Messalina, Valeria (c. 23–48 CE)
Messalina, Valeria (c. 23–48 ce)
Roman empress, notorious for deviously influencing political affairs and for sexual indiscretions, who was executed for an alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow her husband Emperor Claudius. Namevariations: Messallina. Born in Rome around 23 ce (date is speculative); executed for alleged treason in 48 ce; daughter of M. Valerius Messalla Barbatus and Domitia Lepida, both members of the dynastic Julio-Claudian family; married Claudius, c. 38 ce, who became Roman emperor in 41 ce; children: daughter, Octavia (c. 39–62); son, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Germanicus, later named Britannicus.
Young, attractive, clever, and self-interested, Valeria Messalina found herself near the center of political power in Rome during the 1st century ce. She exploited every possibility to maintain her position, earning in the process a reputation for being cruel, manipulative, and sexually voracious. Ultimately, she overplayed her hand and paid for it with her life.
Nothing is known of her childhood (the approximate date of her birth, 23 ce, is speculative) but it is known that she was a politically desirable wife because of her prestigious pedigree: her great-grandmother on both her maternal and paternal side was Octavia (69 bce–11 ce), sister of the first great Roman emperor Augustus. Messalina's immediate family enjoyed the favor of Emperor Caligula for having remained loyal to his mother Agrippina the Elder during her persecution and then execution by the emperor Tiberius. When Messalina, who was considered a beautiful young woman, was at a proper or even late age for marriage, her family used their advantages to seek out the best possible husband for her. This man was Claudius, uncle of the emperor.
Claudius' main assets were his membership in the royal family and his good standing with Caligula, who allowed him to participate in the administration of the empire. Furthermore, Claudius was Messalina's cousin (once removed)—a perfectly respectable relationship, and one which would keep power and resources within the Julio-Claudian family. Nonetheless, Messalina may not have been overjoyed with the prospect of a life with Claudius. At 48, he was old for her by Roman standards, even if she were already in her 20s (some sources claim she was much younger), and he was plagued with physical problems which had caused his family to mistakenly assume that he was mentally deficient. (His mother Antonia Minor had supposedly called him "a little monster.") This erroneous assumption, as Claudius himself would later note, had protected his life during periods of political instability, but it could hardly have added to his charms as a prospective bridegroom. No one dreamed he would become the next emperor.
To marry Messalina, Claudius divorced his second wife Paetina "for no good reason" (as Suetonius, one ancient biographer, unsympathetically recounts). The marriage took place in 38 ce. Within one year, Messalina proved her fertility by bearing a daughter, whom they named Octavia (c. 39–62). In 41, Caligula, who was mentally unstable, vicious, and widely feared, was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard (a military elite, whose job, ironically, was to protect the emperor). After the assassination, the guard found Claudius hiding behind a curtain, fearing for his life. Instead of killing him, they proclaimed him emperor. Under the threat of force, the Senate unhappily confirmed his emperorship. Then Claudius attempted to placate the Senate, but he managed to obtain only an uneasy relationship with those elite men. Needing any support he could get, he turned instead to those with whom he had a long-standing relationship of trust—his loyal and talented freedmen (former slaves who still served their former masters)—to help him in his administration of the vast Roman Empire.
Messalina, too, was a key to stabilizing Claudius' claim to the throne. She not only brought the political support of her extended family, but she also gave birth to their second child and first son, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Germanicus ("Britannicus"), just three weeks after Claudius was confirmed as emperor. Having a clear heir to the throne both solidified Claudius' position and strengthened Messalina's personal influence. As the wife of the emperor, Messalina was one of the most powerful women
in Rome, but she nonetheless needed to protect her advantages. To fortify her position, she used sex, blackmail, key appointments, trials, and alliances. The ancient historians, who are unanimously antipathetic towards her, clearly believed that such tactics also gave her means to indulge in personal vice.
Some stories recounting Messalina's many marital infidelities are exaggerated to the point of undermining their veracity; nonetheless, the consensus from antiquity gives credence at least to the general rumors of promiscuity. (She was certainly not alone in this, as the many stories of decadence during the decline of the Roman Empire can attest.) Among the particular rumors which have followed Messalina down through the ages are that she solicited men in common taverns, danced naked in the Forum, and once bet a famous Roman prostitute that she could beat her at her own game; Pliny the Elder notes that she won the bet, "for within the space of twenty-four hours she cohabited twenty-five times." The Roman historian Tacitus mentions by name many prominent men with whom Messalina had relationships, suggesting that she was merely giving in to wayward proclivities. The fact that she monopolized the attentions of the famous dancer, Mnester, who could do her no political favors, argues for this interpretation. Cassius Dio, however, interprets her escapades as purposefully directed toward political ends. For instance, he describes her contrivance to involve many prominent women in a group sex session at which their husbands were in attendance. Those men who attended were awarded with various offices and honors through her influence with Claudius, but their actions also made them vulnerable, should she wish it, to charges of "pandering." Meanwhile, those who did not attend were undermined politically or destroyed.
[Messalina] toyed with national affairs to satisfy her appetites.
Claudius appears to have been truly infatuated with his wife (Suetonius uses the words "extravagant love" to describe his feelings), and to have trusted her completely. When he conquered parts of Britain, he included his family in the triumph (a formal and prestigious procession and ritual). Messalina followed the emperor's chariot in a covered carriage—which actually came before the generals who had won honors in the campaign—and "Britannicus" was added to her son's name in commemoration at this time. The implications of these honors were not lost on the status-conscious Romans, and, as long as her children were young, no one was foolish enough to accuse her publicly of adultery. Such an accusation would have called her children's paternity into question, an unwise reflection on Claudius which would have brought down his wrath on the accuser.
The ancient historians do not consider Claudius' behavior towards his wife as points in his favor. They paint a generally negative picture of him, portraying Claudius as the dupe of each of his successive wives in concert with his favored freedmen. Clearly the imperial household was managed in a new manner during his reign. "Claudius fell so deeply under the influence of these freedmen and wives," writes Suetonius, "that he seemed to be their servant rather than their emperor; and distributed honors, army commands, indulgences or punishments according to their wishes, however capricious, seldom even aware of what he was about." Was an ignorant Claudius manipulated by Messalina, as the ancient sources would have us believe? Some modern scholars speculate that he worked in unspoken or even overt agreement with her, using his wife as an informal but powerful tool to deal with any perceived threat to his throne. Whether or not this was the case, it is clear that Messalina brought her own creativity and motivations to the task of solidifying imperial power.
She did not limit her tactics to sexual entanglements alone, however, and recognized the value of a well-placed man who was beholden and therefore loyal to her. For instance, when one of the commanders of the Praetorian Guard threatened to disclose her risqué activities to her husband, she had him demoted and managed to have Lusius Geta, a man of her choice, appointed to this position instead.
She also recognized the value of a well-paid prosecutor, whom she found in P. Suillius. He initiated scores of trials for Messalina against people she wanted removed from circulation. (When his service to her would be clearly revealed after her death, he was charged with "fraudulent prosecutions" and brought to trial himself. In his defense, he claimed that he had merely been obeying Messalina's orders. Because he had received huge sums of money for the tasks he had undertaken, however, he was declared guilty on his own account and executed.)
On one notorious occasion, Messalina eliminated a prominent and seemingly loyal senator, Decimus Valerius Asiaticus, who had formerly accompanied Claudius on his campaign in Britain. Asiaticus was involved in an affair with Poppaea Sabina , a wealthy and beautiful woman of whom Messalina was jealous, and he was also in the process of constructing a beautiful park which, according to Tacitus (who is never at a loss for providing sordid motives), Messalina coveted. To see to his undoing, she enlisted the help of Suillius to prosecute Asiaticus. She also arranged for Sosibius—the man who owed to Messalina his appointment as Britannicus' tutor—to convince Claudius of imminent danger. Dutifully, Sosibius pointed out to Claudius that Asiaticus' power was growing in Rome, and also that Asiaticus had connections in Gaul, where he could motivate his supporters into an uprising. Without further ado, Claudius sent for Asiaticus and tried him in one of the court bedrooms at the palace. Had the emperor followed accepted procedure, Asiaticus would have been tried by his peers in the Senate; the unorthodox palace trial signaled to all observers both the personal nature of the perceived threat and Messalina's influence. When Asiaticus presented his defense, Messalina cried. She did not, however, intercede. After he was condemned to die, she also engineered the suicide of his paramour Poppaea Sabina, by threatening her with punishments worse than self-destruction. (Apparently unaware of Messalina's attack on Poppaea, Claudius invited the unfortunate woman's husband to dinner a few days later and then inquired why Poppaea was not in attendance as well.) As a result of this affair, Messalina received Asiaticus' gardens.
Messalina also allied with various of Claudius' freedman whom the emperor trusted implicitly with his administration and who thus held comparable influence to her own. Her work with Narcissus, one of Claudius' most trusted freedmen, accomplished what neither could have individually. In one famous incident, which is recounted in several ancient sources, the two orchestrated a plan to dispose of Appius Silanus, a prominent Roman senator who had been governor of Eastern Spain. Claudius had attempted to co-opt Silanus' support by arranging a marriage for him with Messalina's mother, Domitia Lepida , but for reasons that are not entirely clear, Messalina perceived Silanus as a threat. Although the ancient sources attribute the motive for what followed to Silanus refusing to make love with her, there is some evidence that he actually may have been involved in a conspiracy against the emperor. Executing the elaborate plan he and Messalina had contrived, Narcissus ran into Claudius' bedroom just before daybreak and recounted a dream in which Silanus had violently attacked Claudius. Messalina woke up and, feigning astonishment, claimed she had dreamed the same dream several nights in a row. In the meantime, the two conspirators had summoned the unsuspecting Silanus to visit Claudius, hoping the emperor would interpret the visit as proof positive of an intent to murder; Claudius sentenced the unlucky man to death.
Although Messalina possessed great influence over her husband, she was aware that her position was not invulnerable. Thus she unflaggingly sought to undermine perceived rivals, including Agrippina the Younger and Julia Livilla , the two surviving sisters of the former emperor Caligula. Sent into exile by Caligula for suspected treason, they had been recalled to Rome upon Claudius' accession. Messalina "persecuted" Agrippina the Younger, which provoked a general sympathy for her, but Agrippina was clever enough to maintain a low profile. Julia Livilla, however, was a beautiful woman who often spent time alone with Claudius, and who refused to give Messalina the respect due her. This inspired Messalina's hatred, and she accused Julia Livilla of having an affair with the philosopher-politician Seneca—an accusation important mainly for the implications of a conspiracy. As a result, Seneca was given a formal trial which resulted in his banishment to the island of Corsica. Julia Livilla was banished without a trial and then killed.
In the end, Messalina was destroyed by the conjunction of power and sex which apparently dominated her life. According to Tacitus, she became infatuated with Gaius Silius, "the best-looking young man in Rome," whom she forced to divorce his wife so she could have him to herself. Gaius Silius knew better than to refuse the woman who could engineer his downfall and death, so he abandoned himself to the affair. Messalina showered him with wealth and distinction, engineering his nomination for the important office of consul and actually moving furniture and slaves from the royal palace into his house.
Poppaea Sabina (d. 47 ce)
Roman matron. Birth date unknown; committed suicide in 47 ce; daughter of Poppaeus Sabinus, governor of Moesia for 24 years; married; mistress of Valerius Asiaticus; children: Poppaea Sabina (d. 65), Roman empress and wife of Nero.
Claudius was seemingly unaware of his wife's dalliances, and might have remained so had not Messalina and G. Silius decided to make the relationship public. Tacitus portrays G. Silius as the one who urged that they should risk all, while Messalina was unenthusiastic. Her motive for giving in, says Tacitus, was the outrageousness of being called Silius' wife when she was still married to Claudius. So while Claudius was out of town performing religious duties, they celebrated a public marriage. Even Tacitus seems to think the story sounds incredible and takes extra pains to show he is not inventing it:
It will seem fantastic, I know, that in a city where nothing escapes notice or comment, any human beings could have felt themselves so secure. Much more so that, on an appointed day and before invited signatories, a consul designate and the emperor's wife should have been joined together in formal marriage "for the purpose of rearing children"; that she should have listened to the diviners' words, assumed the weddingveil, sacrificed to the gods; that the pair should have taken their places at a banquet, embraced, and finally spent the night as man and wife. But I am not inventing marvels. What I have told, and shall tell, is the truth. Older men heard and recorded it. (Trans. by Michael Grant.)
Juvenal, the biting satirist from the following century, recounts the story poetically:
What advice, do you suppose,
Should one give the young man whom Caesar's wife is determined
To marry? …
She sits there, waiting for him,
Veiled as a bride, while their marriage-bed is prepared
In the public gardens….
Did you think these were secret doings
Known only to intimate friends? But the lady's determined
On a proper, official wedding…. If
You refuse her commands, you'll die before lighting-up time;
If you do the deed, you'll get a brief respite ….
Better do what you're told, if a few more days' existence
Matter that much. But whichever you reckon the quicker
And easier way, your lily neck still gets the chop. (Trans. by Peter Green.)
The marriage could not have been considered legal, because Messalina could not be remarried legally without a divorce from Claudius. Nonetheless, all members of the imperial court recognized this "marriage" as a threat to Claudius' life, and thus also to their own positions. Tacitus describes a meeting among Claudius' powerful freedmen in which they discussed the various courses of action open to them. Narcissus, Messalina's erstwhile accomplice, now became the key figure in her downfall. He decided that the best plan would be to denounce her to Claudius suddenly, for all the freedmen feared that she would engineer their assassinations if she had any inkling of their intentions. (Not long before, Messalina had in fact betrayed another freedman, Polybius, who had been executed despite agreements with her.) Claudius' freedmen sent two of the emperor's favorite mistresses to break the news to him, so that each could corroborate the other's story.
Having duly revealed their information, the women urged Claudius to summon Narcissus to verify it. When he arrived at Ostia, where Claudius had prolonged his stay, Narcissus claimed that Messalina's adulteries and the imperial gifts to Silius could be overlooked, but not the public wedding. "Nation, senate, and army have witnessed her wedding to Silius," he said. "Act promptly, or her new husband controls Rome!" Panic-stricken, Claudius kept asking whether or not he was still emperor. His concern was not idle, for had he been displaced, it would have meant certain death. Taking his freedman's advice, he appointed Narcissus commander of the Praetorian Guard for one day, temporarily replacing Geta, who was still loyal to Messalina.
Meanwhile, Messalina had been enjoying a mock grape-harvest and a Bacchic revelry with Silius and friends. When rumors arrived that Claudius was on the way, the party dispersed. Messalina decided that her most effective defense would be to meet Claudius in person. To pave her way, she sent ahead their children, Octavia and Britannicus, to meet him. She also enlisted the support of the highest Vestal priestess, and then rode in a humble garden cart to meet Claudius, who was on his way back to Rome with Narcissus.
When her cart met the emperor's entourage, the two people Claudius had trusted the most engaged in a life-and-death struggle. While Messalina cried that Claudius must listen to the mother of his children, Narcissus shouted about the wedding to Silius, drowning her out and distracting Claudius with a list he had prepared beforehand enumerating her infidelities. The high priestess joined in the fray, demanding that Messalina not be executed without having her side of the story heard. Claudius "remained strangely silent," and Narcissus finally agreed that the emperor would later hear Messalina's defense.
Narcissus then escorted Claudius to Silius' home, where, in addition to imperial belongings, Claudius discovered a statue of Silius' previously executed father, placed there in defiance of a senatorial decree. Seeing the material evidence, Claudius allowed himself to be led toward the Praetorian camp for protection. Ashamed and barely able to speak, the emperor managed to address the guard briefly. By this time, most of Messalina's friends had been rounded up by officers of the Praetorian Guard, which noisily demanded that all offenders be executed. Silius asked for a quick death. Many others were executed as well.
Claudius' anger began to wane after he dined, however, and he ordered that "the poor woman" should appear the next day to defend herself. Realizing that he would lose the struggle if Messalina appeared in person before Claudius, Narcissus took advantage of his temporary authority and ordered the Praetorian Guard to kill Messalina, implying that he was carrying out the emperor's orders. Tacitus comments: "Indeed, if Narcissus had not speedily caused her death, the fatal blow would have rebounded on her accuser." Messalina, who had composed a defense for herself in anticipation of her meeting with Claudius the following day, was in the gardens she had stolen from Asiaticus. Although mother and daughter had previously been at odds, Domitia Lepida had come to Messalina's side. She told Messalina that her life was over, and advised her to make a decent end. When the guards arrived, Messalina took up a dagger to kill herself, but faltered. The guard accomplished what she could not, and her body was left with her mother.
Claudius was still at the dinner table when news of Messalina's death arrived. Details were not given, and the emperor did not ask. He called for more wine and continued his party. In the following days, he appeared to be in shock, "emotionless," giving "no sign of hatred, satisfaction, anger, distress, or any other human feeling." The Senate decreed that Messalina's statues and her name should be removed from all public and private sites.
The power structure of the imperial household was shaken, and each freedman who had some influence put forward a candidate for a new wife, hoping to strengthen his own position. The candidate Narcissus proposed lost out. Agrippina the Younger, whom Messalina had once feared as a potential rival, became Claudius' powerful fourth wife. (As it turned out, Messalina had been correct in pegging Seneca as a supporter of her rivals, for one of Agrippina's first actions after her marriage was to convince Claudius to recall the philosopher from exile and place him in a key position at court.) When Claudius was poisoned to death by Agrippina several years later, Narcissus lost his life as well. The deaths of Messalina's children, Britannicus and Octavia, followed within the next few years.
Scholars have discussed at length the question of whether or not Messalina's "marriage" to Silius was indicative of an actual threat to Claudius' rule. Many hold that they were merely indulging in a hedonistic whim and inadvertently provided an opportunity for Narcissus to undermine Messalina's influence in the imperial court. On the other hand, as a young noble and consul-designate for the year 48 ce, traditionally a prominent political position, Silius was clearly among the ranks of those who resented the emperorship of Claudius and had only accepted it reluctantly. It is also true that Narcissus had little to gain by seeing Messalina replaced with another powerful woman who might be less inclined to ally with him. Either he misjudged the future, or he saw her affair with Silius as not just another scandal but as a threat to the whole imperial household, of which he was a part. Tacitus suggests as one possible theory that there was indeed a plot to overthrow Claudius and that Messalina hoped to maintain her position in the empire by becoming the actual wife of Silius before the coup took place.
This points to the ultimate problem inherent in Messalina's very real power. Although she was influential not only with the emperor himself but with the many men for whom she had obtained important political appointments, and although she was able to destroy a number of her rivals, she was limited by the fact that her power depended on the favor of her husband. She finally lost that favor, and with it her life.
Cassius Dio Cocceianus. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. Vol. VII. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924.
Juvenal. Sixteen Satires. Satires VI and X. Translated by Peter Green, 1967. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Suetonius. "Life of Claudius," in Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves, 1957. Revised by Michael Grant, 1979. NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.
Tacitus. Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant, 1956. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Balsdon, J.P.V.D. Roman Women: Their History and Habits. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1963.
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Sylvia Gray Kaplan , Adjunct Faculty, Humanities, Marylhurst College, Marylhurst, Oregon