WOMEN OF HISTORY | VALERIA MESSALINA (c. 17/20 – 48) (Monica Bellucci)
A woman whose name has become synonymous with manipulative sexual power, Messalina was a Roman Empress with powerful connections: third wife of the Emperor Claudius, cousin of the Emperor Nero, second cousin of the Emperor Caligula, and great-grandniece of the Emperor Augustus.
As empress she became the most powerful woman in the Roman Empire, with her husband having statues erected across public places for her and her birthday becoming an officially celebrated event.
The many ancient Roman sources mentioning her all paint Messalina as avaricious, shameless, and erratic, a cruel sex-crazed tyrant. (Unsurprising, as madness ran strong in her family, Emperor Caligula being a fine example of that.) Under an alias she was the owner of a brothel and was also said to have disguised herself so she too could work as a prostitute, choosing to play the role of proseda (a common brothel prostitute) as opposed to a famosa (courtesan). (Being the Empress of Rome this was clearly a decision based on sexual desire and fetish rather than any sort of monetary need.) The famous (and probably not quite truthful) story by Pliny goes that she once challenged a famous prostitute to an all night sex competition and won.
As the Claudius was getting older, Messalina was very aware that her status would remain only as long as he was emperor, and so she began eliminating people who could have been threats to herself and her children. She was able to use her husband’s devotion to get him to order executions and exiles of those she deemed dangerous. This, coupled with the gossip spreading all around Rome, was making Messalina extremely unpopular.
She began an affair with Senator Gaius Silius, eventually forcing him to divorce his wife to continue it. Increasingly paranoid by the day, Messalina decided that to protect her family she had to have Caligula killed and Silius made emperor instead. When Claudius discovered the plot on his life he ordered the death of both Messalina and Silius. When the day came, Messalina was offered the chance to kill herself but was too afraid to do it, and so she was decapitated instead.
Claudius was at a feast when his wife’s death was announced. He made no reaction but simply asked for more wine. Only Messalina’s children mourned her, and the Senate ordered her name removed from all public places.