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Messalli'na, Vale'ria

1. daughter of M. Valerius Messalla Barbatus and of Domitia Lepida, was the third wife of the emperor Claudius I. She married Claudius, to whom she was previously related, before his accession to the empire. Her character is drawn in the darkest colours by the almost contemporary pencils of Tacitus and the elder Pliny, by the satirist Juvenal, who makes her the exemplar of female profligacy, and by the historian Dio Cassius, who wrote long after any motive remained for exaggerating her crimes. We must accept their evidence; but we may remember that in the reign of Nero even Messallina's vices may have received a deeper tinge from malignity and fear; that it was the interest of Agrippina [AGRIPPINA, No. 2], her successor in the imperial bed, to blacken her reputation, and that the fears of her confederates may have led them to ascribe their common quilt to their victim alone. That the reign of Claudius owed some of its worst features to the influence of his wives and freedmen is beyond doubt; and it is equally certain that Messalina was faithless as a wife, and implacable where her fears were aroused, or her passions or avarice were to be gratified. The freedmen of Claudius, especially Polybius and Narcissus, were her confederates; the emperor was her instrument and her dupe; the most illustrious families of Rome were polluted by her favour, or sacrificed to her cupidity or hate, and the absence of virtue was not concealed by a lingering sense of shame or even by a specious veil of decorum. Among her most eminent victims were the two Julias, one the daughter of Germanicus [JULIA, No. 8], the other the daughter of Drusus, the son of Tiberius [JULIA, No. 9], whom she offered up, the former to her jealousy, the latter to her pride; C. Appius Silanus, who had rejected her advances and spurned her favourite Narcissus; Justus Catonius, whose impeachment of herself she anticipated by accusing him [CATONIUS JUSTUS]; M. Vinicius, who had married a daughter of Germanicus [JULIA, No. 8], and whose illustrious birth and affinity to Claudius awakened her fears; and Valerius Asiaticus, whose mistress Poppaea she envied, and whose estates she coveted. The conspiracy of Annius Vinicianus and Camillus Scribonianus in A. D. 42, afforded Messallina the means of satiating her thirst for gold, vengeance, and intrigue. Claudius was timid, and timidity made him cruel. Slaves were encouraged to inform against their masters; members of the noblest houses were subjected to the ignominy of torture and a public execution; their heads were exposed in the forum; their bodies were flung down the steps of the Capitol; the prisons were filled with a crowd of both sexes; even strangers were not secure from her suspicions or solicitations; and the only refuge from her love or hate was the surrender of an estate or a province, an office or a purse, to herself or her satellites. The rights of citizenship were sold by Messallina and the freedmen with shameless indifference to any purchaser, and it was currently said that the Roman civitas might be purchased for two cracked drinking cups. Nor was the ambition of Messallina inferior to her other passions. She disposed of legions and provinces without consulting either Claudius or the senate; she corrupted or intimidated the judicial tribunals; her creatures filled the lowest as well as the highest public offices; and their incompetency for the posts they had bought led in A. D. 43 to a scarcity and tumult. The charms, the arts, or the threats of Messallina were so potent with the stupid Claudius that he thought her worthy of the honours which Livia, the wife of Augustus, had enjoyed; he alone was ignorant of her infidelities, and sometimes even the unconscious minister of her pleasures. At his triumph for the campaign in Britain (A. D. 44), Messallina followed his chariot in a carpentum or covered carriage (comp. D. C. 60.33; Tac. Ann. 12.42; Suet. Ctud. 17)--a privilege requiring a special grant from the senate. The adulteress received the title of Augusta and the right of precedence--jus consessus--at all assemblies ; her lover, Sabinus, once praefect of Gaul, but for his crimes degraded to a gladiator, was, at her request, reprieved from death in the arena; and the emperor caused a serious riot at Rome by withholding the popular pantomime Mnester from the stage while Messallina detained him in the palace. Messallina was safe so long as the freedmen felt themselves secure; but when her malice or her rashness endangered her accomplices, her doom was inevitable. She had procured the death of Polybius, and Narcissus perceived the frail tenure of his own station and life. The insane folly of Messallina, in A. D. 48, furnished the means of her own destruction. Hitherto she had been content with the usual excesses of a profligate age, with the secrecy of the palace, or the freedom of the brothel. But in A. D. 47 she had conceived a violent passion for a handsome Roman youth, C. Silius. She compelled him to divorce his wife Junia Silana, and in return discarded her favourite Mnester. In 48, her passion broke through the last restraints of decency and prudence, and, during the absence of Claudius at Ostia, she publicly married Silius with all the rites of a legal connubium. Messallina had wrought upon the fears of Claudius for the destruction of others; those fears were now turned against herself. Narcissus persuaded the feeble emperor that Silius and Messallina would not have dared such an outrage had they not determined also to deprive him of empire and life. Claudius wavered long, and at length Narcissus himself issued Messallina's death-warrant, which he committed to his freedman Euodus, and to a tribune of the guards. Without transcribing Tacitus it is impossible to describe worthily the irresolution of the emperor, the trepidation of the freedmen, the maternal love of Domitia Lepida, and the helpless agony of Messallina. She perished by the tribune's hand in the gardens of Lucullusa--a portion of the demesnes of her victim Valerius Asiaticus. Her name, titles, and statues were removed from the palace and the public buildings of Rome by a decree of the senate. She left two children by Claudius, Britannicus and Octavia. There are Greek and colonial but no Latin coins of this empress. The inscription on her coins is VALERIA MESSALINA. VALERIA MESSALINA AUG. (Tac. Ann. 11.1, 2, 12, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38; D. C. 60.14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 27, 28, 29, 31; Juv. Sat. 6.115-135, 10.333-336, 14.331; Suet. Cl. 17, 26, 27, 29, 36, 37, 39, Ner. 6, Vitell. 2; Vict. Caes. iv ; Plin. Nat. 10.63; Sen. Mort. Claud.; J. AJ 20.8.1, Bell. 2.12.8.)


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hide References (26 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (26):
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20.8.1
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 26
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 29
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 36
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 37
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 39
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.12
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.2
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.26
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.27
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.28
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.30
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.31
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.33
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.34
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.36
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.38
    • Tacitus, Annales, 12.42
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.1
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.29
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.32
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.35
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.37
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 17
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 27
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 10.63
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