Messalina was Empress of Rome, 3rd Wife to Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.
Tiberius married two Femme Fatales, but he can hardly be said to have enjoyed the experience. Neither of his first two wives suited him: he divorced the second because he suspected her of having committed a murder. But when he traded her in on a third, Messalina, he didn’t realize that he had traded up to a major league criminal.
There were a lot of things that Claudius didn’t realize. His family decided early in life that he was a bit simple. Unlike the other descendants of Emperor Augustus, he was not given any major public offices in Rome. As a result, unlike the other grandsons of Augustus, he survived the reigns of his unpleasant uncle Tiberius and his psychotic nephew Caligula. When the soldiers finally decided that Caligula was intolerable, and assassinated him, a soldier found Uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain in the palace. Instead of killing him, the soldier proclaimed him emperor. Everyone was willing to accept Claudius, since they thought he would cause no trouble.
He didn’t, but his wives did. Valeria Messalina, his third, was the daughter of one of his cousins. Caligula had Claudius marry her when she was fifteen and he was fifty, apparently as a joke. (Caligula was very proud of his sense of humor, and after he became Emperor, many people told him how funny his jokes were. Those who were not amused, were soon not around.) Messalina was quite beautiful, and Claudius soon was very much in love with her. After he became Emperor, they had two children, Brittanicus and Octavia. Messalina became a major power in the government, and those who she favored got the best jobs.
But holding power did not satisfy all Messalina’s desires. Neither did Claudius. While Roman women in imperial circles were not always faithful to their husbands, Messalina went far and beyond the usual quiet love affairs. She had affairs with gladiators, dancers, and other persons most empresses never met. She was a hard woman to refuse: those who turned her down were accused by informers of plotting against the Emperor, and were executed. When Mnestor the actor hesitated, she told Caludius to order him to do as the Empress wished. She took the handsomest men in Rome, and occasionally, for novelty, the ugliest. When looking for new worlds to conquer, she challenged Scylla, a champion prostitute, to a competition: which could wear out more customers? Scylla gave up at dawn, after XXV; Messalina continued tirelessly into the day. The Roman satirist Juvenal describes her as finally going home “tired but never satisfied.”
Claudius was the last person in Rome to know what his wife was doing. She went to far when she fell in love with Gaius Silius, the handsomest man in Rome. After making him divorce his wife, she lived openly with him, redecorating his home with furniture from the Imperial Palace. Finally she decided to celebrate a bigamous marriage with him, after which they would get rid of Claudius. The Roman historian Tactius says, “She craved the name of wife because it was outrageous and thus the greatest satisfaction to a sensation-seeker.”
Caludius’ freedmen secretaries, who knew that if he were killed, they would be too, informed Claudius of Messalina’s wedding. He sent his guards to arrest the guests at the bacchanalian feast she was giving in celebration. The drunks scattered, and Messalina tried to reach Claudius to appeal to his love. No one would help her: she was “not pitied, so hideous were her crimes, by a single person,” says Tactius. She was sent a message that troops were coming. She was supposed to commit suicide (as was the Roman way): even her mother urged her to die honorably before the troops killed her. “But in that lust ridden heart there was no trace of decency; her tears and laments continued when the men broke the doors by force,” Tactius tells us. Even then she lacked courage to kill herself. The officer commanding the troops stabbed her. The news of her death was brought to Caludius at his dinner. He did not ask how she died, but called for more wine.