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|Tenure||24 January 41 – 48|
|Claudia Octavia, Empress of Rome
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus
|House||Julio-Claudian (by marriage)
gens Valeria (by birth)
|Father||Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus|
|Mother||Domitia Lepida the Younger|
|Born||25 January 17 or 20
Rome, Roman Empire
|Died||48 (aged 31 or 28)
Gardens of Lucullus, Rome, Roman Empire
Valeria Messalina, sometimes spelled Messallina, (c. 17/20–48) was a Roman empress as the third wife of the Emperor Claudius. She was also a paternal cousin of the Emperor Nero, second cousin of the Emperor Caligula, and great-grandniece of the Emperor Augustus. A powerful and influential woman with a reputation for promiscuity, she conspired against her husband and was executed when the plot was discovered. Her notorious reputation has been perpetuated by works of art and literature into modern times.
Family and early life
Messalina was the first daughter and second child of Domitia Lepida the Younger and her first cousin Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus. Messalina's father was the son of Marcus Valerius Messala Barbatus Appianus, a Claudius Pulcher by birth (son of Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul 38 BC) adopted by Marcus Valerius Messala, cos. suff. 32 BC. His mother was Claudia Marcella Minor. Messalina's elder brother, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, served as consul in 58. Her mother was the youngest child of the consul Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and Antonia Major. Domitia Lepida had two siblings: Domitia Lepida the Elder, and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. Domitius was the first husband of the future Augusta Agrippina the Younger and the biological father of the Princeps Nero, making Nero Messalina's first cousin despite a seventeen-year age difference. Messalina's grandmothers Claudia Marcella and Antonia Major were half sisters. Claudia Marcella, Messalina's paternal grandmother, was the daughter of Augustus' sister Octavia the Younger by her marriage to Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor. Antonia Major, Messalina's maternal grandmother, was the elder daughter of Octavia by her marriage to Mark Antony, and was Claudius' maternal aunt.
Born no later than 12 BC and on the basis of his family distinction, Messalina's father could have expected a consulship by 23. Since he didn't become consul, he most likely died before that date. Her mother then married the consul Faustus Cornelius Sulla Lucullus III, great-grandson of the Roman Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Faustus and Lepida had a son around 22, Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix, Messalina's half brother. Faustus was consul in 52. Messalina was probably born and raised in Rome. Little is known about her life prior to her marriage to Claudius in 38.
Marriage to Claudius
Either in 37 or 38, Messalina married her second cousin Claudius, who was about 48 years old. During the reign of another of her second cousins, the unstable Emperor Caligula (reigned 37–41), Messalina was very wealthy, an influential figure and a regular at Caligula's court. Claudius was Caligula's paternal uncle and was becoming influential and popular. Claudius probably married her to strengthen ties within the imperial family. Upon marrying Claudius, Messalina became a stepmother to Claudia Antonia, Claudius's daughter through his second marriage to Aelia Paetina.
Messalina bore two children during her marriage to Claudius: a daughter Claudia Octavia (born 39 or 40), a future empress, stepsister and first wife to the emperor Nero; and a son, Britannicus (born 41). On January 24, AD 41, Caligula and his family were murdered by a conspiracy led by Cassius Chaerea, and later that day, the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Claudius the new emperor and Messalina the new empress.
Messalina became the most powerful woman in the Roman Empire. Claudius bestowed various honors on her: her birthday was officially celebrated; statues of her were erected in public places; and she was given the privilege of occupying the front seats at the theatre along with the Vestal Virgins. The Roman Senate wanted Messalina to have the title of "Augusta", but Claudius refused. In 43, Claudius held a triumphant military parade to celebrate the successful campaign in Britain. Messalina followed his chariot in a covered carriage, and behind her marched the generals.
Through her status, Messalina became very influential, but in character she was very insecure. Claudius, as an older man, could have died at any moment, and Britannicus would have become the new emperor. To improve her own security and ensure the future of her children, Messalina sought to eliminate anyone who was a potential threat to her and her children. Among those who were loyal to Messalina was consul Lucius Vitellius the Elder. He begged her as a tremendous privilege for him to remove Messalina's shoes.
Due to his devotion to her, Messalina was able to manipulate Claudius into ordering the exile or execution of various people: the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger; Claudius’ nieces Julia Livilla and Julia; Marcus Vinicius (husband of Julia Livilla); consul Gaius Asinius Pollio II (see Vipsania Agrippina); the elder Poppaea Sabina (mother of Empress Poppaea Sabina, second wife of Nero); consul Decimus Valerius Asiaticus; and Polybius. Claudius had the reputation of being easily controlled by his wives and freedmen.
A well-known example of Messalina trying to eliminate her rivals was when Agrippina the Younger returned from exile after January 41. Agrippina was a niece to Claudius, a daughter of Claudius’ late brother Germanicus. Messalina realised that Agrippina's son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (the future Emperor Nero) was a threat to her son's position and sent assassins to strangle Nero during his siesta. When they approached his couch, they saw what appeared to be a snake near his pillow and fled in terror. The apparent snake was actually a sloughed-off snake skin.
The ancient Roman sources, particularly Tacitus and Suetonius, portray Messalina as sexually voracious, insulting, cruel, and avaricious; they claimed her negative qualities were a result of her inbreeding. The notorious tale of Messalina's all-night sex competition with a prostitute comes from Book X of Pliny the Elder's Natural History, according to which the competition lasted for 24 hours and Messalina won with a score of 25 partners. The poet Juvenal gives an equally notorious description in his sixth satire of how the Empress used to work clandestinely all night in a brothel under the name of the She-Wolf.
Downfall and death
A first sign of Messalina's declining popularity occured when she attended the Secular Games in 47 with her son, Britannicus. Also present was Agrippina the Younger with her son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (Nero), who received greater acclamation from the audience than did Messalina and Britannicus.
Later that year, Messalina became the lover of the Roman Senator Gaius Silius, who was married to Junia Silana (sister of Caligula's first wife Junia Claudilla). Messalina forced Silius to divorce his wife and together they plotted to kill the emperor. However, while Claudius was in Ostia inspecting harbor construction, his freedman Tiberius Claudius Narcissus advised him of the plot and Claudius ordered the deaths of Messalina and Silius.
In Messalina's final hours, she was in the Gardens of Lucullus preparing a petition to Claudius with her mother. At the height of Messalina's influence and prosperity, Domitia Lepida and Messalina had argued and become estranged but now Lepida had come to her daughter's aid. When an officer and a former slave arrived together as witnesses, Messalina was offered the choice of killing herself or execution. Since she was too afraid to do so, the officer decapitated Messalina.
The Roman Senate ordered that Messalina's name be removed from all public or private places and all statues of her taken down (damnatio memoriae). On New Year's Day in 49, Claudius married, as his fourth wife, his niece Agrippina the Younger, who went on to remove from the imperial court anyone she considered loyal to the memory of Messalina. Agrippina's son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was adopted by Claudius as his son and heir and eventually succeeded him as the Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.
|Ancestors of Messalina|
Messalina in the arts
To call a woman 'a Messalina' indicates a devious and sexually voracious personality. The historical figure and her fate were often used in the arts to make a moral point, but underlying that there was often a prurient fascination with her sexually liberated behavior. In modern times this has led to exaggerated works which have been described as romps.
The ambivalent attitude to Messalina can be seen in the late mediaeval French prose work in the J. Paul Getty Museum illustrated by the Master of Boucicaut. Titled Tiberius, Messalina, and Caligula reproach one another in the midst of flames, it recounts a dialogue that takes place in hell between these three characters from the same imperial line. Messalina wins the debate by demonstrating that their sins were far worse than hers and suggests that they repent of their own wickedness before reproaching her as they had done.
While Messalina's wicked behavior towards others is given full emphasis, and even exaggerated in early works, her sexual activities have been treated more sympathetically. In the 1524 illustrations of 16 sexual positions known as I Modi, each was named after a couple from Classical history or myth, which included "Messalina in the Booth of Lisisca". Although early editions were destroyed by religious censorship, Agostino Caracci's later copies have survived (see above).
Later painting and sculpture
One of the few avenues to drawing a moral lesson from the story of Messalina in painting was to picture her violent end. An early example was Francesco Solimena's The Death of Messalina (1708). In this scene of vigorous action, a Roman soldier pulls back his arm to stab the Empress while fending off her mother. A white-clad witness observes calmly from the shadows in the background. Georges Rochegrosse's painting of 1916 is a reprise of the same scene. A mourning woman dressed in black leaves with her face covered as a soldier drags back Messalina's head, watched by a courtier with the order for execution in his hand. An earlier French treatment by Victor Biennoury (1823 - 1893) makes the lesson plainer by specifically identifying the scene of her death as the garden which she had obtained by having its former owner executed on a false charge. She crouches at the foot of a wall carved with the name of Lucullus and is denounced by a dark-clothed figure as a soldier advances on her drawing his sword.
Other artists show scenes of debauchery or, like the Italian A. Pigma in When Claudius is away, Messalina will play (1911), hint that it will soon follow. What was to follow is depicted in Federico Faruffini's The orgies of Messalina (1867-1868). A more private liaison is treated in Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida's Messalina in the Arms of the Gladiator (1886). This takes place in an interior, with the empress reclining bare breasted against the knees of a naked gladiator.
Juvenal's account of her nights spent in the brothel is commonly portrayed. Gustave Moreau paints her leading another man onto the bed while an exhausted prostitute sleeps in the background, while in Paul Rouffio's painting of 1875 she reclines bare-breasted as a slave offers grapes. The Dane Peder Severin Krøyer depicts her standing, her full body apparent under the thin material of her dress. The ranks of her customers are just visible behind the curtain against which she stands (see above). Two drawings by Aubrey Beardsley were produced for a private printing of Juvenal's satires (1897). The one titled Messalina and her companion shows her on the way to the brothel, while a rejected drawing is usually titled Messalina returning from the bath.
Other artists drew on Pliny's account of her sex competition. The Brazilian Henrique Bernardelli (1857-1936) shows her lying across the bed at the moment of exhaustion afterwards. So also does Eugène Cyrille Brunet's dramatic marble sculpture, dating from 1884 (see above), while Jan Stursa's standing statue of 1912 shows her holding a last piece of clothing at her side at the outset.
One of the earliest stage productions to feature the fall of the empress was The Tragedy of Messalina (1639) by Nathaniel Richards, where she is depicted as a monster and used as a foil to attack the Roman Catholic wife of the English king Charles I. She is treated as equally villainous in the Venetian Pietro Zaguri's La Messalina (1656). This was a 4-act prose tragedy with four songs, described as an opera scenica, that revolved around the affair with Gaius Silius that brought about her death. Carlo Pallavicino was to follow with a full blown Venetian opera in 1679 that combined eroticism with morality.
During the last quarter of the 19th century the idea of the femme fatale came into prominence and encouraged many more works featuring Messalina. 1875 saw the German verse tragedy Arria und Messalina by Adolf Wilbrandt in which Charlotte Wolter starred as the Empress. That year too Hans Makart painted her in the role. It was followed two years later in Italy by Pietro Cossa's tragedy, in which Messalina figures as a totally unrestrained woman in pursuit of love, and by Luigi Danesi's ballet. In the USA there was a 5-act tragedy by Algernon Sydney Logan 1849-1925, who had liberal views on sex.
Isidore de Lara's opera Messaline (1900) inspired Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to a series of paintings, including Messalina Seated and Messalina descending the staircase. In 1914 there was a 3-act German Expressionist tragedy by Hermann Kesser, Kaiserin Messalina. In 2009 the theme was updated by Benjamin Askew in his UK play In Bed With Messalina, which features her final hours.
Messalina has been portrayed many times in movies and television films or miniseries, played by these actresses:
- Maria Caserini in the 1910 Italian silent film Messalina, directed by Enrico Guazzoni.
- Rina De Liguoro in the 1922 Italian silent film Messalina, directed by Enrico Guazzoni. A cut version with dubbed dialogue was released in 1935.
- Merle Oberon in the 1937 uncompleted film of I, Claudius, directed by Josef von Sternberg.
- María Félix in the 1951 Italian film Messalina, directed by Carmine Gallone. This also carried the titles Empress of Rome and The Affairs of Messalina.
- Susan Hayward in the 1954 Biblical epic Demetrius and the Gladiators, a completely fictionalized interpretation in which Messalina reforms and becomes a Christian.
- Belinda Lee in the 1960 film Messalina, Venere imperatrice.
- Lisa Gastoni in the Italian L’Ultimo Gladiatore, also titled Messalina vs. the Son of Hercules (1964), directed by Umberto Lenzi.
- Sheila White in the 1976 BBC serial I, Claudius.
- Anneka Di Lorenzo in the 1979 film Caligula, and the 1977 comedy Messalina, Messalina, which used many of the same set pieces as the earlier-filmed, but later released Caligula. An alternative European title for the 1977 production was Messalina, Empress and Whore.
- Betty Roland in the Franco-Italian Caligula and Messalina (1981), directed by Bruno Mattei.
- Raquel Evans in the 1982 Spanish comedy Bacanales Romanas, also known as My Nights with Messalina, directed by Jaime J. Puig.
- Jennifer O'Neill in the 1985 TV series A.D._(miniseries).
- Kelly Trump in the 1996 adult film Messalina, directed by Joe D'Amato.
- Sonia Aquino in the 2004 TV movie Imperium: Nero.
An early fiction concerning the Empress, La Messalina by Francesco Pona, appeared in Venice in 1633. This managed to combine a high degree of eroticism with a demonstration of how private behavior has a profound effect on public affairs. Much the same point is made by the political pamphlet by Gregorio Leti, The amours of Messalina, late queen of Albion, in which are briefly couch'd secrets of the imposture of the Cambrion prince, the Gothick league, and other court intrigues of the four last years reign, not yet made publick (1689). This was yet another satire on a Stuart Queen, Mary of Modena in this case, camouflaged behind the character of Messalina.
In 19th century France, the story of Messalina is subject to literary transformation. It underlies La femme de Claude (Claudius' wife, 1873), the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, where the hero is Claude Ruper, an embodiment of the French patriotic conscience after the country's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In contrast, his wife Césarine (the female Ceasar) is a creature totally corrupt at all levels, who sells her husband’s work to the enemy and is eventually shot by him. Alfred Jarry's 'pataphysical' novel Messaline of 1901 (titled The Garden of Priapus in Louis Colman's English translation), though lightly based on the historical account, is chiefly the product of the author's fanciful and extravagant imagination and has been compared with the treatment of Classical themes by Art Nouveau artists.
A very early treatment in English of Messalina's liaison with Gaius Silius and her subsequent death appears in the fictionalised story included in the American author Edward Maturin's Sejanus And Other Roman Tales (1839). But the part she plays in Robert Graves' novels I, Claudius, and Claudius the God (1934–35) is better known. In it she is portrayed as a teenager at the time of her marriage but credited with all the actions mentioned in the ancient sources. An attempt to create a film based on them in 1937 failed, but they were adapted into a very successful TV series in 1976.
Other more sensational fictional treatments occur in Vivian Crockett's Messalina, the wickedest woman in Rome (1924) and Jack Oleck's novel of 1959. More recently there has been the 2002 German novel by Siegfried Obermeier, Messalina, die lasterhafte Kaiserin (The vicious empress).
- Cassius Dio, Roman History, LX. 14–18, 27–31
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX. 8; The Wars of the Jews II. 12
- Juvenal, Satires 6, 10, 14
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10
- Plutarch, Lives
- Seneca the Younger, Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii; Octavia, 257–261
- Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Claudius 17, 26, 27, 29, 36, 37, 39; Nero 6; Vitellius 2
- Tacitus, Annals, XI. 1, 2, 12, 26–38
- Sextus Aurelius Victor, epitome of Book of Caesars, 4
- (French) Minaud, Gérard, Les vies de 12 femmes d’empereur romain - Devoirs, Intrigues & Voluptés , Paris, L’Harmattan, 2012, ch. 2, La vie de Messaline, femme de Claude, p. 39-64.
- Barrett, Anthony A. (1996). Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Klebs, E.; H. Dessau, P. Von Rohden (ed.) (1897–1898). Prosopographia Imperii Romani. Berlin.
- Levick, Barbara (1990). Claudius. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Dina Sahyouni, « Le pouvoir critique des modèles féminins dans les Mémoires secrets : le cas de Messaline », in Le règne de la critique. L’imaginaire culturel des Mémoires secrets, sous la direction de Christophe Cave, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2010, p. 151–160.
- Prosopographia Imperii Romani V 161
- Prosopographia Imperii Romani V 88
- Suetonius, Vita Claudii, 26.29
- Prosopographia Imperii Romani V 89
- Prosopographia Imperii Romani, stemma p. 363
- Levick, Claudius, p. 54
- Barrett, Agrippina, p. 233
- Online translation, X ch.83
- Poetry in translation, VI.114-135
- Peter Maxwell Cryle, The Telling of the Act: Sexuality As Narrative in Eighteenth- And Nineteenth-Century France, University of Delaware 2001. Messalina chapter, p. 281ff
- ‘Jack Oleck’s Messalina is a full-on romp in the salacious world of Imperial Rome’; My nights with Messalina is a stupid little romp, and quite good at it too'
- Getty Museum
- Getty Museum
- Fine Art Library
- Fine Art Reproductions
- Art Reproductions
- Museum of Art
- Art Value
- Tate Art Gallery
- Online text
- Lisa Hopkins, The Cultural Uses of the Caesars on the English Renaissance Stage, 2008 pp 135-7
- Wendy Heller, Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice, University of California 2003, pp.277-97
- Collecting Delaware Books
- British Theatre Guide
- Film poster
- Film poster
- Martin M. Winkler, Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo's New Light, Cambridge University 2009, p.232
- IMDB – Messalina, Empress of Rome (1977)
- Wendy Heller, Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice, University of California 2003, pp.273-5
- Google Books
- The Nineteenth Century in Two Parts, Syracuse University 1994 p.1214
- William Hawes, Caligula and the Fight for Artistic Freedom, Jefferson NC 2009, pp.14-16