She would greet each client sweetly, demand cash payment,
and absorb all their battering – without ever getting up.
Too soon the brothel-keeper dismissed his girls:
she stayed right till the end, always last to go,
then trailed away sadly, still, with burning, rigid vulva,
exhausted by men, yet a long way from satisfied,
cheeks grimed with lamp-smoke, filthy, carrying home
to her Imperial couch the stink of the whorehouse. – Juvenal, Satire VI
Back in August I told you about the whore who became a Roman empress, but today I’d like to write about the Roman empress who became a whore. Valeria Messalina was born on January 25th sometime between 17 and 20 CE (she claimed the later date, but there is some evidence for the earlier), the eldest daughter of Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus and his first cousin, Domitia Lepida the Younger. She was the great-granddaughter of Mark Antony, the great-grandniece of Augustus Caesar and a cousin of the Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero, but the high degree of inbreeding in her family appears to have created in Messalina the same sort of sadistic, hypersexual insanity as it did in her imperial cousins. Little is known of her childhood and adolescence, but after Caligula became Emperor in her late teens (37 CE) she became wealthy and influential and was soon married off to the 48-year-old Claudius as his third wife.
The first few years of their marriage were relatively stable, and Messalina bore two children, Claudia Octavia in 39 and Britannicus in 41 (it is possible that Claudia was actually Caligula’s daughter, but Britannicus was probably legitimate). But on January 24th of 41 Caligula was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard and Claudius was elevated to the throne, making Messalina empress. Claudius was very fond of her, so this was not merely a title; she was granted many honors and privileges and the Senate would even have granted her the title of Augusta (making her co-ruler with Claudius) had he permitted it. But even without such official power she was able to use her influence to have her enemies (and possible challengers to her son’s future succession) exiled or even executed.
As so often happens to unstable people thrust into high positions, Messalina became increasingly cruel, tyrannical and erratic. She is also known to have been what modern psychology terms a nymphomaniac; though some scholars have proposed that this may be mere propaganda, the sheer number of the ancient sources making the claim (including Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny and Juvenal) and their agreement on the particulars (not to mention the fact that sexual pathology seems to have run in her family) seems to make this possibility an unlikely one. Many sources say that Messalina used sex to increase her personal power among politicians and other powerful men (including foreign dignitaries), and that she could be paid to use her influence on the Emperor for whatever outcome the payer desired.
But her whoredom was not merely figurative; Messalina also owned a lupanar under an alias and charged her patrician friends to organize orgies for them. Nor was her participation limited to the administrative end of the business; she is said to have worked not as a famosa (courtesan) but rather as a proseda, a common brothel prostitute – and not in her own business but someone else’s, disguised by an ash-blond wig and the stage name Lycisca (“Wolf Girl”). Considering her wealth and position, it should be obvious that Messalina’s whoredom was a sexual fetish for her rather than a business. And considering the dire consequences had she been found out, I think we can safely consider it evidence of advanced mental illness as well. But Messalina’s boldness only grew; in 46 or 47 CE she even challenged the prostitute Scylla (who was noted for her endurance) to a competition to determine who could bed the most men in one night; Scylla gave up around dawn, leaving the harlot empress the victor.
Is it possible her husband was unaware of her activities? In Claudius’ day many people thought him a fool or an idiot because he stuttered, and thus believed that he was simply too dim to see what everyone else could. But later writers such as Robert Graves have suggested that Claudius was actually a shrewd and reasonable man who had no desire for power and thus allowed others to think him a fool so as to avoid the intrigues in which his family was constantly embroiled; certainly his reign supports that view. Even after power was thrust upon him, he preferred not to “rock the boat”, and thus allowed his wife’s antics until she eventually forced him to act.
The events which were to seal Messalina’s fate began early in 47 CE; gossip about her behavior had spread throughout Rome, and her popularity was sharply in decline. She came to believe that her cousin Agrippina had replaced her in Claudius’ affections and that he would soon make Agrippina’s son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (the future Emperor Nero) his heir; she therefore ordered the young man’s assassination, but he escaped death because his assassins fled after seeing what they considered to be an ill omen. Later that year she entered into an affair with the handsome Senator Gaius Silius and eventually forced him to divorce his wife; the increasingly-paranoid Messalina then decided to protect her son’s succession by having her husband assassinated so as to advance Silius to the purple as her consort and acting emperor, pending the majority of Britannicus. In the latter part of 48 she even staged a mock marriage to Silius while her husband was in Ostia inspecting the construction of a new harbor, and these goings-on were reported to Claudius by his loyal freedman Tiberius Claudius Narcissus.
The enraged Claudius ordered her immediate execution; accordingly, an officer of the Praetorian Guard was dispatched to the Lucullan Gardens, where Messalina was working on a letter which attempted to explain her behavior to her husband. As was usual for condemned Romans of noble birth Messalina was offered the option of killing herself, but she was unable to do it and so was decapitated by the officer in the presence of her mother. When the news of her death was brought to Claudius at a feast, he did not react but merely asked for more wine; he later asked why the Empress was not in attendance, but this may have merely been a ploy to distance himself from her execution by feigning ignorance of it. In the next few days Claudius betrayed no sign of emotion, either positive or negative, which seems to support the idea that he had already decided to rid himself of her long before and was merely looking for a good excuse.
Ironically, Messalina’s actions brought about the very events she wanted so desperately to prevent; just a few months after her death Claudius married Agrippina the Younger and adopted Ahenobarbus (now renamed Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus) as his heir. Four years later Nero married Messalina’s daughter Claudia Octavia, and two years after that he had his brother-in-law Britannicus poisoned. Finally, he had Claudia Octavia murdered in 62 CE so he would be free to contract a more advantageous marriage. Messalina’s line was thus extinguished, but her name has come down through the centuries as the archetype of the promiscuous, treacherous noblewoman.