This empress was the most dangerous woman in Rome
Published March 2, 2023
20 min read
One of the greatest villains of the Roman Empire is the empress Messalina. The third wife of the emperor Claudius, she is remembered today as the most promiscuous woman in Rome, the nymphomaniac empress. The Messalina in the modern imagination is a pinnacle of uncontrolled, violent, irrational, and impulsive behavior. Her sexual appetite is unrivaled, and her motivations quite wicked. When Mikhail Bulgakov was filling Satan’s ball in The Master and Margarita, he included Messalina as a guest. When Charlotte Bronte needed to describe the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre, Bronte likened her to a German vampire as well as Messalina. Of all the scandalous women who violated Roman gender roles, Messalina has come down through history as the most scandalous of all.
(Blood and betrayal turned Rome from republic to empire.)
Valeria Messalina was at most 18 in A.D. 38 when she married her only husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus. Claudius on the other hand was a 47-year-old, twice-divorced, father of two. The pair were first cousins once removed, both descended from the Divine Augustus’s sister Octavia.
The marriage was a great honor for Claudius, as his previous wives had been of moderate prestige compared to Messalina. His marriage to a descendant of Octavia coincided with his belated entry into public life and was a sign that the new emperor—his nephew Caligula—approved of him and was tying him closely to the line of succession.
(Caligula thought he was a god, and it got him killed.)
For Messalina, however, the marriage was likely less thrilling. Her new husband had spent his entire life until this point as a family embarrassment. He had visible disabilities that allegedly prompted his mother to refer to him as a monster, his great-uncle Augustus to forbid him from sitting with the rest of the family in public, and his uncle Tiberius to banish him from any public office. Imperial Rome was an unfriendly place for disabled people, and no one knew that better than Claudius. He had seen his siblings receive glorious honors and advantageous marriages. Claudius had no prestige and brought little but his bloodline to enhance Messalina’s own. It is hard to imagine that she looked forward to marriage to a man 30 years her senior whose achievements she could not even brag about.
The pair had two children in quick succession, and Claudius unexpectedly—and controversially—became emperor. After Caligula was assassinated in A.D. 41, Claudius took refuge in the army camps and haggled for two days to convince the Senate to accept him as emperor.
Messalina’s husband, with no experience and little promise, had surpassed everyone’s expectations when he took power. Still in her early 20s and prepared for a life of aristocratic leisure, Messalina had become an empress. Just weeks after her husband ascended to the Roman throne, she made history by being the first woman to give birth to a Roman emperor’s son.
Importance of being Julia
Please be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
Messalina with her son, Britannicus, as a Roman statue from circa A.D. 50.
The Julia family (Julii) was held in high regard by the Roman people, who looked to the family as successors of Julius Caesar (Emperor Augustus was Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son). Lineage was a key factor in the match between Claudius and Messalina. The 30-year age gap and general incompatibility between them were overlooked in favor of their heritage. The pair’s marriage formed one of the “purest” connections to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, in that it descended directly from Octavia, sister of Augustus. Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius all descended from Livia, Augustus’s third wife, and were thereby linked also to the Claudian line.
Most information on Messalina’s relationship with Claudius comes from the first and second-century A.D. historians Tacitus and Suetonius, each writing decades after her death during a time critical of Rome’s early emperors. Suetonius writes of the pair in The Twelve Caesars, but his descriptions are short and matter-of-fact. Tacitus has much more to say on the subject.
Messalina’s first years as Claudius’s wife and empress were not included in these works, so it is unclear if her notoriety was present from the start of her husband’s rule. Roman men tended to perceive women as being constitutionally corrupt, unlike men, who became corrupted. Roman law viewed women as perpetual minors and distrusted them to control their own property.
(Claudius’s next wife, Agrippina, was a master strategist. She paid the price for it.)
It is possible that opinions of Messalina changed over time, but when Tacitus’s narrative picks up around A.D. 47, six years into Claudius’s reign, the historian thinks Messalina’s a monster. Tacitus’s first mention of the empress describes her manipulating her husband to punish two of her personal enemies: Valerius Asiaticus and Poppaea Sabina. Asiaticus owned the lovely Gardens of Lucullus, which Messalina coveted. She spread rumors of an extramarital affair between Asiaticus and Poppaea (who had taken a lover Messalina desired for herself). Claudius had the pair arrested and Asiaticus killed. Poppaea was imprisoned, and Tacitus reports she died by suicide after repeated harassment from Messalina’s agents.
In Tacitus’s telling, Messalina frequently uses the judicial system and the functions of the state for her own selfish ends. Through them, she obtains revenge on those who cross her, reject her sexual advances, or spark her envy. She exiles relatives and executes rivals. She lies about omens and circulates rumors to scare her husband into doing her bidding. She makes the personal political.
Marriage and betrayal
Messalina’s actions ultimately brought her down. Roman historians reported her undoing and subsequent murder with glee and snickering delight. Tacitus is again the chief source of information on Messalina’s final scandal. Other authors retold Messalina’s story, including the Roman poet Juvenal who wrote a scathing condemnation of her in his Satires, composed in the late first or early second century A.D. Writing a century later, Roman historian Cassius Dio continued the tradition of rendering Messalina as a villain, calling her “the most abandoned and lustful of women.”
The episode begins in A.D. 48, when Messalina starts a love affair with Senator Gaius Silius. Silius’s complicity varies across sources; in Juvenal and Dio he is a passive victim of her dominance, while in Tacitus he is an enthusiastic participant. Messalina lavishes him with decadent gifts, from family heirlooms to houses. Their affair proceeds until it becomes public knowledge. Silius divorces his wife, but Messalina cannot free herself from her emperor husband.
(Inside the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar.)
The adulterers then do something so unexpected—so open and shocking—that even the ancient sources can barely believe it. The couple hold their own wedding while Claudius is out of town in Ostia. Messalina dons the yellow veil of a bride and proceeds publicly through the streets to Silius’s home, where they exchange vows. They then throw a raucous party that includes, according to Tacitus, Messalina wantonly letting her hair down.
The actual events and meaning of that day are still debated by modern historians. Was this a real wedding or a performance? Was it an attempted coup rather than a brazen affront? Some characterize the day as an attempt to overthrow Claudius, motivated entirely by political ambition to rule. The truth will never be known because neither conspirator survived the night.
Rumors of their wedding party, whether real or staged, reach Claudius in Ostia very quickly. To break the news, his administrators send his two favorite mistresses to tell him that his wife has publicly divorced him by marrying another man. Claudius, in Tacitus’s telling, panics, believing that Messalina and Silius are attempting to overthrow him. Claudius has them immediately arrested. Guards escort Messalina to the Gardens of Lucullus, and Silius is brought before Claudius at the army camps. Silius and his allies are executed on the spot for treason, and then Silius’s name vanishes from history.
Death of an empress
Claudius procrastinates over Messalina’s fate. She is his wife of a decade, the mother of his children, and a woman he loves by all accounts. He softens and decides to give her a hearing the next day. Claudius’s supporters fear that Messalina will escape punishment, so they take matters into their own hands. They falsely tell Roman centurions and a tribune to go to the gardens and execute Messalina on the orders of the emperor.
(The love child of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar was Egypt’s last pharaoh.)
Messalina is in the gardens with her mother. Tacitus reports that even when she is trapped, Messalina does not give up. She tries to find a way out of the situation, but to no avail. When the soldiers arrive, they give her the option to kill herself, but she is unable to do it. Tacitus sneers that she was so lacking in virtue that she couldn’t even take her own life. One of the tribunes runs her through and ends her life.
Tacitus reported that Claudius is unmoved at the news of his wife’s death: “[H]e called for a cup and went through the routine of the banquet. Even in the days that followed, he betrayed no symptoms of hatred or of joy, of anger or of sadness, or, in fine, of any human emotion.” The Roman government decrees a damnatio memoriae against Messalina, striking her name from public and private places and destroying her statues. But this official erasure did not cause Messalina to fade from memory. Rather, her sexual appetites and bigamous wedding gave rise to rumors, jokes, and gossip that would overtake her every other action in the historical imagination, including her political machinations.
Erasing the past
Please be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
The Picture Art Collection/Alamy
Romans who lived exemplary lives could be pronounced gods after death, but villains faced the postmortem punishment of damnatio memoriae, of having one’s name erased from history. If the government declared it, one’s name would be struck from public and private records, property seized, and portraits defaced. Caligula and Nero were two early emperors who were damned. Roman women could also be condemned; most were sentenced along with their husbands. Only a few, such as Messalina and Julia the Elder (daughter of Augustus Caesar), received their own condemnation outright. The practice continued into later eras. In the early 200s, Emperor Caracalla condemned his brother Geta after murdering him. Portraits of Geta, even as a boy like this one, were defaced, and it became a crime to say his name.
Rumors and innuendo
These jokes and whispers started early. Pliny the Elder, who was a young army officer serving in Germany during Claudius’s early rule, wrote an encyclopedia of natural phenomena, in which he included musings on mammalian sexuality. Humans, he notes, are the only animals who don’t have breeding seasons and who are never sated when it comes to sex. As an illustration, he tells the reader about Empress Messalina, who engaged in a competition with a sex worker to see who could take the most lovers. After 25 “embraces,” Messalina won.
A generation later, the anecdote grew even more outrageous when it was related by noted misanthrope Juvenal in his Satires. Messalina appears in the section on why he hates women. Calling her the “Imperial Whore,” Juvenal claims that every night Messalina disguised herself in a blonde wig—a hair color associated with barbarians—and worked at a low-class brothel, where she would have sex until the sun came up. She would be sent away “exhausted but not yet satisfied.”
By A.D. 220, when Cassius Dio was writing his Roman History, Messalina’s imagined brothel has moved into the imperial palace, where she invites men to buy sex from her and from other aristocratic women, some of whom are forced by Messalina into sex work. Dio also related a tale concerning a dancer, Mnester, who finds himself the focus of Messalina’s unwelcome advances. He rejects her repeatedly until Messalina complains to her husband that Mnester will not obey her, pretending that he is merely insubordinate. Claudius, none the wiser, orders Mnester to do whatever his wife commands, and thus Mnester must submit. This scene seems ripped directly from Greek and Roman comedy: The cuckolded husband and the unfaithful, sexually rapacious wife are stock characters. The story shows that Messalina’s real fall was so dramatic that anything could be said about her and be believed.
(Inside the decadent love affair of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.)
These kinds of stories delegitimize Messalina and reveal how Roman (and modern) misogyny works. In the sources that purport to be telling history—Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio—Messalina is promiscuous but also clever, calculating, and cruel. She schemes with allies both within her household and the Senate to concoct plans and accumulate power. She uses the law courts and alliances to torment her enemies, and she runs a citywide network of spies and informers. She gathers information and deploys it to control her husband and thus control an empire. All these things are undoubtedly nefarious, but they demonstrate a certain respect for Messalina as a complete person.
The popular imagination has not dwelled on these aspects. Writers from Pliny and Juvenal to Bronte and Chuck Palahniuk employ Messalina only to highlight her lascivious nature. She is not a political operator but merely a wanton woman operating in the shadows of the bedroom. Sex scandals remove her from the masculine, public sphere of power and politics and place her back where women belong: in the domestic, private sphere of wife and mother. Her sharper edges soften when she is diminished into the simplest category of female villain: a woman who enjoys sex a lot.
Messalina’s true scandals were that she overstepped the defined boundaries of an empress’s appropriate place and engaged too openly in the cruel politics of the Roman imperial system, culminating in a very strange but very public coup attempt. To remember her as merely the “Imperial Whore” and “most promiscuous woman in Rome” does her a disservice. Messalina was a much more complicated, and interesting, scandal than that.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.