One of the most dramatic events in the Roman Empire was the rise and fall of Empress Valeria Messalina. The third wife of Emperor Claudius, it wouldn’t take long for Messalina to wield immense power—and indulge all her greatest pleasures. Indeed, it was this indomitable lust that brought about her infamous downfall. Watch your back to these facts about Empress Messalina, the Viper of Rome.
Messalina must have gotten her ways from her genes. She was related to the power-hungry Mark Antony, the unhinged Nero, and most infamously of all, Emperor Caligula. Yes, that disturbed Caligula who made his horse a Senator, was obsessed with gold, and had “relations” with his three sisters. Let’s just say there was a fair amount of inbreeding in that family.
Scandal started when Messalina was still a teenager. In 38 AD, she entered into an incestuous marriage with her much older cousin Claudius. Claudius was, to put it lightly, not a catch. His family considered him the most mentally inferior member of the clan, and no one actually expected him to become emperor. But there was more to their relationship than met the eye…
When Claudius met the young, nubile Messalina, he was actually already married. He must have been truly smitten by the girl though, because he promptly divorced his wife for seemingly no other reason than to be with Messalina. And if you think those man-eating ways stopped once Messalina had an engagement ring, well, read on…
Messalina didn’t always want men for their bodies, she also wanted them for their…gardens? Valerius Asiaticus was an incredibly wealthy man who owned the beautiful Gardens of Lucullus. These gardens introduced the art of gardening to Rome, and would become Messalina’s most prized possession…once she conveniently offed Asiaticus. But this was also a two-for-one deal.
In Ancient Rome, the Forum served as a center for daily life. There must have been many sights to see, but Empress Messalina was involved in one of the wildest and most shocking performances. According to some accounts, Messalina once showed up, stripped down to nothing, and began to dance around the Forum naked.
During her marriage to Claudius, Messalina started getting a dark reputation for sleeping around with everyone but her husband. According to one biting source, Messalina would sneak out of her imperial chambers while Claudius was in bed and navigate the midnight streets to set up shop at a local bordello. What she did inside was even more scandalous.
According to lore, when she would enter her bordello, Messalina would don a blonde wig to disguise her appearance. She seems to have liked the golden color, because she also apparently wore gold over her nipples while working. Maybe she pulled off the wig, but the gilded breasts were probably a bit suspicious to some customers.
While working, gilded and full of pleasure, Messalina went by the name “She-Wolf.” While that’s one heck of a nickname, it also has a brilliant backstory. The She-Wolf is associated with the founding of Rome, a wolf is supposed to have taken care of abandoned infant twins, one of whom would become the first king of Rome.
Messalina’s late-night adventures made her infamous, but that was just the beginning of the scandal. Perhaps her most widely gossiped event is her alleged competition with a local sex worker. Apparently, she wanted to settle once and for all who could bed the most men in a 24-hour period. According to historian Pliny the Elder, Messalina easily won. Her total? 25.
According to many Roman historians, Messalina often included her son Britannicus in her dastardly plots. This wasn’t just from a sense of shared sadism; she also wanted to show her little boy how to face threats to his power. Aw, isn’t that sweet.
Messalina was ruthless, and wasted no time flexing her power even over her husband’s own family. Only one year into their reign, Messalina convinced Claudius to banish his own niece, Julia Livilla, by claiming that she had an adulterous affair with Seneca the Younger. Then Messalina took it one chilling step further.
Eventually, Messalina whispered in Claudius’ ear enough that she managed to get him to not merely banish Julia, but also execute her. And this was Ancient Rome, so it wasn’t pretty. Claudius took no mercy on his niece, carrying out her execution through starvation. Of course by then Messalina had already turned her gaze to another rival…
Claudius and Messalina had a bizarre and bloody path to the throne. Their predecessor was the unhinged Emperor Caligula, who met his end at the hands of the rebellious Praetorian Guard. Claudius only survived the conspiracy and became Emperor because he was good at hide-and-seek: He hid behind a curtain during the coup. Messalina must have been so proud.
Messalina didn’t just fill her head with pleasure, she also had a keen eye for any threats to her power. So when yet another of Claudius’ nieces, this time the similar-sounding Julia Livia, birthed a male heir who could compete with the throne, Messalina took another tack. JK, she didn’t. She did the same horrific thing she always did.
She accused the girl of trumped-up charges of incest and got Claudius to execute her. But Messalina was about to meet her match.
These attacks on Claudius’ female relatives weren’t random: Both Julias were the sisters of the previous emperor Caligula, which meant they packed the most punch in terms of rivalry for the imperial throne. But this story doesn’t end here. You see, there was one sister left for Messalina to take out, and she happened to be the most powerful.
Agrippina the Younger was a Roman battle-axe if there ever was one, and Messalina needed to pull out all the stops if she wanted any chance of besting her. Messalina’s first swing was to accuse Agrippina of having inappropriate relations with a man named Statilius Taurus. As a cherry on top, she also charged Agrippina with witchcraft. Spoiler: This did not work out well for Messalina.
Togas can be a drag, and Messalina was not a woman to be kept down. She scandalized Roman society by rejecting Roman fashion and adopting Greek clothing. Remember, women were still not meant to think for themselves during this time, so it was pretty inflammatory to see Messalina strolling around, bejeweled in brilliantly colored Ionic chitons and flaunting herself in dazzling tiaras.
Messalina’s fashion caused quite a stir and even inspired others. Many of her male friends followed her fashion lead and also adopted Greek dress. But as we’ll see, that wasn’t the only influence the naughty Empress had on her male acolytes…
In the end, Messalina was never able to topple Agrippina the Younger. Not only had Agrippina been exiled twice—this was a woman who knew how to survive—the public was getting pretty suspicious about the fact that the Empress was systematically annihilating an entire family line. Of course, instead of admitting defeat, Messalina tried to get at Agrippina a different way.
Juvenal attempted to shame Messalina in his Satires by referring to her as meretrix augustal, “the imperial harlot,” and aligning her with another famous woman, Cleopatra, who people called meretrix regina, or “the harlot queen.” By linking Messalina to Cleopatra, Juvenal was attempting to smear Messalina’s name. Joke’s on him: It immortalized her instead.
If it’s not clear by now, Messalina was a jealous mess at the best of times. So when Agrippina’s son Nero received more applause from the audience than her own son Britannicus while the families were watching a public event, Messalina erupted with jealousy. In fact, this was the moment she started plotting a brutal revenge.
If Messalina couldn’t destroy Agrippina, she tried to do one better and destroy Agrippina’s son, the future Emperor Nero. When he was just a little boy, Messalina sent a gang of men into Nero’s bedroom at night. Nero only escaped with his life by sheer luck; the would-be assassins thought they saw a snake under his bed and fled. But Nero never forgot the attempt…
Nero got back at Messalina in a chilling way, though he had to wait years to do it. After Claudius’ death, Nero wanted to secure the throne for himself, which meant getting rid of Britannicus and his pesky claim to the throne. In good time, Britannicus fell victim to poisoning, and most historians finger Nero for the dark deed.
One of the men Messalina lusted for most (and that’s saying something) was the actor Mnester. A great Roman pantomime, Mnester was a superstar of his day. Caligula loved him so much, he would even interrupt Mnester’s mesmerizing performances to kiss him. Sadly, when Messalina turned her eye on you, you were all but doomed.
Whatever Empress Messalina wanted, Empress Messalina got. Although Mnester already had a lover in the beautiful Poppaea Sabina the Elder, Messalina didn’t let that stop her. She kept pestering at Mnester to sleep with her, slowly pulling her away from Sabina’s bed and closer to her own. She finally won him through an act of cruel manipulation.
When Mnester proved a little too stubborn, Messalina remembered, “Oh right, I’m the Empress of Rome,” and flexed her power at him instead. She turned to Claudius and ordered him to order Mnester to do everything she wanted, all without revealing her lust for the actor. After that, Mnester had to treat her advances as commands. At least he kept his life, right? Oh, about that…
According to Cassius Dio, Messalina didn’t just use her own body to get what she wanted. One of her elaborate devices of manipulation involved the bodies of other prominent women, too. She would hold orgies with other influential women…and then invite their husbands to the party. The men who showed up went on to gain high positions under Claudius. But this was a double-edged sword…
During these group “sessions,” the people involved might boost their social clout, but they were also playing with fire. Once they participated, Messalina had dirt on them that she could later use to smear their names if they stepped out of line. Oh, and if they said “exclude me from this narrative” and didn’t go to the party at all? She’d remember that, too.
The bodies of high society women were highly in demand in Rome, and Messalina took it a step further. Dio says that she eventually set up a bordello on campus at Palatine Hill. And the workers at this establishment were those very women of high society. Messalina was a hands-on owner, though, and also worked there herself.
Messalina was infamous for executing the men who rejected her advances, but that didn’t mean you were safe once you got in her sheets, either. A freedman secretary named Polybius became one of her lovers, only for the empress to reportedly grow bored with him. The consequence of being a boring lover? Execution, of course. But for the first time (not the last), this came back to bite her.
Messalina’s execution of Polybius was the beginning of the end of her power in Rome. After her double-crossing, the freedman secretaries finally realized that they couldn’t trust her and, more importantly, wouldn’t be spared from her unpredictable wrath. Um, took you guys long enough, but I’m just glad you’re here now.
With Asiaticus’ end came the downfall of Messalina’s rival, Poppaea Sabina the Elder. Both women had been locked in a bitter struggle ever since Messalina took away Mnester, and now Sabina was romancing Asiaticus. When the empress found this out, she started out with threats to reveal their adulterous affair. Then it suddenly got even darker.
Eventually, Messalina harassed Sabina to such an unbearable degree, Sabina felt she had no choice but to take her own life. It’s easy to imagine Messalina crowing about her victory over her romantic rival at last, but the truth is she didn’t have much time to do it. Her comeuppance was just around the corner, and Sabina would be her last victim.
Messalina wasn’t the most sharing wife, and she decided not to inform Claudius about what had happened to Poppaea Sabina, which led to one painfully awkward dinner. Just days after Sabina’s tragic end, Claudius committed a horrific faux-pas. He invited Sabina’s husband to dinner, and then unknowingly asked the man why his wife hadn’t come. Ouch.
In order to wield power for herself, Messalina became allies with Claudius’ powerful freedman secretaries. If anyone disputed her, they paid the ultimate price. At one point, a man named Appius Silanus reportedly rejected the Empress when she flirted with him. In response, she convinced Claudius to execute him—but that’s not even the worst part.
Appius Silanus, the man who Messalina made a move on, was actually her own stepfather. Just let that sink in. If we believe the stories, first Messalina goes after her mother’s husband. Then she has the nerve to execute her own family member.
Messalina’s final, ill-fated affair was with one of the most handsome men in the empire, Gaius Silius. There was just one little problem: He was already married. Still, this was a small issue for an Empress of Rome, and Messalina simply ordered Gaius to divorce his wife and take up with her instead, just as Claudius had done before.
At least at the beginning, Messalina’s fling with Gaius was hot, heavy, and luxurious. She treated him like royalty and even worked to make him into royalty. Messalina quickly got her boy-toy nominated for the illustrious position of consul, but even this wasn’t enough. Soon, the pair hatched an ambitious and bloody plot…
Gauis must have been living quite the life, as Messalina had luxurious furniture from the royal palace itself moved into his home. That wasn’t all. She also had some of her royal servants moved into his possession. This woman really went all out for the men she loved, it’s just too bad none of those men were her actual husband.
Gaius Silius and Empress Messalina eventually became obsessed with each other. Then one day, they committed the ultimate betrayal. While Claudius was away, Messalina and Gaius had their own wedding ceremony, even boldly throwing a lavish party in their own honor. Messalina’s hubris was reaching dangerous proportions.
Throughout Messalina’s dalliance with Gaius, the pair got more and more recklessly ambitious. Eventually, instead of just a wedding, they also wanted an imperial funeral. Without considering the consequences, they began plotting to overthrow Emperor Claudius and rule Rome beside each other. This all ended in blood, tears, and epic tragedy.
The men still loyal to Claudius had been trying to oust Messalina from his life for years, and they finally saw their opportunity. Claudius’ advisor Narcissus somehow managed to convince the emperor, at last, that his wife was a no-good social climber. But then Claudius got cold-hard, proof: He visited Gaius’ house and saw it decorated with his own possessions.
It may sound like Messalina stuck exclusively to the carnal when it came to her manipulation, but this wasn’t the case. When people threatened her by saying they would go to Claudius and tattle, she had a brilliant SFW stratagem. She’d catch up with Claudius first and have the accusers demoted from their positions. To sweeten the deal, she often had them replaced with someone of her own choice.
Messalina desperately tried save her own life during her last hours. After finding out that Claudius had turned on her, she hurried out with her children in tow to meet him on the road and beg for mercy. She even brought along Rome’s leading Vestal Virgin, a priestess of purity and security, to try to convince him. But the die was cast.
Messalina did attempt to earn one final visit with her husband Claudius, but his advisors had learned her tricks by now. Knowing how persuasive she could be and the spell she had over the emperor, Claudius’ men prevented her from even entering his home. It was too big of a risk that her “final goodbye” would turn into a make-up sleepover.
Claudius’ men were right to be wary of Messalina’s power over the emperor. The very next morning, Claudius’ feelings on the matter had changed, and he asked to see his wife so that he might forgive her. Narcissus couldn’t let that happen: He personally went to the mighty Praetorian Guard and, supposedly under the emperor’s orders, told them to execute Messalina. What happened next wasn’t pretty.
Ancient Romans prided themselves on facing the grim reaper with courage, and every execution came with a choice: either let someone end you or take the more “honorable” route and do it yourself. The Praetorian Guard gave Empress Messalina this same choice, but she faltered at the final hour. After she was unable to do the deed, a guard pierced her with a sword.
Messalina wasn’t the only one to suffer that day. After discovering his wife’s treachery, Claudius rounded up many of her lovers, including Gaius Silius and Mnester, and had them executed as well.
Claudius’ reaction to Messalina’s disgraceful end was unforgettably disturbing. When his men told him the news, he actually said nothing. The very next words out of his mouth were only to ask for another goblet of wine. Ice cold.
The senate despised Messalina so much that after her disposal, they erased her name and image from all over Rome. No trace of the empress was to remain. These days, it’s still difficult to find images of her, and even harder to separate fact from the certainly insidious fictions her enemies wove. Whatever the truth, though, Messalina was one dangerous woman in the eyes of Rome.
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