In the sunny sky of Rome, in the 2nd century AD, a succession of characters followed one another and, thanks to the historiography, those names have arrived all the way to us today, 2 millenniums from when they happened to be. Amongst them we can remember Octavius Augustus, Nero, Caligula, Trajan but also some women such as Agrippina, Poppaea Sabina, Messalina. This last one died extremely young in 48 AD when she was barely 23 years old.
Below: Messalina holds in her arms Britannicus. Picture by Ricardo André Frantz shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Messalina, despite her brief life, managed to have people talking about her for her social customs in contrast with her actions as an empress. Let’s start from the very beginning though.
Messalina was born in a patrician family, kin to the Julio-Claudian dynasty. When she turns 14 she was forced to go marry Claudius, man known to suffer several setbacks. Claudius was a marginal character in the dynasty and remains out of the scene until his 47 years old, when his nephew Caligula promoted him as consul.
In not so long, in 41 AD, thanks to the murder of Caligula, Claudius became the most powerful man in the whole Roman Empire and Messalina with him, empress of Rome.
Below: statue of Claudius, picture by Marie-Lan Nguyen shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Seneca was exiled in Corsica; Julia Livilla, sister of Caligula was exiled in the island of Ventotene were she eventually was killed; her aunt Agrippina the younger was called back to Rome.
Below: painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema showing a Roman emperor in 41 AD; this is one of the three paintings of the British Dutch artist representing the ascent of Claudius. According to Suetonius, he was found hidden behind a curtain by some praetorians whom proclaimed him emperor
Young and restless, Messalina did not like the royal environment in which she was banished, hence she started looking for transgression even amongst the populace. The roughest tale which sees her as main character tells how she would dress up as a prostitute, under the false name of Licisca. Completely epilated, with gilded nipples and a mix of antimony and lampblack in her eyes, she was offering her body to sailors and gladiators for a few hours a day.
Below: painting of Messalina by Hans Makart from 1875
The rumors on her behalf were shameful to the point that she was said to sell herself in Suburra, one of the worst districts of Rome, on beds made of hay very far from the sumptuous pillows the empress was used to sleeping on.
For Pliny the Elder, Messalina defied even one of the most popular prostitute of Rome, managing to endure 25 different intercourse within 24 hours. Furthermore the poet Juvenal, proclaimed that the invicta (invincible woman) “lassata, viris nondum satiata, recessit” i.e. “tired yet not of men, she quit”.
Below: Messalina’s cameo with her sons, picture by Clio20 shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Lovers of many well known characters of that epoch, that included the governor Appius Iunis Silianus and the actor Mnester. She eventually fell in love with the Roman senator Gaius Silius, husband of Junia Silana, who repudiated the wife and became the official lover of the empress.
In 48 AD, during the absence of the emperor Claudius who was temporarily in Ostia, Messalina put on a fake wedding in her palace with Gaius Silius during a party to Dionysus. This was the last straw for the betrayed husband. Claudius was not a jealous husband, but he certainly was terrified by the thought of having someone making claims to the Roman throne.
For this reason the emperor condemned both Messalina and Gaius Silius to dead
Below: alleged bust representing Messalina preserved in the Uffizi, Florence. picture by Sailko shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The two lovers were taken by the soldiers but, although Gaius Silius did not resist to his inevitable destiny, asking just for a quick sentence, Messalina attempted an escape. She headed with her mother towards the garden of Lucullus where she was eventually murdered.
“…then for the first time Messalina realised her fate; she took the sword and while trembling kept it close, in vain, to her throat and chest, up until the tribune pierced her to death…”
The description of her death, first an attempted suicide then the murder by the soldier, comes from Tacitus in his “Annales”. The anecdote gives an insight of how dramatic the situation must have been for this young girl full of life to be killed at the hands of her husband.
Additionally Tacitus explained the husband reaction to the news of the death, which allows an understanding of the cynicism of the mindset in the Imperial Rome.
“During a banquet Claudius was informed that Messalina was dead without specifying who had committed the killing. Claudius did not say a word, then asked for a cup and carried on the banquet as usual”.
The prostitute Messalina, truth or legend?
Despite the descriptions of the sexual customs of the empress, such presumptions are important to be set in the historical context that the imperial Rome was. From Augustus onward, there was a law against adultery, “Lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis”, which punished the adulterous wives with a life-lasting exile. Even with the presence of such an ordinance, the practice of adultery was a commonplace and the aristocrats cared very little about the sexual habits of one or another.
Below: Painting of Messalina by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1881. Gothenburg Museum of Art
Different matter was the political aspect of it, where the weaker part was often taken advantage and displayed as if they were terrible and lacking of moral principles. That is how Messalina appears in the Suburra as a prostitute, not very hard to imagine this to be a conjecture of a senator or the Claudius supporters too even, in order to justify the murder of the empress.
Messalina became subject to the damnatio memoriae after her death: all her statues were destroyed, her name deleted from any document and her son deprived of the right to follow to the throne of Rome. Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus, son of the emperor born in the 41 AD, was in fact excluded by his father for the role of emperor. The title was handed to Nero, son of Agrippina who had married Claudius in the meantime.
Britannicus was killed on the orders of Nero in 55 AD
In that Rome full of intrigues it is significant thinking that Nero, son of Agrippina, aunt of Messalina and new wife of Claudius, got married to the daughter of Messalina, Claudia Octavia whom, ça va sans dire, got killed at the command of Nero himself.
Below: sculpture of Claudia Octavia, shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons