Valeria Messalina was the wife to whom Claudius was married at the time when he became emperor. [] Messalina would be accused of sexual promiscuity and along with his next and last wife, Agrippina the Younger, of manipulating her husband into committing many of the cruel and arbitrary deeds that took place during his reign. Her reputation had basis in fact; excesses were added to her story as time passed.
Messalina’s marriage to Claudius was, like all marriages within the imperial family, driven by political considerations. It probably took place in AD 37 or 38, early in the reign of Gaius (Caligula). Their first child, Claudia Octavia (Octavia) was born in early AD 40 at the very latest, for a second child,Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, called Britannicus after his father’s conquest of Britain in 43, was born a few weeks into Claudius’ reign, which began in January of 41. [] As the great-granddaughter of Augustus’s sister Octavia, Messalina was doubly Claudius’ first cousin once removed. Her father was a grandson of Octavia and of Octavia’s first husband. Her mother, Domitia Lepida, was a granddaughter of Octavia and her second husband, Mark Antony. Octavia and Antony had two daughters: Domitia Lepida was the daughter of Antonia Major; Claudius was the son of her younger sister, Antonia Minor. Messalina was perhaps about twenty at the time of their marriage, and so it may not have been her first. Union with Claudius kept Messalina’s small portion of Julian blood within the family and so prevented her from providing access to an outsider. []
Messalina was said to have used her influence to effect a large number of prosecutions. As accomplices she had the powerful imperial freedmen, especially Narcissus, the foremost of Claudius’ secretaries, whose period of dominance coincided with her tenure as imperial wife. [] The first of her alleged victims was Appius Junius Silanus. He had been in command of three legions in Spain when he was brought to Rome and married to Messalina’s mother. The measure was evidently an attempt to lessen any threat that his military power gave him. As the story goes, Messalina and Narcissus each claimed that they had dreamed that Appius intended to assassinate Claudius. Appius’ sudden entrance into Claudius’ chamber for an early morning audience appeared to confirm their dreams, and he was summarily executed for a crime that he did not commit. In reality, Claudius himself may have been involved in this charade designed to rid him
of a potential enemy. Messalina and Narcissus may not have been the instigators. []
An attempted coup against Claudius gave Messalina and the freedmen an opportunity to settle scores of their own. Messalina got rid of Catonius Justus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, so that he would not tell Claudius of her promiscuous behavior. [] She saw to it that Julia Livilla, her husband’s niece, was banished and then killed; another Julia, the granddaughter of Tiberius, met a similar fate. Messalina was jealous of both women and feared that one might replace her as Claudius’ wife. [] She poisoned Marcus Vinicius, the husband of Julia Livilla, because he suspected that she had been complicit in his wife’s death and because he had rejected her as a lover. With the help of the courtier Lucius Vitellius she manipulated Claudius into condemning the wealthy Publius Valerius Asiaticus, whose gardens she coveted. In addition, she saw to it that Pompeius Magnus, the husband of Claudius’ daughter Antonia by his previous marriage, was killed so that he could not be a rival to her son Britannicus. Magnus’ death also left Antonia free to marry Messalina’s half-brother, Sulla Felix. []
Although Messalina should not be entirely exonerated of greed, lust and jealousy, she need not take responsibility for all of the political mischief that took place when she was Claudius‘ wife. The imperial court was thick with intrigue. Messalina was part of an influential clique, but she shared her favored position with the most important of the imperial freedmen and with upper class insiders. All imperial wives possessed influence because they had access to the emperor, and Claudius, we are told, was particularly uxorious and so especially vulnerable to the persuasion of his wives. Lucius Vitellius, a close confidant of Claudius, was said to have carried Messalina’s shoe about with him and kissed it. The anecdote illustrates the perception of where power lay within the court. []
Messalina’s promiscuity was integral to many reports of her political manipulation. Whenever women played any role in affairs of state in the ancient world, sex was part of the story. Union with a dynastic princess through marriage conferred power, but if the union was extra-marital, the affair was proof that intrigue was in play. Messalina’s harassment of Appius Silanus and Marcus Vinicius was attributed to their refusal to sleep with her. When Sabinus, the former head of the German bodyguard, was programmed to die in the arena, she saved his life because he was her paramour. Although it cannot be known with whom Messalina really slept and where exaggeration begins, there is no reason to think that she was a chaste wife. Liaisons with the upper class Vettius Valens and Plautius Lateranus are well attested, and her final and fatal connection with Gaius Silius was surely real. Dalliance with the actor Mnester seems to have been innocent of politics. Messalina enticed him to her bed by asking her husband to order him to do whatever she asked. She tricked other lovers as well by claiming that Claudius knew all about her affairs. []
Whatever the indulgences she allowed herself , they spawned outrageous exaggerations: that she opened a brothel in the imperial quarters where she forced upper class women to work; that she slipped out of the palace at night and played the role of a common prostitute with sufficient enthusiasm to outlast her coworkers. [] Lurid tales about an empress’ sexual exploits would have supplied their own momentum, but charges of promiscuity had special relevance in Messalina’s case. After she died, her son Britannicus and Agrippina the Younger’s son Nero became contenders for the throne. Although Claudius’ adopted son Nero had seniority as the elder of the two, Britannicus’ supporters could claim primacy for him because he was Claudius’ natural son. But if his mother had had multiple partners, what certainty was there? Nero’s supporters raised the doubt. []
Messalina’s story ended in AD 47. In the autumn of that year, she unilaterally declared herself divorced from Claudius and married Gaius Silius, the consul-elect, in a private but proper ceremony. Odd as it seems, the marriage evidently took place. Although the historian Tacitus wrote that he was not unaware that such a thing would seem like a fiction, he credits it nonetheless. [] Silius had earlier divorced his wife, ostensibly in preparation for this move, and Messalina had been transferring to him possessions that belonged to the imperial family. When Claudius was out of Rome, an extravagant party celebrated the event. But too many knew about the secret marriage. When he learned of it, his fearful response indicates that he recognized it as a coup attempt. He turned for help to his most trusted freedman Narcissus, the one who had apparently worked so closely with Messalina earlier. Narcissus was careful to see that Messalina did not soften Claudius’ resolve to punish. She retreated to the gardens of Lucullus for safety, the same gardens that had once belonged to Valerius Asiaticus, whose prosecution she had influenced. Domitia Lepida urged her to make an honorable end by suicide, but she did not have the will or perhaps the strength to kill herself, and so the centurions who had been dispatched to execute her helped the deed along. Silius and a number of others, members of the upper classes and of the imperial bodyguard, were killed as well. []
The executions indicate that this was a genuine and widespread coup attempt. Messalina’s involvement derived from the fact that the aging Claudius (he was 56) might die before their young son came of age to succeed him. If this happened, both mother and son would be in a precarious position. A preemptive exchange of husbands might save the day. Messalina could provide Silius with the prestige of family; he would protect her position as mother of the heir-apparent. Messalina was party to the plot but not necessarily the force behind it. []
Messalina clearly enjoyed high status in her husband’s court and no doubt used her charms for her own amusement or as a political tool. But the portrait of the bloodthirsty and immoral wife grew to fit the needs of a later age. Stories about her promiscuity persisted because the conflicting claims of the families of Britannicus and of Nero persisted. After the death of Nero, it became desirable to relieve Claudius of the burden of excessive cruelty that had earlier been attached to his reign. Blaming Messalina, along with Agrippina, for his unpopular actions served this end.
Barzano, A. “Narciso e Britannico. Alcune considerazioni in Margine a Suet. Tit.2”, RIL 127 (1993) 221-8.
Dorey, T.A. “Claudius und seine Ratgaber”, Das Altertum 12 (1966) 144-55.
Ehrhardt, C. “Messalina and the Succession to Claudius”, Antichthon 12 (1978) 51-71.
Levick, B. Claudius. New Haven and London (1990).
Meise, E. “Die Berichte der antiken Quellen über Messalinas Ende” in Untersuchungen zur der Geschichte de julisch-claudischen Dynastie Munich (1969), pp. 123-69.
Melmoux, J. “L’action politique de l’affranchi impérial Narcisse: un exemple de la place des affranchis dans les entourages impériaux au milieu du 1er siècle”, Studii Clasice17 (1975) 61-9.
Syme, R. Tacitus. (1957) Oxford.
[] Claudius was married four times. His first wife was Plautia Urgulanilla. Their marriage in AD 10 or 12 rewarded Urgulanilla’s father for his loyal service fighting with Tiberius. They were divorced, plausibly between AD 20 and 24, and Claudius was married to Aelia Paetina, a relative of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, Tiberius’ powerful praetorian praefect, whose career was ascendant at that time. They were divorced to make way for Messalina.
[] Suet. Cl. 27.2 for his date of Britannicus’ birth; without date in Tac. Ann. 12.25; 13.15.
[] Her age is estimated from the fact that a younger half-brother, Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix, was old enough by AD 47 to marry Antonia, Claudius’ daughter from his marriage to Aelia Paetina, and to be consul in 52. Twenty was old for a first marriage for a woman. Tac. Ann. 12.52; 13.23. Suet. Cl. 27.2. Dio 60.30.6a. Syme, p. 437, note 5.
[] Tac. Ann. 11.29. Suet. Cl. 29.1, 37.2. Dio 60.14.3-4. See Levick, pp. 58-9 and Dorey, p. 147, for suggestions of Claudius’ complicity.
[] Dio 60.15.5-16.2, 17.5, 8, 18.3.
[] Dio 60.8.5, 18.4. Tac. Ann. 13.32. Suetonius blames Claudius’ wives (Messalina and Agrippina together) for the deaths of the “two Julias” (Cl. 29.1). Apocolocyntosis, the satire about Claudius written shortly after his death, puts the blame on Claudius alone (10.4, 13.5).
[] Dio 60.27.2-4; 29.4-6, 6a; Tac. Ann. 11.1-3; Suet. Cl. 29.2. See note 3 for Antonia and Sulla Felix.
[] Suet. Vit. 2.5. Lucius Vitellius’ career under Claudius at Suet. Vit. 2.4. Messalina’s importance in the court at [pseudo-Sen.] Octavia 947. The imperial clique, Barzano, p. 20. Dorey for Claudius’ intimates.
[] Tac. Ann. 11.30, 36; 13.11. Dio 60.22.4-5; 28.2-4. Pliny NH 29.8.20.
[] Dio 60.18.2. Pliny NH 10.172. Juv. 6.114-32.
[] Suet. Ner. 7.1. [pseudo-Sen.] Octavia 536.
[] Tac. Ann. 11.12, 26-38. Suet. Cl. 26.2, 29.3, 39.1. Dio 60.31.2-5. Juv. 10.329-45.
[] For political interpretations of the marriage, Levick, pp. 64-7, Ehrhardt, pp. 68-9, Meise, 152-69.