Bust of Messalina

Further Reading

I, Claudius

Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina

Let her live and be happy with her lovers,
three-hundred of whom she holds in her embraces,
loving none truly but again and again rupturing
the loins of them all;

and let her not count on my love, as in the past,
for through her fault it has fallen like a flower
at the meadow's edge, after being lopped
by the passing plough.
--Catullus

 

 

Where Livia Augusta had, at least publicly, advocated traditional values of morality, decency, and family values, Messalina put forth the more Asiatic corruption and pomp she most likely learned at Caligula’s court. Livia, a puritanical proponent of Roman conservatism and patrician tradition was Messalina's opposite. It was because the general populace did not scorn the traditions, and wished to see a virtuous woman at the side of the emperor, that Messalina became hated. Read More

 

 

Self-Portrait With Mask
Messalina

25 - 48 A.D. - Ancient Rome

Claudius, having been termed 'simple' early on in his life by his family was never given any political offices. As a result, unlike the other grandsons of Augustus, he survived the reigns of his uncle Tiberius and his deranged nephew Caligula. When the soldiers finally decided that Caligula was intolerable they assasinated him. Instead of killing Claudius, whom some speculate was witness to the murder, the soldiers named him emperor. Everyone just assumed that Claudius wouldn't cause any trouble and in fact he didn't, but his wives certainly did.

Valeria Messalina his third wife was the daughter of a cousin of Claudius. Caligula had Claudius marry her when he was 50, she 15, apparently as a joke. Messalina was quite beautiful and Claudius soon fell deeply in love with her. After he became emperor, they had two children, Britannicus and Octavia. Messalina became a major political player and those she favored soon found their financial situations much improved.

Holding power did not satisfy all of Messalina's desires and neither did her husband. While Roman women in imperial circles were not always faithful wives, Messalina went far beyond the quiet love affair. She had affairs with gladiators, dancers, other heads of state and anyone else she fancied. She was a hard woman to refuse and those who turned her down were accused of treason and executed. When Mnestor the actor hesitated, she told Claudius to order him to do as the Empress pleased. She slept with the handsomest men of Rome and occassionally, for novelty, the ugliest. She is even said to have challenged Scylla, a champion prostitute, to a competition: which could wear out more customers. Schylla gave up at dawn after 25 while Messalina continued tirelessly into the day. The Roman satyrist Juvenal describes her as finally going home "tired but never satisfied."

Messalina's adulterous and scandalous behavior marred the otherwise noteworthey reign of her husband and yet Claudius was the last person in Rome to know what his wife was doing. When she fell in love with Caius Silius, the consul-designate known as the handsomest man in Rome she had gone too far. Such was her passion for him, that determined to marry him, she coerced him to divorce his wife and lived openly with him furnishing his home with treasures from the Imperial Palace.

Messalina shortly thereafter celebrated a public bigamous wedding. It was a bold act; an opulent religious ceremony that took place while Claudius was in Ostia. Tacitus was quoted saying, "She craved the name of wife because it was outrageous and thus the greatest satisfaction to a sensation-seeker." Still to perform such an outlandish wedding in the public eye she must have had supporters and her choice of husband probably had more to do with survival than emotion. Many historians believe she had a heavy-handed political interest in the protection Caius could offer her. Seeing Claudius as a weak emperor, Messalina sought to strengthen her position by choosing a popular figure that could sway public opinion and the legions. Mad the lady was not.

This well organized and timely plan tempted even Claudius' most trusted men. Her plot against Claudius was so solid that she was able to secure the cooperation of Roman society, the approval of the guard, get a divorce, marry in public and feast with abandon at her bachanal! Had it not been for Claudius’ loyal secretaries, specifically Narcissus, who sent word of his wife's wedding plans to the emperor, Claudius would have certainly been slain.

Messalina received a message during her wedding feast that informed her that troops were coming on behalf of her husband but she lacked the courage to commit suicide even after strong words from her mother who urged her to die honorably. "But in that lust ridden heart there was no trace of decency; her tears and laments continued when the men broke the doors by force," When the guard arrived, Messalina was found in the Gardens of Lucullus with her mother preparing a petition for Claudius, but alas it was too late and she was slain. Tacitus tells us. The news of Messalina's death reached Claudius' ear at dinner time. He did not ask how she had died...he simply asked for more wine.

Messalina | Women in the News | Roman Ladies | Domus