Messalina was born around 20 AD. She was a cousin of Nero and Caligula and became Empress when she married Claudius.
Little is known for certain about the life of Messalina, other than her descent through both parents from Octavia, Augustus’ sister and her claim to be the mother of Claudius’ children Britannicus and Claudia Octavia.
Along with Augustus’ daughter Julia (who he had banished for sleeping with so many different men), Messalina is probably one of the most notoriously promiscuous women of Rome. But, does she deserve her reputation?
In 37 AD, Messalina married Claudius, who was at least 30 years older than her. At this time Caligula was still Emperor. Claudius we are told by Roman historian Suetonius doted on Messalina, and after he became Emperor, Messalina used his affection for her to get whatever she wanted from him. Suetonius tells us that Messalina used her sexual allure to get her way with her aging husband too. Tacitus tells us she ordered that Claudius exile or execute anyone who displeased her or who she felt threatened by. Unfortunately, according to her detractors, this was a good number of people.
Suetonius paints a picture of a weak Emperor, Claudius, a man who was easily manipulated by his wife. The account of Messalina competing with a prostitute to see who could have sex with the most people in one night was first recorded by Pliny the Elder. Pliny says that, with 25 partners, Messalina won. The poet Juvenal tells in his sixth satire that the Empress used to work clandestinely all night in a brothel under the name of the She-Wolf
Messalina’s most famous affair is the one she had with the senator Gaius Silius. It is said she told Silius to divorce his wife, which he did and that they planned to kill Claudius and make Silius Emperor. When Claudius found out about his wife’s behaviour and plots Suetonius is of the opinion that he should have ordered her death, but instead the stupid doting old man gave her another chance. Too weak and feeble to kill Messilina himself Suetonius as Claudius’ chief of the Imperial Guard do it instead. Suetonius says that when Claudius heard what had happened he simply asked for another chalice of wine. The Roman Senate then ordered a damnatio memoriae so that Messalina’s name would be removed from all public and private places and all statues of her would be taken down.
The problem for Messalina is that the Roman historians who relayed these stories about her, principally Tacitus and Suetonius, wrote them some 70 years after the events in a hugely hostile political environment where everything related to the imperial line to which Messalina had belonged was being trashed. Suetonius’ history is a great read but it is largely anti-Julio-Claudian scandal-mongering – they all get a bad press from him. Tacitus claims to be transmitting ‘what was heard and written by my elders’ without naming sources other than the memoirs of Agrippina the Younger, who had arranged to displace Messalina’s children in the imperial succession and was therefore particularly interested in blackening her predecessor’s name.
Messalina is portrayed by Tacitus as a scheming, manipulative and greedy liar who has no compunction in bringing down innocent people who she dislikes or who get in her way. Suetonius paints her as a whore and a woman who sleeps with lower class men – either way, she likes her sex rough and dirty which is not the hallmark of a respectable Roman matron let alone an Empress. What passes for history when it comes to Messalina is political and social annihilation. Accusations of sexual excess were and still are a tried and tested smear tactic against women. In this case, they were the result of politically motivated hostility. We know that when her affair with Gaius Silius was uncovered she did the very Roman thing of committing suicide in the company of her estranged mother; she was not killed by Claudius’ guards.
Her notorious story has had several outings on the silver screen – 1951, 1960, 1981
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £0.99 Also available on: