This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
A rich Roman woman waits until her doddering, unsuspecting husband dozes off before donning a blonde wig to disguise her brunette locks. She races through the darkness to a brothel, seeking out a filthy cubicle. Here she is known only as the “She-Wolf”. Throwing off her clothing, she stands in the opening, her nipples gilded, trying to entice the passing customer. Her pimp must force her to leave when the night is over, and she drags herself home, her sexual appetite still not sated from the many men she has bedded.
Is this a scene from a bad porno? Well, probably, but the pornography would be borrowing from ancient Roman sources. Messalina, the teenage wife of the emperor Claudius (41-54 CE), has often been portrayed as being completely controlled by her libido. Her lust led to her to engage in increasingly outrageous sexual acts, including bigamy, which led to a brutal death when her adultery was finally discovered by her husband.
The scene above is the description that the satirist Juvenal provides of her behaviour. An empress by day, prostitute by night? It sounds too outrageous to be true, and yet it is not the only ancient source that portrays Messalina in this overly-sexualised manner. Was she a nymphomaniac? Or is there more to her seemingly outlandish behaviour than meets the eye?
Who was Messalina?
Valeria Messalina was the daughter of Domitia Lepida and Marcus Valerius Messala Barbatus the Younger. Through her father, she was descended from Gaius Claudius Marcellus and Octavia, sister of the exalted Augustus. Her mother was also descended from Octavia, but through her second marriage to Mark Antony. This meant that she had more connection to the divine Augustus than the husband that she married in around 38 or 39 CE, Claudius. It also meant that they were cousins once removed, but being related to your spouse was par for the course in the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Claudius had some sort of physical disability which meant that he had been kept firmly in the background until the reign of his nephew, Gaius (Caligula). Gaius honoured Claudius with a consulship in 37 CE, but by this time Gaius had acquired a reputation for being unpredictable and cruel, which made his uncle’s position uncertain.
Amid the tense final years of Gaius’ reign, the newlyweds produced two children: a daughter (Octavia) in either 39 or 40 CE and a son (Tiberius Claudius Caesar, popularly known as Britannicus) in 41 CE (Bauman 1994, p. 168; Levick 2015, p. 62). The family did not have to endure the rollercoaster that was Gaius’ reign for long. He was assassinated in 41 CE.
According to the ancient sources, Claudius – the man who was widely considered to be an embarrassment by his family – was found hiding in the imperial palace by the Praetorian Guards (i.e. the imperial bodyguard), who had just finished murdering Gaius’ wife and baby daughter. Seeing a potential opportunity, they whisked Claudius away to their camp and when he emerged, a deal had been struck. The Praetorians, each pocketing a hefty donative, wanted him to be the next emperor. With this military support, the Senate had little choice but to begrudgingly accept.
Messalina’s position in society skyrocketed.
As the wife of an emperor, Messalina was now in the spotlight, and it is thus this period of her life that we know the most about. (We will sometimes refer to Messalina as the “empress”, but it should be noted that there was no official position for the wife of an emperor at this time.) In her final seven years, Messalina’s alleged conduct would cement her firmly in the popular imagination and make her the inspiration for artwork, novels, plays and films.
Whilst there are, of course, differences in each reincarnation of Messalina, there is a common thread that runs through most: sex. She is portrayed as seductive, wicked, a whore, a lover. Perhaps the most evocative creation is the 1884 sculpture by Brunet, in which a naked Messalina lies sprawled erotically across the bed, a sensual look on her face, lost in the orgasmic ecstasy of her last conquest. A glance at Wikipedia’s entry on Messalina in popular culture demonstrates that even in the 21st century, there is still a market for portrayals of Messalina that play on her reputation as a debauched woman.
This brings us back to Juvenal and the ancient literary tradition concerning Messalina. Juvenal’s passage on the scandalous conduct of the “meretrix Augusta” (whore empress) contains some of the juiciest details, but Messalina was not the main focus of his work. She is only one of a range of women that Juvenal attacked in his Sixth Satire (114-135), a work that he supposedly wrote to convince his friend Postumus to stay single. Satires were not meant to be taken literally, and Juvenal is consistently savage in all his surviving work.
A kind of corroboration for some of his assertions comes from a surprising source, The Natural History of Pliny the Elder. In a discussion of reproduction, Pliny (NH, 10.83) mentions that Messalina engaged in a competition with one of the most famous prostitutes in Rome to see who could sleep with the most men in twenty-four hours… and Messalina won.
Unlike Juvenal, who was writing decades after Messalina’s fall, Pliny was a contemporary. He was motivated to write this work because of his interest in the natural world, which makes his work appear more trustworthy than the deliberate exaggeration of a satirist. Yet this tale is equally outrageous. Are we to believe that the wife of the emperor could engage in such a lewd act and not be discovered?
If we accept that there is some truth in these accounts, what were Messalina’s motivations? She had everything a Roman woman could desire: she was married to the most powerful man in the empire, and she had borne a son who was set to inherit power. Such behaviour would jeopardise her own position, and that of her children.
If we turn to the histories of this period, they provide some support for Messalina’s sexual reputation. While the earliest part of Claudius’ reign is missing from Tacitus’ Annals, the extant accounts are full of stories of her affairs with men of all ranks, including the ex-consul Valerius Asiaticus and the actor Mnester (Tac., Ann. 11.1; Dio, 60.22.3-5, 60.27.1, 3-4, 60.28.2).
A much later author who admittedly may have used Pliny the Elder as one of his sources, Dio Cassius 60.18.1-3, records that Messalina was not satisfied with her own misbehaviour but forced other women to commit adultery – whilst their husbands watched! Again, accusations of prostitution arise, only this time she is running a brothel out of the imperial palace itself, stocked with women from the elite (Dio, 60.31.1; Levick 2015, p. 229).
It beggars the imagination that Messalina could carry on in this way without Claudius finding out the truth, especially as her romantic history was sometimes paraded right in front of his face. Messalina is accused of organising for Asiaticus to be tried so that she could gain ownership of his coveted gardens. Asiaticus was tried in Claudius’ bedroom with Messalina watching (Tac., Ann. 11.1-2; cf. Dio 60.29.4-6a; Bauman 1994, pp. 172-73; Levick 2015, pp. 68-71, 73).
However, this is where representations of her conduct are bound up with Claudius’ image. A man who could not control the members of his household was not fit to control the state. Claudius was commonly portrayed in the ancient sources as being dominated by his freedmen and his wives; two groups who definitely have no place in Roman politics. Messalina’s presence in these moments may well have been historical, but her influence may have been exaggerated to undermine Claudius (Suet., Claud. 29; Dio 60.2.4, 60.28.2; Levick 2015, p. 228).
It is here we must pause and consider the context. We do not know when Messalina was born, and some scholars have found an explanation for Messalina’s actions in her age, asserting that she was only 14 or 15 when she was married to the much-older Claudius (Levick 2015, p. 63). It is easier to believe that an attractive teenager suddenly thrust into an enormously powerful position might start taking advantage of her influence, be bored by her older husband, or act foolishly (Bauman 1994, pp. 167-68).
However, the estimates for the year of her birth range from 3 to 26 CE, so it is very possible that Messalina was much more mature and Bauman (1994, pp. 167-68) believes that her political manoeuvrings suggest someone older. Fagan (2002, p. 572) also believes that Messalina was in her twenties, based on calculations regarding the age of her half-brother. Rightly or wrongly, an older Messalina is often seen as acting more for pragmatic political reasons. This casts her affairs in an entirely different light. Rather than a teen nymphomaniac, was she a woman seeking to forge political alliances, secure her own position, and possibly that of her children?
Without new evidence, this is not a question that can be settled, but more importantly, perhaps it is wrong to assume that Messalina’s age is such a decisive factor in our interpretations of her actions. It is hard to imagine a woman from the Julio-Claudian family in this era taking such risks without having some purpose in mind. As we shall see, Messalina’s “victims” are not political non-entities, and reading between the lines, it seems safe to assume that she employed sex when it was politically expedient (Fagan 2002, p. 572; Levick 2015, p. 63). Messalina seems to have possessed real political skill, until her fateful final step.
The other contextual detail that should be taken into account is the strength of the position of the new imperial couple. The birth of a son boosted Messalina’s status, and she was celebrated on coinage for her position as the mother of Claudius’ children (Levick 2015, p. 62). However, this appearance of security belied the reality of her situation.
Messalina endured a slight setback when Claudius did not permit her to assume the title of Augusta after the birth (Dio 60.12.4; Bauman 1994, p. 169). This title had only been awarded to Claudius mother’ (Antonia Minor) and Livia previously, but Claudius had been the one to bestow it on the latter and he would readily grant it to his next wife. Was this due to the difference in their ages, their family connections, or something else altogether?
More worryingly, Claudius was not a young man when he became emperor and the way that he had assumed power had made him dangerously unpopular, mostly with the senatorial elite. He had been forced on them by the praetorians, which exposed their growing irrelevance in the principate. Claudius had not been the only possibility. There were others with connections to Augustus, such as the Junii Silani, but the senate had toyed with various options after the death of Caligula including restoring the Republic (Suetonius, Gaius, 60; Dio 60.1; Levick 2015, p. 65).
Claudius faced problems almost immediately. In 42 CE, Gaius Appius Silanus was executed, brought down by Messalina and Narcissus who accused him based on dreams they had in which he attacked the emperor. Silanus had just been married Messalina’s mother, but Messalina reputedly turned on him when he refused to sleep with her (Suet. Claud. 37; Dio 60.14.1; Bauman 1994, p. 170; Levick 2015, p. 66).
The downfall of Silanus may have been linked to a revolt that Claudius faced shortly after, led by L. Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus, which led to further arrests (Dio 60.15.5-6, 60.16.1-3; Bauman 1994, p. 171; Levick 2015, pp. 66-67). The downfall of so many from the elite early in his reign soured Claudius’ reputation, and this was just the beginning. Whilst we do not have time to detail all the trials of Claudius’ reign, suffice it to say that others followed.
These were uneasy times in Rome and helps to explain why Messalina may have been looking for allies and taking down perceived enemies. After all, there is more to her legend that just these sexual stunts. She is associated with the persecutions of Claudius’ early reign and is accused of orchestrating some of them personally (Bauman 1994, p. 171; Fagan 2002, p. 572; Levick 2015, pp. 66-78).
Taking care of business
Some of Messalina’s most famous victims came from within her own family. Claudius had recalled Gaius’ sisters (Julia Livilla and Agrippina the Younger) from exile once he had become emperor, and these ladies were direct descendants of Augustus himself. Did Claudius plan to ditch Messalina so that he could benefit from their superior family connections (Levick 2015, p. 63)?
Julia Livilla found herself back in exile in record time, along with Seneca the Younger, her alleged lover (Dio 60.8.4; Bauman 1994, pp. 168-69; Levick 2015, pp. 64 and 66). Another relative, Julia, granddaughter of Tiberius, was disgraced not long after in 43 CE (Levick 2015, p. 64). Agrippina the Younger was left alone for the time being, perhaps as she was married off to the non-threatening Passienus Crispus. She would become a problem again after being widowed, some time around 46 or 47 CE.
Agrippina II had her own son, Nero, who shared her links to Augustus and the beloved general Germanicus and was older than Britannicus. He was also apparently more popular, as was demonstrated when he received greater applause during the Secular celebrations of 47 CE (Tac. Ann. 11.11-12; Levick 2015, p. 73). Agrippina and Nero were a problem for Messalina and this may have been a factor in her wild plans with Silius (Bauman 1994, p. 178; Levick 2015, p. 73).
If Messalina did indeed target these people, it speaks to her political savvy, but also a sense of insecurity.
Teen nympho or political plotter?
Without a doubt, the most confusing episode to examine when considering this claim is the final move Messalina made. In 47 CE, Messalina fell for the consul-elect Caius Silius, forced him to divorce his wife Junia Silania and begin an affair with her (Fagan 2002, p. 566). Tacitus provides the most dramatic rendition of their liaison. In his account, she is clearly the instigator and Silius had no real choice but to accept (Tac., Ann. 11.12).
Rather than conceal her infatuation, Messalina grew increasingly reckless, giving him wealth, honours, and even imperial property (Tac., Ann. 11.12; Dio 60.31.1). In 48 CE, either Messalina or Silius decided to cross a line while Claudius was out of town. They got married. This is portrayed in the ancient literature as another escalation in Messalina’s quest for debauchery and lust, yet even for the “whore empress” this was an insane step that the sources struggled to explain (Tac., Ann. 11.26-27; Dio 60.31.3-4).
A public, bigamous marriage to another elite man? Even early on, this was described as madness, as can be seen in the tragedy Octavia, written shortly after events and often attributed to Seneca (Sen., Oct. 257-60). However, we should be careful of reading too much into this as the purpose of this play was to generate sympathy for Claudia Octavia, the wife divorced by Nero (Levick 2015, p. 227).
Adding to the insanity, Suetonius (Claud. 29) claims that Messalina managed to trick Claudius into giving permission for her marriage by pretending that she was helping to protect him, which is the explanation for the union used in the TV show I, Claudius. No other account mentions this detail, and it seems more like an anecdote designed to ridicule Claudius.
Blatant bigamy was pushing it too far, but in a society that believed that women who lacked the firm control of her male kin would run amok, it could be explained away to a certain extent. As Tacitus tackled this tale you can almost hear him thinking with a shrug, “B*****s be crazy.” What is clear is that Messalina’s behaviour could no longer be hidden from the emperor. The freedmen ensure that Claudius is informed of the wedding (Tac., Ann. 11.28-29).
Messalina would not emerge from the scandal with her life; the freedmen made sure of that (Tac., Ann. 11.33-38). However, a range of men would also die in the aftermath of the wedding in the praetorian camp, although none were formally accused of treason (Fagan 2002, p. 574). Not surprisingly, C. Silius was amongst them, as was the ex-praetor Juncus Vergilianus, the equites Titius Proculus and Sextus Traulus Montanus, Decrius Calpurnianus (prefect of the vigiles), Sulpicius Rufus (procurator of a gladiatorial training school), the doctor Vettius Valens, Pompeius Urbicus, Saufeius Trogus, and finally the actor and lover of Messalina, Mnester (Tac., Ann. 11.35-36; Dio 60.31.5; Fagan 2002, pp. 566-67 n.4).
There may have been more, but this list of names alone suggests something potentially bigger than sexual infatuation. The Praetorian Prefect was also viewed with suspicion in this moment and one of Claudius’ freedmen assumed temporary command (Tac., Ann. 11.33). As with all the stories of Messalina’s misbehaviour, Claudius himself appears completely incompetent in this moment of crisis (Fagan 2002, pp. 567, 579).
Modern historians have wrestled with the surviving evidence to try and make sense of the situation. We might be more willing these days to see Messalina as politically savvy, rather than the sex-crazed empress of the ancient sources, but that makes it harder to understand this affair, which seems sorely lacking in common-sense (Fagan 2002, p. 573).
If Messalina’s connection with Silius was part of a plot, then realistically the only objective could have been to bring the rule of Claudius to an end. The stakes for Messalina were too high to aim for less. And yet, there seems to have been little effort to win the support of key groups like the praetorians or the army. The list of conspirators that we have is not inspiring, nor particularly extensive.
There is little doubt that the wedding took place, we do not know whether Messalina or Silius instigated it and what they really hoped to accomplish. Was Claudius’ position so insecure? Was Agrippina II that much of a threat? Or was Silius staging a coup with Messalina his pawn? What cannot be overlooked is that we do not need to uncover a plot in order to see this affair as political. Given the dynastic nature of succession in the principate, Messalina’ relations with Silius assumed a political dimension regardless of their intent (Fagan 2002, p. 577). Too many other women in the family had already learnt that lesson the hard way for Messalina to have been unaware of this.
As for Claudius’ part, he moved on extremely quickly, marrying his niece, Agrippina the Younger in 49 CE. This union seems to have allowed him to enter a more stable, conciliatory relationship with his fellow elites. Given these factors, it is reasonable to argue that Messalina became a convenient scapegoat for unpopular decisions.
In influential sources like Tacitus, a sharp contrast is drawn between Claudius’ last two wives (Tac., Ann. 12.7) and this has had some influence on representations of the two in popular works such as Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. Messalina is a chaotic, feminine force who lets her emotions loose upon the state for her own amusement. In contrast, Agrippina is labelled masculine for her laser-focused ambition. As Agrippina’s son would succeed Claudius (and then murder Messalina’s son into the bargain), one has to wonder how much Messalina’s portrayal was also bound up in the woman who succeeded her.
Between the problematic and partial nature of the sources, the dislike that the ancient sources have for women in politics, sexually liberated women and the way that Messalina’s representation has been impacted by that of other historical figures like Claudius and Agrippina the Younger, the idea that Messalina was a teenage nymphomaniac is most likely untrue.
Whilst there is not enough evidence to definitively establish her age or the motivations for her conduct during Claudius’ reign, it seems clear that Messalina acted out of more than uncontrollable sexual desire and we are doing her a disservice to dismiss her with such a simplistic explanation. Popular culture may have maligned her reputation, but it may also have provided one of the fairer depictions.
Robert Graves’ representation of Messalina as a terrible beauty who was (almost) the perfect storm of political savvy and personal desire still resonates after all these years.