Politician or Whore?
By Natasha Sheldon
The Empress Messalina is commonly remembered as the depraved nymphomaniac wife of the Emperor Claudius. But was Messalina really a whore with an insatiable appetite for sex or a woman using her sexuality to secure the positions of herself and her son.
The Life of Messalina: The Facts
Valeria Messalina was born in around 20AD. She was closely related to the imperial family, being the daughter of Messalla Barbatus and Domitia Lepida, the great grandchildren of the Emperor Augustus’s sister Octavia. Messalina was also related to the Claudian side of the imperial family through her aunt Claudia Pulchra.
This close family association, plus the fact that her Aunt Claudia and cousin Quinctilius Varus were persecuted by the Emperor Tiberius for their loyalty to Agrippina, the widow of Germanicus (and the mother of the Emperor Caligula) explains why Messalina enjoyed the favour of Caligula despite the many insecurities of his court.
In 38/39AD, when she was 14 or 15, Messalina was married to Caligula’s uncle, her second cousin Claudius, a man of nearly fifty. The following year, she bore their first child, Claudia Octavia. In 41AD, just three weeks after Claudius was acclaimed Emperor, she bore a son, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Germanicus, commonly known as Britannicus.
‘That whore Empress…’
Messalina is most famous for her sexual immorality. Suetonius and Tacitus record that she had many lovers behind her husband’s back. Indeed these sexual intrigues were her undoing. Messalina reputedly fell so in love with the consul elect, Silius that she reputedly divorced Claudius without his knowledge and married him. But Claudius’s freedmen, fearful of the empress and her new ‘husband’ seizing power, betrayed the pair, leading to Silius’s execution and Messalina’s suicide.
Even after her death, the ancient sources portray Messalina as a nymphomaniac. This reputation prevailed long beyond her death, with Juvenal in the early second century AD satirizing the empress as leaving the palace at night time to work as a prostitute in squalid brothels with such enthusiasm that she keep going all night.
Juvenal also mentions how Messalina’s sexual appetites were deadly and continues with the belief that men died if they denied her. She was also deadly to women. Tacitus describes how Messalina brought about the suicide of a beautiful rival Poppaea Sabina and acquired the famed gardens of Lucullus by organizing the prosecution of Poppaea and her lover.
But was Messalina simply an immoral, greedy woman with a voracious sexual appetite?
The Political Manipulator
Barbara Levick suggests a different point of view. She argues that Messalina was not a nymphomaniac but used sex to forge and force political alliances that would protect the position of herself-and her young son Brittanicus.
She was married to a man who was unlikely to see his son reach his majority and in a court full of rivals for the imperial purple. Therefore, it was essential that she surrounded herself with supporters-and destroyed the opposition.
This seems to have been normal practice amongst imperial women and if Messalina was guilty of anything it was being a successful intriguer. Levick cites the exile of Julia, the granddaughter of Tiberius as one example. At the same time as Julia’s downfall a prefect of the guard, Justus was removed and executed, supposedly because he was going to denounce Messalina’s sexual transgressions. But it is likely that Justus was a supporter of Julia and that was the real reason for his removal. He was replaced by men loyal to Messalina herself: Lusius Geta and Rufrius Crispinus.
In this case, Messalina outmanovered her rival. But her successful political gameplaying won her enemies, not least amongst the imperial freedmen who feared her power. The case of Silius was the clincher. Young, charismatic and successful he was the perfect partner for a woman with a young son whose interests she wanted to protect. Possibly the couple did intend to oust the aging and feeble Claudius. It is also possible that they were sealing an alliance that would come into play on Claudius’s death.
Whatever the case, the freedmen did not betray Messalina because of her immorality; they betrayed her because their own positions were in danger if she toppled the regime.
Juvenal, ‘The Sixteen Satires’
Levick, B (1993) ‘Claudius’. B T Batsford Ltd; London
Suetonius, ‘The Twelve Caesars’
Tacitus, ‘The Annals of Imperial Rome