Messalina the Empress
Valeria Messalina was born in AD 25; her father was Consul Marco Valerio Mesala. Despite the fact that Messalina belonged to the Imperial family, her economic situation was not the one that should correspond to her due to kinship, since her mother had squandered all her fortune, and because her father was not a relevant man in the politics of the Empire. This was the reason why her parents arranged her marriage to one of her cousins, Tiberius Claudius, a wealthy Senator, with a serious case of stuttering and lameness (possibly from polio), with two previous marital failures. Messalina became her third wife at just 13 years old.During the first years of the marriage, Messalina accepted her life in the Roman patrician society and even when Claudius was elected Emperor after the murder of his nephew Caligula, which made Messalina the Augusta Empress, the first female Empress of Rome. She was the mother of two children: Claudia Octavia and Tiberius Claudius Germanicus (later known by the nickname Britannicus).
Messalina was too young and perhaps all these events dazzled or overwhelmed her, initiating a life of debauchery and lust that would lead her to become a danger to the Empire. The poet Tenth June Juvenal wrote in his Satires: “As soon as she believed that her husband was asleep, this imperial prostitute would wear the cloak that she wore at night and would leave the house accompanied by a slave, since she preferred a cheap bed to bed real. She disguised her black hair with a blonde wig and went to the shabby upholstery shop, where she had a camera reserved. Then she would take her place, naked and with her golden nipples, attending to the name of Lyscisca”. Other historians narrate that she went to her nightly appointments in the brothels of Suburra, considered one of the worst neighborhoods in Rome, to satisfy her sexual appetite and that she did not hesitate to walk the dark streets looking for her possible night companions. One of her critics and “chronicler” of her events was Suetonio, who said of her that she liked masochism since she made herself whip and liked to be ridden roughly, indeed, to be more explicit, she said “she valued each blow or ride making himself pay, until the last sesterce, like a commissioner who goes after the debtors ”. All this made her name synonymous with a corrupted woman.
A well-known and commented anecdote, which would describe her sexual voracity, was the sexual competition that she organized between her and a well-known prostitute who had been chosen by her guild for this feat, to see who could satisfy more men in a single night . In history it is written that while the professional had 25 services, the Empress would have greatly surpassed it (although Messalina’s enemies exaggerate the number and speak of 200).In imperial times, roman women enjoyed comfortable freedom of movement. Licentiousness flooded the city, leaving behind the image of Roman matrons. It was also influenced by the ease of divorcing the wife that the husband had, at the moment when he became infatuated with another woman he could dissolve their union and be free to relate to his new lover simply by disowning his wife. So it was no wonder infidelity was the order of the day in such a promiscuous society. But Messalina’s circle of lust extended to all social classes and led her to lust after important men, having no regard for her competitors or their willingness to relate to her. She made her husband bring her former platonic adolescent love from Hispania, the consul Cayo Apio Silano, with whom she wanted to have a relationship but he refused. In the end, using her power and influence, she accused him of conspiring against her husband and was executed.
It all came to an end in AD 48. when Messalina fell madly in love with Consul Gaius Silius, who was considered one of the most handsome men in the Empire. She caused him to divorce his wife and, according to some historians, she made a mock marriage by organizing a banquet to which important members of Roman society were invited (according to others, she would have actually married while Claudius was travelling).The freed Narcissus informed Claudius of his wife’s actions and of her intention to repudiate him and replace him as Emperor by Gaius Silius. The Councilors executed Gaius Silius and, to prevent Claudius from making the mistake of forgiving Messalina for this slip, and considering her a danger to the security of the Empire, they planned her assassination by means of hitmen. Messalina died in the gardens of Lucullus, where she had taken refuge with her mother when she learned of Silius’s death, at the age of 23. The Emperor Claudius found out hours after her assassination as, it seems, he was drunk when this happened.
Advised by the Council, he issued an order to remove all titles and images of Messalina from the life of the Empire, he married a fourth time, with Agrippina (his niece), adopting her son, Nero, and marrying him with his daughter Claudia Octavia. Nero became heir to the Emperor’s throne because he was older than Britannicus, whom he murdered a month before he reached the age of majority to secure the throne after Claudius’ death. Some historians point out that Britannicus would have even been sexually abused by Nero. Also, first he banished Octavia and then sent hitmen to kill her by putting her in a steam bath and cutting her veins, feigning suicide. Claudia Octavia died young, murdered, like her mother; she was then 22 years old.
1 – The Empress Messalina with her son Britannicus – Louvre Museum (Paris) – The statue was found near Rome and adorned the gardens of the Palace of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV before entering the Louvre after the Revolution.
2 – The death of Messalina, by Francesco Solimena (Getty Museum)
3 – Death of Messalina, by Rochegrosse Georges Antoine
4 – Scene of the wedding of Messalina and Gaius Silius, by Nicolaes Knüpfer (Rijksmuseum)