On both sides of her family tree she was a Julian—that was the blue-blooded claim that eventually gained Valeria Messalina the title of Roman empress in the first century A.D. It didn’t hurt that she possessed a hot little tush and a way to look seductive and adoring by turns. Fertile Valeria had luck in her pregnancies, too, first giving birth to a girl and, a year later, to a healthy boy—a result eagerly desired in royal circles.
In A.D. 39, Messalina, all of fourteen or fifteen years old, had married the man thought to be a stuttering, drooling fool by almost everyone, including his closest relatives: Claudius, a Julio-Claudian and a grandson of Livia, Rome’s first empress.
Just a few months before Messalina gave birth to her son, another stroke of luck occurred: Caligula, the nephew of Claudius, was bloodily assassinated. Afterward, the Praetorian Guard found Uncle Claudius hiding behind the drapes in the palace, and acclaimed him their emperor. Everyone was stupefied—but everyone went along with it, Messalina as well.
The now-elated third wife of Claudius, a gray-haired man in his mid-forties, Messalina had to admit that he actually seemed brilliant some days. Two years after his accession, Claudius and his army invaded Britain and conquered it—something that the sainted Julius Caesar had been unable to do, despite strenuous efforts. Since expectations for Claudius had been so low, his feats as emperor were praised all the more.
It deeply pleased Messalina that Claudius spent so much time meeting with senators or conferring with his advisers, most of them freedmen and eunuchs, or fussing about, writing his excruciatingly long history of the Etruscans. That gave her plenty of time for self-expression. Messalina loved sex and exploring the naked truth about her own desires. Claudius went to bed early, allowing her ample time to select one of her golden wigs, gild her nipples, and put on a wanton outfit to hit Rome’s brothels as “the she-wolf.”
Messalina, whose ambition and sex drive matched her beauty, became a mother and later an empress by marrying Claudius.
She cosied up to her husband’s own confidential freedmen, eventually using them to arrange her assignations. One night, she might command them to organize an orgy; another, to bring her an actor or two to warm her bed. Once she ordered them to identify the most infamous whore in Rome. Messalina then challenged her to a contest of sexual acts. Which wanton woman could service the most men in a twenty-four-hour period? Messalina beat the professional, having sex with twenty-five men.
Then something untoward occurred: she genuinely fell in love with someone. His name was Gaius Silius, a nobleman next in line to become consul of Rome.
Emperor Claudius gamely married four women, unlucky matches all. Pictured on the cameo above are Claudius and Agrippina the Younger, the spouse who would see to his fatal demise.
In the fall of A.D. 48, she did the most outrageous thing she had yet dared: she forced her lover to divorce his own wife, then publicly married the man while Claudius was out of town. As she and the members of her drunken wedding party whirled in bacchant frenzy, the watchful freedmen who up until then had concealed her lascivious ways sold her out. They informed the emperor of her actions—and provided a list of her sexual partners.
Claudius, more frightened of conspiracies than enraged at his pretty young wife, immediately asked, “Am I still emperor?”
Messalina thought it would be child’s play to once again win Claudius over; she’d done it so many times already. But the emperor’s top freedmen were having none of it. They kept her from Claudius and sent executioners, who cut off her lovely head in her beautiful gardens that very night.
The name of this imperial orgy queen received a damnatio memoriae from the Roman senate, an official act that meant that the words “Valeria Messalina” would be immediately chiseled off all her statues and inscriptions in the realm.
Her promiscuity was bad enough. But her downfall was the illicit marriage and the political coup it could have represented. Her faithless behavior represented a failure of control on Claudius’s part. An emperor who could not keep his own house in order would surely fail to keep his empire in order.
Poor luckless Claudius; despite his stature as a ruler and as a fairly decent human being, he would have four wives in his life, none of them his comfort and joy.