Questioning the Dramatic Story of the Empress Messalina, Was She a Cruel Doxy or the Victim of a Smear Campaign?
In Ancient Rome, Valeria Messalina was a symbol of vanity and immorality. For centuries, people identified her as one of the most demoralized women in history, but how much of what we know about Messalina is true?
Valeria Messalina was born around 20 AD into a family with royal roots. She was a great granddaughter of Mark Anthony and his wife Octavia. Her mother, Domitia Lepida, was their granddaughter. Octavia and Antony had two daughters: Antonia Minor (mother of Claudius) and Antonia Major (mother of Domitia Lepida).
The known history of Messalina really starts in 38 AD when she married the future emperor of the Roman Empire, Tiberius Claudius. Their family roots made them cousins, and their marriage was more due to their families’ interests for the empire than directed by love.
Was Messalina a Murderess?
Messalina is known in history as a very devious, ambitious, and controlling woman. The first child of the royal couple, Octavia, was born in 40 AD. Their son Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, called Britannicus, was born three years later.
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A 16th-century cameo of Messalina and her children ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Messalina was blamed for using her influence to enact a large number of prosecutions, and she supposedly used her power to achieve political and personal aims. The first on the list of her alleged victims was Appius Junius Silanus. He was a commander of three legions in Spain when he was asked to return to Rome and marry Messalina's mother. Historical resources say that Messalina created an intriguing story and claimed that she had dreamed that Appius intended to assassinate Claudius, thus bringing about the commander’s end.
Another person who probably died because of the ambitious empress was a commander of the Praetorian Guard, Catonius Jutus, who was a witness to her promiscuous behavior. She is also said to be guilty of killing Julia Livilla, a niece of Claudius, and Julia, the granddaughter of Tiberius. Messalina was said to have ordered their deaths because she was jealous of their beauty.
Due to her orders, Marcus Vinicius, the husband of Julia Livilla, was poisoned as well. He died because he suspected that she had been complicit in his wife's death and had rejected Messalina as a lover. The list of possible murders and crimes by Messalina is much longer, but there is very little proof for any of these stories.
Was She an Unfaithful Wife and a Prostitute?
Another one of her many described faults was her lack of faithfulness to her husband. Reports by ancient historians claim that she could have even had 150 lovers during her lifetime. According to their descriptions, she liked to work in a public house as a prostitute as well. Although it sounds unrealistic that an empress of Rome worked in such a place, many people believed this story without a doubt. The source of this information stays unknown, however, and it sounds more like typical Roman gossip than the truth.
Some purpose built Roman brothels had permanent foundations for beds, such as this one in Pompeii. ( Public Domain ) There was gossip that Messalina enjoyed working as a prostitute.
Claudius, who was 56 years old, wasn’t attractive for young Messalina, who perhaps finally fell in love and wanted to marry the Senator Gaius Silius. Thus, Messalina declared her divorce from Claudius, and Silius divorced his wife too. Nonetheless, historical resources say that they got married in 48 AD, when Messalina was still Claudius’ wife.
One of Silius’ head officers informed the emperor about the lovers’ plan and they both were sentenced to death. It is said that she escaped to the gardens of Valerius Asiaticus, another person whose prosecution she had influenced. There, she was waiting her death with her mother, who tried to make her commit an honorable suicide. However, Messalina, a woman who was accused of many murders, didn't have the strength to kill herself. She was found and executed by the centurions.
Following her death, the Senate ordered a damnatio memoriae so that Messalina's name would be removed from all public and private places and all statues of her were to be taken down. After the death of Messalina, Claudius claimed that he would remain celibate, but soon after this declaration he married Caligula’s sister Agrippina.
Do Tales of Messalina Come from Serious Historical Resources or Are They Fairy Tales?
Several great Roman writers mentioned Valeria Messalina in their works. The list of names is impressive: Cassius Dio, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder, Juvenal, Plutarch, Suetonius, Tacitus, Sextus Aurelius Victor, and Seneca the Younger.
However, it should be noted that Messalina died before most of them were born. Josephus was a little boy when she died as well. Pliny the Elder, who was born in 23 AD during the lifetime of Messalina stayed in the northern part of Italy. He was a student of law and in 46 AD became a soldier. Also, it must be noted that in his writings, he's influenced by the works of Seneca. Therefore, the only known person who was active as a writer and who could have met Messalina in person was Seneca the Younger.
Pliny the Elder, as imagined by a 19th-century artist. No contemporary depiction of Pliny is known to survive. ( Public Domain )
Was Messalina a Victim of Seneca's Revenge?
When Caligula became emperor in 38 AD, a conflict between the new ruler and Seneca appeared. It was caused by Caligula’s jealousy of Seneca’s remarkable gift for rhetoric. With Agrippina’s support, Seneca narrowly avoided execution, and when Claudius lost interest in his wife Aelia Paetina, Seneca hoped that the emperor would marry Agrippina (who appreciated Seneca). Thus, it could be said that from the beginning, Seneca was never in the group of Messalina’s supporters.
Ancient bust of Seneca, part of the Double Herm of Socrates and Seneca ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Claudius succeeded Caligula in 41 AD and, due to the decision by the new emperor and his wife, Seneca was banished to the island of Corsica. Some historians exclusively blame Messalina for this act. They say that she was aware of the attention which Seneca gave Agrippina and she wanted to send him far away from Rome. She was said to be afraid that the intrigue created by these two was dangerous for her position and life. Nevertheless, when Messalina died, Claudius married Agrippina and Seneca was finally able to return to Rome. He became a tutor to her son, Nero, who was 12 years old.
Seneca wrote his accounts of Messalina during his stay in Corsica. He was banished out of Rome and unhappy with the situation he was in. Moreover, his wife Pompeia Paulina was in conflict with an empress. Did Seneca use his authority and writing talents to punish Messalina? This question remains unanswered.
Another Side to Messalina's story
Messalina definitely wasn't a person without guilt. She was also surely one of the most magnetic and fascinating women of her times. However, her ambition and the tools she used to get as much power as possible weren't anything new in the dynasty she was a part of. Although, it appears that many stories about her life could have been exaggerated as well.
Peder Severin Krøyer, Messalina, 1881, Gothenburg Museum of Art. ( Public Domain )
Over time, the story of Messalina became a very popular motif in literature, movies, theater plays, art, etc. Every artist who is inspired by Messalina repeats the story which Seneca left in his manuscript. Hopefully future excavations and analysis will bring about more information, which will allow a full disclosure of the truth of Messalina and her actions.
Featured image: Hans Makart's painting of Charlotte Wolter in Adolf Wilbrandt's tragedy, Arria und Messalina. ( Public Domain )
Levick, Barbara, Claudius, 1990.
Barrett, Anthony A., Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the Early Roman Empire, 1996
Krawczuk, Aleksander, Poczet cesarzowych Rzymu, 2011