Messalina holding her son Britannicus, Louvre
The Roman Empire may have produced some of the most cruelly ambitious women in history. But one name stands out above all the rest. Her name is Messalina. Anyone who has seen the 1970’s miniseries I CLAUDIUS based on the Robert Graves novel has just an inkling of the crimes that have been attached to her name over the centuries. According to historians, by the time of her death, she had gleefully dispatched her enemies with ruthless zeal, taken a host of lovers, and turned the Emperor into the biggest cuckold in Rome. But was she really as bad as historians have made her out to be? Or is this just another case of men being afraid of powerful women?
Born Valeria Messalina, she was the first born and second child of Domitia Lepida the Younger and Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus. Both her grandmothers had been not only half-sisters, but also nieces of Augustus Caesar. As a tender teenager, she became the fourth wife of much older cousin Tiberius Claudius Caesar, who was 35 years her senior. Imagine being a teenage girl and being married off to the least attractive member of the Imperial family. A man considered nothing more than a dull-witted cripple, no trace of his illustrious grandfather Marc Antony in sight. Even his mother Antonia called him a ‘monster of a man.’ Claudius must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven, apparently it was love at first sight for him. Robert Graves describes Messalina in his novel I CLAUDIUS thus, “Messalina was an extremely beautiful girl, slim and quick moving, with eyes as black as jet and masses of curly black hair. She hardly spoke a word and had a mysterious smile which drove me nearly crazy with love for her.” No wonder she was able to get away with murder literally!
The couple was married in A.D. 38; a daughter named Octavia arrived the following year. Two years later, Messalina gifted her husband with a son and heir named Brittanicus. During Caligula’s reign, Messalina was a regular at his court. She would have seen at first hand the cruelty and behind the scenes plotting that occurred during his reign. It was a far cry from the family values that were espoused during the reign of Augustus Caesar. On January 24, AD 41, Messalina’s life changed for good, when Caligula and his family were murdered by conspirators, and Claudius was proclaimed Emperor by the Praetorian Guard, who apparently found him hiding behind an arras in fear of his life. Messalina was now the most powerful woman at court. She soon proved herself a worthy successor to her bloodthirsty ancestors, showing that she had no scruples when it came to securing her own ambitions.
After her success in getting rid of Julia Levilla, she set her sights on her step-father, Appius Silenus, who had close ties to the throne. She had also apparently developed a tendre for him which wasn’t reciprocated. Uh oh! So she allied herself with Narcissus, Claudius’s secretary. Narcissus accused Silenus of wanting to kill the Emperor. Messalina backed him up by claiming that she had seen it all in a dream. Silenus was promptly arrested and executed. When she wanted the Gardens of Lucullus, which were owned by Valerius Asiaticus, and he wouldn’t give them up, he paid with his life.
While Claudius was away in Britain, rumor had it that Messalina challenged Rome’s top prostitute to see who could sleep with the most men in one night. Needless to say Messalina came out on top with a total of 25 lovers. Roman historians also claim that Messalina used sex as a weapon (duh!) to control politicians, and that she had a brothel under an assumed name, where she forced upper class women to work as prostitutes, and then blackmailed them. There appears to be more truth to the stories that Messalina lined her toga by selling building contracts, citizenship and high office to Roman and foreign nobles.
According to the Satire VI by Juvenal, Messalina worked in a brothel under the assumed name Lycisca, or 'The Wolf-Girl'. Etching by Agostino Carracci, late 16th century.
Then there was her affair with the dancer Mnester, who came from peasant stock, but who had worked hard until he became like the Gene Kelly of the Roman Empire. Messalina was his biggest fan, she had statues erected, and hired poets to write odes to his hotness. But Mnester spurned her advances because he feared what would happen if Claudius found out. But Messalina had a trick up her sleeve, she told her husband that Mnester had refused to follow her orders (she didn’t tell him what those orders were of course). She convinced Claudius to inform everyone to treat her wishes with the utmost respect. Claudius told Mnester to precisely what Messalina wished. Neat trick huh?
Today, Messalina is remembered as the most depraved and murderous nymphomaniac in antiquity. She didn’t have the slightest hesitation in killing anyone who got on her bad side. Part of it was no doubt self-preservation. Claudius was much older, and often ill. If he died while her children were young, her future was bleak unless she could get rid of any rivals to the throne first. If Messalina had hidden her ambitions and her depravity under the guise of a proper Roman matron the way Livia had done, one has to wonder if she would have been so reviled. By the time she was done, more than 35 senators and more than 300 others were executed during Claudius’s reign, most at her instigation.
Contrary to the belief at the time that Claudius was clueless to his wife’s actions, he probably turned a blind eye since they were getting rid of his political enemies, and he could later deny, deny, deny that he knew anything about her actions. Messalina, however, drunk on her own power began to go too far. She began to believe that as the Emperor’s wife and the mother of his children, she was immune. It was only a matter of time before she went too far. She fell hard for an attractive Roman senator by the name of Caius Silius, considered the handsomest man in Rom, who was already married to the sister of Caligula’s first wife. Recklessly, she did nothing to hide her affair with Caius Silius; she showered him with honors up the wazoo. She even went further and married the guy, convincing him that Claudius was weak and that once they were married, they could get rid of him and Messalina would make him the new emperor. Caius Silius was popular with not only the Praetorian Guard but also the people.
The happy couple waited until Claudius was on an official visit to Ostia, performing a sacrifice to the Gods. Once he was out of sight, she threw a huge public wedding with a huge banquet afterwards to celebrate.
But Messalina’s luck had run out. Pallus, Claudius’ most favored servant had thrown his lot in with Agrippina the Younger as well as Messalina’s former ally Narcissus. The unholy trio made it their duty to fill Claudius in on his wife’s activities, warning Claudius of Messalina and Silius’ plot to kill him. Messalina tried to save herself, traveling all the way to Ostia with their children, to convince Claudius it was all a lie. Narcissus, however, prevented Messalina from seeing the Emperor. Claudius had no choice but to order not just the deaths of Messalina and Silius but also all the wedding guests. Messalina’s behavior was dragging him down. The Romans, the Emperor was considered semi-divine, and although Claudius had performed his duties with intelligence, Messalina was making him look like a foolish old man.
She was with her mother in her favorite spot, the Gardens of Lucullus, putting together a petition to Claudius when they came for her. In her final hours, she was offered the choice of suicide, but after botching the job, an officer decapitated her instead. When Messalina’s death was announced to Claudius at dinner, he showed no emotion, but asked for more wine. The Roman Senate ordered her name removed from all public or private spaces and her statues destroyed. A year later, Claudius married again, this time to his niece Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero.
The Most Evil Women in History - Shelley Klein, Metro Books, 2003
Caesars' Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire: Annelise Freisenbruch, Free Press, 2010