One needs not be an historian to note that the very name "Messalina" has become synonymous with all the faults, vices and machinations of womankind. While it is true that many of the lusty and criminal infamies that are attributed to Claudius' Empress are evidently fables, not all are. Though Tacitus and Suetonius have made us think the worst at the mention of her name, she was more than a schemer and a senseless wanton. Surely, she was a captivating, capricious, unscrupulous wife who never minded using the weaknesses of her husband for gain. She came by her lust for power quite naturally it seems.
Her ancestry was every bit as illustrious as was her husbands. A direct relative of the Caesars, and a member of Caligula's Court as a young girl, by the time she married Claudius, he being 50+, she in her teens, she was a viper.
When her husband became emperor, she took more advantage of her husband's weaknesses. Early on, Claudius recalled from exile Agrippina and Julia Livilla, who had been banished by Caligula. Messalina found them a threat, as they were favorites of their emperor uncle. It was not long before the jealous empress found a way to have Julia Livilla exiled with Seneca, under the "Lex de Adulteriis". Agrippina, like her mother was rather virtuous, and was not easily maligned, even by Messalina. She managed to stay in Rome, but under the Empress' eye.
In a lust for wealth, Messalina began selling her influence to sovereign allies and the upper classes who wished imperial favors. She controlled the contractors of public works, and interfered with the financial affairs of the empire any time a way to make money for herself could be found. Though certainly a few of Claudius freedmen/administrators were loyal to him, namely Pallas and Narcissus, Messalina controlled the majority. She kept the Emperor Claudius hedged about with her minions, and in so doing, cut him off from much of the truth of her reign of terror.
Where Livia Augusta had, at least publicly, advocated traditional values of morality, decency, and family values, Messalina put forth the more Asiatic corruption and pomp she most likely learned at Caligula’s court. Livia, a puritanical proponent of Roman conservatism and patrician tradition was Messalina's opposite.
It was because the general populace did not scorn the traditions, and wished to see a virtuous woman at the side of the emperor, that Messalina became hated. Adored and supported by those who gained wealth and position due to her schemes, she was considered a dissipated Baccante by the man on the street. His opinion was that she should be condemned to exile with the many other unfaithful Roman wives. He considered her an affront to all things Roman. The middle classes considered the emperor a semi-sacred magistrate, and an example to be followed. Claudius became a scorned leader because if he didn’t know of Messalina’s corruption’s, he was weak. If he did know he was worse than she, to the minds of patrician and lower class alike.
The situation gradually became grave and dangerous. The state was being weakened by the power struggles. The power and extortions of the freedmen were breeding discontent. Both by what she actually did, and the gossip. Messalina was made a monster in the minds of the people. But she seemed invulnerable, and could wield great power to her own wicked ends, and only the emperor himself, could stop her.
The people finally turned their anger upon poor Claudius, declaring his weakness was responsible for her conduct. For seven years Messalina remained the great weakness of the otherwise accomplished reign of her husband. The situation came to a head and ultimately resolved itself through Messalina’s growing lust for power...and a man.
Caius Silius, the consul-designate, and known as the handsomest man in Rome at the time, was Messalina’s love interest. Such was her passion for him, that she determined to marry him. According to historians, she wanted to shock the city with the sacrilege of a bigamous marriage played out publicly. It was done boldly with a large religious ceremony while Claudius was in Ostia.
Many question this reasoning. That she was cruel, dissolute and avaricious all agree, but mad, the lady was not. To do such a thing, she must have had a reason compelling enough to engage and employ the conspiratorial assistance of the many who aided her in this venture.
It is conjectured that by some feminine wile, Messalina convinced Claudius to divorce her for a short time. One explanation was that her astrologer predicted that her “husband” would be harmed on a certain day, and he “divorced” her, knowing she would take a temporary “husband” to protect him from said harm. She then took the opportunity to repudiate him publicly with a religious ceremony.
But, the larger question is...why? After seven years of a free hand, would she risk it all? For love? Hardly.
One plausible theory is predicated upon the idea that Silius’ aristocratic family was well known to be devoted to the faction of Germanicus and Agrippina. And Messalina’s choice of husband had more to do with political survival than feminine emotion.
She must have long wondered what would become of her if a plot upon Claudius’ life succeeded. Surely the assassins would kill her as they had Caesonia after the murder of Caligula. There was no other member of the Imperial family of age enough to reign, no one to protect her even if she lived. Seeing Claudius as weak, she needed to consolidate her position. She chose her next husband from a powerful and popular family, hoping to win over the Praetorian Guard and the legions to her cause. Ingenious.
This plot, so well organized and opportune, even gave Claudius’ most loyal freedmen cause to vacillate. So powerful and secure was her plot, that she was able to secure the assistance of Roman society, the prefect of the guard and more to get the divorce, marry in public and feast with abandon.
Had it not been for Claudius’ loyal freedman Narcissus, the emperor might have lost the day, and his life.
Messalina was beheaded by the guard at the order of her husband, thus ending her seven year reign of terror.
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