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Valeria Messalina
Valeria Messalina.jpg
Empress consort of the Roman Empire
Tenure 24 January 41 – 48
Born 25 January AD 17 or 20
Rome, Roman Empire
Died 48 (aged 31 or 28)
Gardens of Lucullus, Rome, Roman Empire
Spouse Claudius
Issue 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

Valeria Messalina[1] ([waˈɫɛrja mɛssaːˈliːna], sometimes spelled Messallina; c. 17/20–48) was the third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius. She was a paternal cousin of the Emperor Nero, a second-cousin of the Emperor Caligula, and a great-grandniece of the Emperor Augustus. A powerful and influential woman with a reputation for promiscuity, she allegedly conspired against her husband and was executed on the discovery of the plot. Her notorious reputation arguably results from political bias, but works of art and literature have perpetuated it into modern times.

Early life[edit]

Messalina holding her son Britannicus, Louvre

Messalina was the daughter of Domitia Lepida the Younger and her first cousin Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus.[2][3] Her mother was the youngest child of the consul Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and Antonia Major. Her mother's brother, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, had been the first husband of the future Empress Agrippina the Younger and the biological father of the future Emperor 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. There was, therefore, a large amount of inbreeding in the family.

Little is known about Messalina's life prior to her marriage in 38 to Claudius, her first cousin once removed, who was then about 47 years old. Two children were born as a result of their union: a daughter Claudia Octavia (born 39 or 40), a future empress, stepsister and first wife to the emperor Nero; and a son, Britannicus. When the Emperor Caligula was murdered in 41, the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Claudius the new emperor and Messalina became empress.


With her accession to power, Messalina enters history with a reputation as ruthless, predatory and sexually insatiable. Her husband is represented as easily led by her and unconscious of her many adulteries. In 48 AD, he went away on a trip and was informed when he returned that Messalina had gone so far as to marry her latest lover, Senator Gaius Silius. While many would have ordered her death, the Emperor offered her another chance. Seeing that as weakness, one of his head officers went behind the Emperor's back and ordered Messalina's death. Upon hearing the news, the Emperor did not react and simply asked for another chalice of wine. The Roman Senate then ordered a damnatio memoriae so that Messalina's name would be removed from all public and private places and all statues of her would be taken down.

Messalina working in a brothel: etching by Agostino Carracci, late 16th century

The historians who relay such stories, principally Tacitus and Suetonius, wrote some 70 years after the events in an environment hostile to the imperial line to which Messalina had belonged. Suetonius' history is largely scandal-mongering. Tacitus claims to be transmitting 'what was heard and written by my elders' without naming sources other than the memoirs of Agrippina the Younger, who had arranged to displace Messalina's children in the imperial succession and was therefore particularly interested in blackening her predecessor's name.[4] It has been argued that what passes for history is largely a result of the political sanctions that followed her death.[5]

Accusations of sexual excess were a tried and tested smear tactic and the result of 'politically motivated hostility'.[6] Two accounts especially have added to her notoriety. One is the story of her all-night sex competition with a prostitute in 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.[7] The poet Juvenal gives an equally well known 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.[8] He also alludes to the story of how she compelled Gaius Silius to divorce his wife and marry her in his Satire X.[9]


Messalina in the arts[edit]

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 there was often as well a prurient fascination with her sexually-liberated behaviour.[10] In modern times, that has led to exaggerated works which have been described as romps.[11]

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, Tiberius, Messalina, and Caligula reproach one another in the midst of flames. It recounts a dialogue that takes place in hell between the 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.[12]

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[edit]

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).[13] In this scene of vigorous action, a Roman soldier pulls back his arm to stab the Empress while fending off her mother. A witness in armour observes calmly from the shadows in the background. Georges Rochegrosse's painting of 1916 is a reprise of the same scene.[14] 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. The Danish royal painter Nicolai Abildgaard, however, preferred to feature “The Dying Messalina and her Mother” (1797) in a quieter setting. The mother weeps beside her daughter as she lies extended on the ground in a garden setting.[15] A French treatment by Victor Biennoury (1823–1893) makes the lesson of poetic justice plainer by specifically identifying the scene of Messalina’s death as the garden which she had obtained by having its former owner executed on a false charge. Now 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.[16]

Two Low Countries painters emphasised Messalina’s depravity by picturing her wedding with Gaius Silius. The one by Nicolaus Knüpfer, dated about 1650, is so like contemporary brothel scenes that its subject is ambiguous and has been disputed. A richly dressed drunkard lies back on a bed between two women while companions look anxiously out of the window and another struggles to draw his sword.[17] The later “Landscape with Messalina's Wedding” by Victor Honoré Janssens pictures the seated empress being attired before the ceremony.[18] Neither scene looks much like a wedding, but rather they indicate the age’s sense of moral outrage at this travesty of marriage. That was further underlined by a contemporary Tarot card in which card 6, normally titled “The Lover(s)”, has been retitled “Shameless” (impudique) and pictures Messalina leaning against a carved chest. Beneath is the explanation that “she reached such a point of insolence that, because of the stupidity of her husband, she dared to marry a young Roman publicly in the Emperor’s absence”.[19]

Later artists show scenes of more overt debauchery or, like the Italian A. Pigma in When Claudius is away, Messalina will play (1911),[20] hint that it will soon follow. What was to follow is depicted in Federico Faruffini's The orgies of Messalina (1867–1868).[21] A more private liaison is treated in Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida's Messalina in the Arms of the Gladiator (1886).[22] 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 painted her leading another man onto the bed while an exhausted prostitute sleeps in the background,[23] while in Paul Rouffio's painting of 1875 she reclines bare-breasted as a slave offers grapes.[24] The Dane Peder Severin Krøyer depicted 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 showed her on the way to the brothel,[25] while a rejected drawing is usually titled Messalina returning from the bath.[26]

Alternatively, artists drew on Pliny's account of her sex competition. The Brazilian Henrique Bernardelli (1857-1936) showed her lying across the bed at the moment of exhaustion afterwards.[27] So also did Eugène Cyrille Brunet's dramatic marble sculpture, dating from 1884 (see above), while in the Czech Jan Štursa's standing statue of 1912 she is holding a last piece of clothing by her side at the outset.[28]

Stage productions[edit]

One of the earliest stage productions to feature the fall of the empress was The Tragedy of Messalina (1639) by Nathanael Richards,[29] where she is depicted as a monster and used as a foil to attack the Roman Catholic wife of the English king Charles I.[30] 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.[31]

During the last quarter of the 19th century the idea of the femme fatale came into prominence and encouraged many more works featuring Messalina. 1874 saw the Austrian verse tragedy Arria und Messalina by Adolf Wilbrandt[32] which was staged with success across Europe for many years. It was followed in 1877 by Pietro Cossa's Italian verse tragedy, where Messalina figures as a totally unrestrained woman in pursuit of love.[33] Another 5-act verse tragedy was published in Philadelphia in 1890,[34] authored by Algernon Sydney Logan (1849-1925), who had liberal views on sex.[35]

As well as drama, the story of Messalina was adapted to ballet and opera. Luigi Danesi's 1884 ballet was made a fantastical spectacle at the Eden-Theatre in Paris, with its elephants, horses, massive crowd scenes and circus games in which rows of bare-legged female gladiators preceded the fighters.[36][37] Isidore de Lara's opera Messaline, based on a 4-act verse tragedy by Armand Silvestre and Eugène Morand, centred upon the love of the empress for a poet and then his gladiator brother. It opened in Monte Carlo in 1899 and went on to Covent Garden.[38] The ailing Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec saw the Bordeaux production and was inspired to paint six scenes from it, including Messalina Seated[39] and Messalina descending the staircase.[40]

In 1914 there was a 3-act German Expressionist tragedy by Hermann Kesser, Kaiserin Messalina. And in 2009 the theme was updated by Benjamin Askew in his UK play In Bed With Messalina, which features her final hours.[41]

Stars of stage and screen[edit]

From the last quarter of the 19th century onwards, the role of Messalina has been as much about the stardom of those who played her as about the social message of the works in which she appeared.[42] The star’s name appeared in large print on the posters of the works in which she played. She was constantly featured in the gossip columns. Her role was iconised photographically, which she often inscribed for her admirers.[43] Pictures of her as Messalina adorned the theatre magazines and were sold in their thousands as postcards. This was as true in drama and opera as it was of those who portrayed the empress in movies and television films or miniseries. The role itself added to or established their reputations. And, with the growing permissiveness of modern times, that might rather amount to notoriety for those adult films in which athletic stamina was more of a requirement than acting ability.

Hans Makart's painting of Charlotte Wolter in Adolf Wilbrandt's tragedy, Arria und Messalina

Wilbrandt’s Arria und Messalina was specially written for Charlotte Wolter, who was painted in her role by Hans Makart in 1875. There she reclines on a chaise-longue with the city of Rome lit by fire in the background. As well as a preparatory photograph of her dressed as in the painting,[44] there were also posed cabinet photos of her in a plainer dress.[45] Other stars were involved when the play went on tour in various translations. Lilla Bulyovszkyné (1833-1909) starred in the Hungarian production in 1878[46] and Irma Temesváryné-Farkas in that of 1883; [47] Louise Fahlman (1856-1918) played in the 1887 Stockholm production,[48] Marie Pospíšilová (1862-1943) in the 1895 Czech production.[49]

In Italy, Cossa’s drama was acted with Virginia Marini in the role of Messalina.[50]

Both the Parisian leads in Danesi’s ballet were photographed by Nadar: Elena Cornalba in 1885[51] and Mlle Jaeger later.[52] During its 1898 production in Turin, Anita Grassi was the lead.[53]

Meyriane Héglon starred in the Monte Carlo and subsequent London productions of De Lara’s Messaline,[54] while Emma Calvé starred in the 1902 Paris production,[55][56] where she was succeeded by Cécile Thévenet.[57] Others who sang in the role were Maria Nencioni in 1903, [58] Jeanne Dhasty in the Nancy (1903) and Algiers (1907) productions,[59] Charlotte Wyns (1868-c.1917) in the 1904 Aix les Bains production,[60] and Claire Croiza, who made her debut in the 1905 productions in Nancy and Lille.[61]


After a slow start in the first half of the 20th century, the momentum of films about or featuring Messalina increased with censorship’s decline. The following starred in her part:


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. Nevertheless, a passage such as

Messalina tossing in the turbulence of her thoughts did not sleep at night; and if she did sleep, Morpheus slept at her side, prompting stirrings in her, robing and disrobing a thousand images that her sexual fantasies during the day had suggested

helps explain how the novel was at once among the most popular, and the most frequently banned, books of the century, despite its moral pretensions.[83]

Much the same point about the catastrophic effect of sexuality was made by Gregorio Leti's political pamphlet, 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).[84] This was yet another satire on a Stuart Queen, Mary of Modena in this case, camouflaged behind the character of Messalina.

A 16th-century cameo of Messalina and her children

A very early treatment in English of Messalina's liaison with Gaius Silius and her subsequent death appeared in the fictionalised story included in the American author Edward Maturin's Sejanus And Other Roman Tales (1839).[85] 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,[86] but they were adapted into a very successful TV series in 1976.

In 19th century France, the story of Messalina was subject to literary transformation. It underlaid 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 Caesar) is a creature totally corrupt at all levels, who sells her husband's work to the enemy and is eventually shot by him.[87] 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.[88]

In fact, Jarry’s was just one of five contemporary French novels treating Messalina in a typically fin de siècle manner. They also included Prosper Castanier’s L’Orgie Romaine (Roman Orgy, 1897), Nonce Casanova’s Messaline, roman de la Rome impériale (Mesalina, a novel of imperial Rome, 1902) and Louis Dumont’s La Chimère, Pages de la Décadence (The Chimaera, Decadent Pages, 1902). However, the most successful and inventive stylistically was Felicien Champsaur's novel L'Orgie Latine (1903) [89] Although Messalina is referenced throughout its episodic coverage of degenerate times, she features particularly in the third section, “The Naked Empress” (L’impératice nue), dealing with her activities in the brothel, and the sixth, “Messalina’s End”, beginning with her wedding to Silius and ending with her enforced death.[90]

Sensational fictional treatments have persisted, as in Vivian Crockett's Messalina, the wickedest woman in Rome (1924), Marise Querlin’s Messaline, impératrice du feu (The fiery empress, 1955), Jack Oleck's Messalina: a novel of imperial Rome (1959) and Siegfried Obermeier’s Messalina, die lasterhafte Kaiserin (The empress without principle, 2002). Oleck's novel went through many editions and was later joined by Kevin Matthews' The Pagan Empress (1964). Both have since been included under the genre "toga porn".[91] They are rivalled by Italian and French adult comics, sometimes of epic proportions, such as the 59 episodes devoted to Messalina in the Italian Venus of Rome series (1967-74). More recent examples include Jean-Yves Mitton’s four-part series in France (2011-13) and Dominici Arturo’s Messaline in the Succubi series (2014), in which "a woman without taboos or scruples throws light on pitiless ancient Rome".[92]

Contrasting views have lately been provided by two French biographies. Jacqueline Dauxois gives the traditional picture in her lurid biography in Pygmalion’s Legendary Queens series (2013),[93] while the historian Jean-Noël Castorio (b.1971) seeks to uncover the true facts of the woman behind Juvenal’s 6th satire in his revisionist Messaline, la putain impériale (The imperial whore, 2015).[94]



  • (in 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.
  • Tatum, W. Jeffrey; The Patrician Tribune: Publius Clodius Pulcher (The University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
  • Mudd, Mary; I, Livia: The Counterfeit Criminal. the Story of a Much Maligned Woman (Trafford Publishing, 2012).
  • Barrett, Anthony A. (1996). Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press. 
  • Klebs, E. (1897–1898). H. Dessau, P. Von Rohden, ed. 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.


  1. ^ Prosopographia Imperii Romani V 161
  2. ^ Prosopographia Imperii Romani V 88
  3. ^ Suetonius, Vita Claudii, 26.29
  4. ^ K.A.Hosack, "Can One Believe the Ancient Sources That Describe Messalina?", Constructing the Past 12.1, 2011]
  5. ^ Harriet I. Flower, The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture, University of North Carolina 2011, pp 182-9
  6. ^ Thomas A. J. McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome, Oxford University 1998 p 170
  7. ^ Online translation, X ch.83
  8. ^ Poetry in translation, VI.114-135
  9. ^ Translation by A. S. Kline, lines 329-336
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ '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'
  12. ^ Wiki-Commons
  13. ^ Getty Museum
  14. ^ Fine Art Library
  15. ^ Wiki-Commons
  16. ^ Wiki-Commons
  17. ^ Wiki-Commons
  18. ^ Wiki-Commons
  19. ^ European art portal
  20. ^ [1]
  21. ^ Wiki-Commons
  22. ^ Wiki-Commons
  23. ^ Museum of Art
  24. ^ Art Value
  25. ^ Tate Art Gallery
  26. ^ Wikipaintings
  27. ^ Wiki-Commons
  28. ^ Wiki-Commons
  29. ^ Online text
  30. ^ Lisa Hopkins, The Cultural Uses of the Caesars on the English Renaissance Stage, 2008 pp 135-7
  31. ^ Wendy Heller, Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice, University of California 2003, pp.277-97
  32. ^ Google Books
  33. ^ Google Books
  34. ^ Online Archive
  35. ^ Collecting Delaware Books
  36. ^ Sarah Gutsche-Miller, Pantomime-Ballet on the Music-Hall Stage, McGill University thesis, 2010,p.36
  37. ^ Magazine illustration
  38. ^ Poster
  39. ^ Wikipaintings
  40. ^ Wikipaintings
  41. ^ British Theatre Guide
  42. ^ p.342
  43. ^ Thomas F. Connolly, Genus Envy: Nationalities, Identities, and the Performing Body of Work, Cambria Press 2010, pp.102-3
  44. ^ [2]
  45. ^ Austrian picture archive
  46. ^ Poster
  47. ^ Poster
  48. ^ photographic portraits on Wiki-Commons and Alamy
  49. ^ Cabinet photograph
  50. ^ Photo
  51. ^ Gallica
  52. ^ Gallica
  53. ^ Programme
  54. ^ Postcard
  55. ^ Archived score.
  56. ^ Photo on Pinterest
  57. ^ Photographs
  58. ^ Postcard,
  59. ^ Postcard
  60. ^ “Charlotte Wyns” at Art Lyrique
  61. ^ Photograph on Wiki-Commons
  62. ^ Frédéric Zarch, Catalogue des films projetés à Saint-Étienne avant la première guerre mondiale, Université de Saint-Etienne, 2000, p.209
  63. ^ Poster
  64. ^ Poster
  65. ^ Flickr
  66. ^ Film poster
  67. ^ Poster
  68. ^ Archivo Storico del Cinema
  69. ^ Poster with Hayward in the foreground
  70. ^ Martin M. Winkler, Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo's New Light, Cambridge University 2009, p.232
  71. ^ The German poster
  72. ^ Poster and stills
  73. ^ Publicity poster
  74. ^ Still from the brothel scene
  75. ^ IMDB – Messalina, Empress of Rome (1977)
  76. ^ Gary Allen Smith, Epic Films: Casts, Credits and Commentary, McFardland 2004, p.168
  77. ^ Poster
  78. ^ Poster on Pinterest
  79. ^ Poster
  80. ^ TV photo
  81. ^ Poster on film database
  82. ^ Publicity photo
  83. ^ Wendy Heller, Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice, University of California 2003, pp.273-5
  84. ^ Google Books
  85. ^ pp.82-110
  86. ^ William Hawes, Caligula and the Fight for Artistic Freedom, Jefferson NC 2009, pp.14-16
  87. ^ Epelorient
  88. ^ The Nineteenth Century in Two Parts, Syracuse University 1994 p.1214
  89. ^ Archived online; there has also been a recent translation as The Latin Orgy.
  90. ^ Marie-France David-de Palacio, Reviviscences romaines: la latinité au miroir de l'esprit fin-de-siècle, Peter Lang, 2005, p.232
  91. ^ Joanne Renaud, in Astonishing Adventures Magazine 5, 2009, pp.52-5
  92. ^ Comics & Antiquité
  93. ^ Messaline
  94. ^ Histoire pour tous
Royal titles
Preceded by
Milonia Caesonia
Roman Empress
Succeeded by
Agrippina Minor