paulina’s death, the solider was told to carry Paulina’s head back to Rome to be examined by Agrippina.

But Cassius Dio (ca. 155 AD-235 AD), a Roman historian of Greek ancestry, reported, in his 80 volume Roman History, that when the soldier returned to Rome with the head, Agrippina did not recognize its facial features, Cassius doesn’t say why that was.  My guess is that Paulina’s facial features were distorted by decay.  It’s unclear where Paulina was exiled to, just that it was outside of Italy.  So it could have taken days or weeks for the soldier to return with the head and decomposition would have bloated and twisted the soft tissues of the face.

While studying the decomposing head, the empress remembered that Lollia Paulina had a unique set of teeth.  Cassius wrote “she opened the mouth with her own hand and inspected the teeth, which had certain peculiarities.” After this analysis, Agrippina was satisfied that Paulina was dead.

Although this ancient forensic analysis was very simple, Agrippina understood a basic forensic principle that people have unique characteristics, other than facial features, that can be used for positive identification.

Lollia Paulina was got given proper burial until the reign of Emperor Nero.  Nero allowed Paulina’s ashes to be returned to Rome and had a special sepulcher built for them.

Categories: Forensic Science, History

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1 reply

  1. Small moments seem irrelevant to some, but who knew that what Cassius wrote would be held valuable in dental forensic history!

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