The ancient elite Roman culture revolved as much around gaining political power as it did around a man’s ability to demonstrate his sexual power and they have given us the word ‘vagina’, which translates as the sheath of one’s sword in Latin. In fact, many of the early Roman emperors were phenomenally unpopular for their erotic degeneracy and sadistic cruelty. However, women were not left behind and the Roman Empire also produced some of the most cruel, ambitious and scandalous women in history. One of the names of such women that stands out above all the rest, is Valeria Messalina, the powerful, influential, ruthless and sexually insatiable third wife of the Roman emperor Claudius. In ancient Rome, she was a symbol of vanity and immorality and was identified as one of the most corrupt and debauched women in history.
Valeria Messalina was born around 20 AD, as the second child and first daughter of a fairly reputable Roman family with royal roots. Her mother, Domitia Lepida Minor, was the granddaughter of Mark Anthony and her maternal uncle, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus was the biological father of Emperor Nero, making him the first cousin of Messalina, despite a seventeen-year age difference. Apart from that, both her grandmothers had been not only half-sisters, but also nieces of Augustus Caesar.
Little is known about Messalina before she married Claudius. According to the family tree, they were cousins and their marriage was arranged more for the interest of the family for the nearness of the throne than directed by love. Before he wedded Messalina, Claudius had been married twice. At first he married Plantia Urgulanilla, whom he divorced for alleged adultery and then married Aelia Paetina and had a daughter. Later he divorced her, either due to the emotional and mental abuse by Paetina or as the marriage became a political liability. After that, Messalina, a tender teenager, described as an extremely beautiful girl, slim and quick moving, with eyes as black as jet and masses of curly black hair, became the fourth wife of her much older cousin Tiberius Claudius Caesar, who was 35 years her senior.
During that time Claudius had no trace of his illustrious grandfather Marc Antony in him and even his mother Antonia called him a monster of a man. Nevertheless, a daughter named Claudia Octavia arrived the following year, who would eventually marry her stepbrother Nero to become the empress and in 41 AD Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, better known as Britannicus, was born, whose birth gave Messalina the additional control over Claudius, as it provided him with an heir. Unfortunately, Britannicus was later poisoned by his step-brother Nero in 55 AD.
After Claudius came to power, he revoked the exile order of his nieces, the daughters of Caligula’s brother Germanicus, Agrippina and Julia Livia, who were sent to exile by Tiberius after Caligula had abused and raped them. Agrippina would be later married to Claudius after the death of Messalina. Claudius returned them their estates, titles and money upon their return to Rome. However, Messalina hated the move. She became jealous, jealous mainly of the beautiful and young Julia, who was favourite of the emperor. Possibly she also apprehended that the two sisters and their husbands might hatch a plan to claim the throne and oust both Claudius and his wife. Before giving them any chance, Messalina brought charges of adultery, immorality and incest against Julia and convinced Claudius to exile her and eventually arranged to kill her in exile, while her husband, Marcus Vinicius, was executed on a charge of adultery. However, Agrippina escaped the fatality, as she wisely stayed in the background.
Messalina’s next target was her stepfather, Appius Silenus, the governor of eastern Spain, who had close ties to the throne. Silenus married Messalina’s mother Domitia Lepida Minor, after the death of her husband and unfortunately for him, Messalina became infatuated with her new stepfather; which he did not reciprocate. As he repeatedly rejected her advances, Messalina felt insulted and decided to teach him a lesson. In 42 AD, the empress confided and allied with Narcissus, the secretary to Claudius and at her instigation Narcissus claimed that he had had a vision where Silanus had stabbed the emperor. To add more fuel to it, Messalina backed him up by claiming that she also had a similar dream. It was sufficiently strong enough to convince Claudius, a superstitious man and a strong believer in bad omens, who promptly arrested and executed Appius Silenus.
Messalina could do anything to take revenge. Senator Valerius Asiaticus earned her wrath as he was unwilling to part with his beautiful Gardens of Lucullus, which she desired for herself. However, there was another reason for her deep rooted hatred toward Valerius. He was the lover of Poppaea Sabina the Elder, with whom Messalina was once engaged in a fierce rivalry over the love of the famous actor Mnester. At her instigation, Asiaticus was tried in the emperor's private chambers on charges of a conspiracy against the emperor, adultery with Sabina and for engaging in homosexual activities. But instead of a guilty plea, he was allowed to commit suicide by opening his veins. It created a great outrage amongst the senators, who blamed both Messalina and Claudius for the murder of Valerius Asiaticus without notifying the Senate and without trial. However, despite everything, Messalina had her agents harass Poppaea Sabina with threats of prison, which ultimately led to her suicide.
It is argued that the accusations of sexual excess that were made in the years that followed, were arguably the efforts to damage Messalina’s reputation and the result of politically motivated hostility. However, it is said that while Claudius was away in Britain, Messalina once invited one of the top prostitutes of Rome and challenged her in a competition to prove who could take more lovers in one night. According to Roman author Pliny the Elder, in that competition held in the Imperial palace, Messalina came out on top with a total of 25 lovers against her opponent’s 24, after non-stop intercourses throughout the day and the night.
Many Roman historians claimed that Messalina used sex as a weapon to control the politicians and probably she had 150 lovers during her lifetime. According to them, she even had a brothel under an assumed name, where the upper class women were forced to work as prostitutes and were subsequently blackmailed for that. Apart from that, she also liked to work in a public house as a prostitute and in his sixth satire poet Juvenal gave the vivid description of how the Empress used to work clandestinely all night in a brothel under the name of Lycisca or the She-Wolf. Although the stories seem to be unrealistic for the empress of Rome, many people believed them without any doubt.
It is said that Claudius was clueless of his wife’s indiscretions or simply chose to ignore them, as it helped him to get rid of his enemies and later denied that he was not aware about her actions. On the other hand Messalina started to believe as the wife of the emperor and the mother of his children, her authority is unquestionable and nobody would have the courage to oppose her actions. But her downfall started when she met her new lover, an attractive young senator named Gaius Silius who, despite initial rejection, fell under her magnetic spell, although he was already married to the sister of Caligula’s first wife. By that time Claudius was 56, often ill and not at all an attractive man for the young, beautiful and libidinous Messalina. It was not impossible that she might be worried about her bleak future in case of death of her husband while her children were young. Under the circumstances, she hatched a plan which could be termed as one of the worst planned conspiracies in the history of the world. As Caius Silius was popular with the Praetorian Guard and the people, she did nothing to hide her affair with Caius Silius and convinced him to marry her. She also convinced him that after their marriage, they would overthrow Claudius by taking advantage of his weakness and would rule the empire together, while Silius would adopt Britannicus and thereby ensuring his future accession.
In 48 AD, when Claudius was on an official visit to Ostia, Messalina married her latest lover Gaius Silius, without divorcing their lawful partners. At that stage, Messalina’s former ally Narcissus realized the possible implication of the marriage and informed Claudius all about it. Claudius rushed back to Rome and immediately executed Silius. Gaius and many other wedding guests were also executed, while others were flying in all directions. In her desperate attempt to save the situation, Messalina attempted to gain access to her husband in the palace with her children. But they were denied the access and were sent to the Gardens of Lucullus, where Messalina took refuge with her mother. Despite the mounting evidence against Messalina, Claudius's feelings were softening and he wanted to spare her, as he asked to see her in the morning for a private interview. But realizing his intention, measures were taken to prevent their meeting. Messalina was given the honorable option of taking her own life, but as she was utterly terrified and was unable to use the dagger effectually to slit her own throat, the blow from a guard drove it through her.
After the death of Messalina, Claudius declared that he would not marry again, but within a short time, he married his fourth wife Agrippina, the younger sister of Caligula.