Few women are as closely linked with sexual wickedness as Empress Messalina. Wife of Roman Emperor Claudius and member of a family tree that includes notorious Emperors Nero and Caligula, she has been the subject of bawdy plays, moral allegories, and even modern pornographic films. Was Messalina a sexually voracious hellcat who plotted a coup against her husband after years of shaming him with her infidelity, or is she the subject of a propagandistic smear campaign that has had centuries-long repercussions?
Later-day dramatists seeking a tale of spicy intrigue tend to salivate over the details of Claudius’ marriage to Messalina. There’s the age difference (somewhere between age 18 and 20, she became the 47-year-old nobleman’s third wife), the arranged nature of their pairing, and the fact that Claudius was by many accounts a physically frail stutterer while his wife was a nubile beauty. None of these factors would have raised an eyebrow at the time, however.* Surely a man in line for the imperial throne should be wed to a fetching young woman of childbearing age, and the parents of a lady of noble birth would naturally seek to pair their daughter with someone of the highest rank possible. Marriage for romance would have been the more scandalous option given the station of the parties involved and the culture of the time.
Three years into their marriage, an explosive and Empire-altering series of events would find the couple occupying the highest stations in Rome. Claudius and his nephew, Emperor Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (a man better known to history as Caligula), were attending a dance performance on January 24, 41 AD. The afternoon’s atmosphere of leisure came to an abrupt halt when, shortly after departing the theater, Caligula was stabbed to death by members of his personal guard. The victim as much of political immaturity as of rumored madness, Caligula had pushed the limitless nature of his office too far and paid with his life. In the aftermath of this first public murder of a Roman Emperor, the military quickly presented Claudius as the choice to assume Caligula’s violently vacated title. Perhaps persuaded by heavily-armed, season military men even more than by dynastic propriety, the Senate quickly agreed to this appointment.
It’s here that Messalina’s story becomes complicated. The circumstances under which Claudius assumed the throne were tempestuous to say the least, and in order for him to maintain the power he had been granted, a substantial amount of power solidification would need to take place. Retaliation to perceived threats was swift and vicious. Historical records of the time lay the blame for the bloody scheming of this period squarely at the feet of Messalina and Claudius’ advisors rather than with the Emperor himself, but it’s important to note that while Claudius was physically frail, he had the mind of a scholar. It’s possible that he was more complicit in the power struggles than stories might suggest.**
The first of Messalina’s victims was her stepfather, Appius Junius Silanus, who was executed after Messalina and one of Claudius’ secretaries claimed to have had portentous dreams in which Silanus was plotting to murder the Emperor. Rumors circulated that Silanus’ rejection of Messalina’s sexual advances stoked her ire, but it’s likelier that his position as a military commander afforded him political advantages that threatened the throne. Numerous intrigues followed. Historians of the time were quick to assign lurid reasons for these acts: the head of the guard was allegedly executed for threatening to reveal Messalina’s infidelity, a niece banished due to whispers that she was a potential rival for Claudius’ affections, a wealthy freedman put to death because Messalina was greedy to own his lavish gardens. Of course, in each of these cases there were political ramifications to eliminating a powerful potential challenger that went far beyond the violent whims of a spoiled young Empress, but time has a way of diminishing facts that get in the way of a salacious narrative.
Grisly court scandals only make up a portion of the accusations levied against Messalina. The gossip that has truly withstood the test of two millennia revolves around the Empress’ insatiable lust for sexual conquests. If these stories are to be believed at face value (and they certainly shouldn’t be), then the extremely busy Empress ran a brothel within the walls of the palace, working as a madam to noblewomen courtesans, and also snuck out of her marital bed to entertain whorehouse clients who believed she was a common prostitute under the nom-de-guerre “She-Wolf.” An especially outrageous tale penned by historian Pliny the Elder had Messalina engaged in a twenty-four-hour fuck-off against a famously voracious prostitute. The Empress won the sex battle with a tally of twenty-five successfully sated lovers.
All bawdy times must come to an end, and such was the certainly the case with Messalina. In a clearly documented case of her infidelity, the Empress held a party during which she pledged to marry the consul-elect. The consul was the highest elected position in Rome, a role of key significance during the Republic, but the all-powerful role of Emperor had made the consul a mere figurehead. Needless to say, the Empress made quite a political downgrade by selecting this partner, and she was quickly shown the error of her ways. Claudius was told about Messalina’s new, politically connected lover and–likely with the encouragement of some of her enemies–determined that her behavior had finally crossed the line to treason. Wasting no time, centurions tracked down the fugitive Empress and put her, along with her erstwhile new husband and several upper class cronies, to the sword. In a cruel twist of irony, Messalina met her end in the self-same gardens she’d seized from the freedman she’d had executed.
Over the course of intervening centuries, Messalina has become a symbol of sexual debauchery. As early as 1910, Messalina was the subject of eroticized biopics, and after the release of the sex-cinema disasterpiece Caligula in 1979, a new vogue for sexed-up Roman hijinx saw the release of multiple Messalina-themed X-rated extravaganzas. The Empress has even inspired the name of a German strip club http://club-messalina.com/ .
A disgraced figure from a tempestuous time, the real woman behind the scandalous name of Messalina will remain enigmatic. What remains is part caricature and part incarnation of a certain type of person’s worst femme fatale nightmare.
*This article at Women in the Ancient World provides an excellent overview of marriage in Ancient Rome.
**A nice, digestible article that gives some context on Claudius can be found here.