The narrative of the politics of Claudius’ reign is dominated by his wives, Messalina and Agrippina. Neither woman has been treated kindly by history. Messalina’s supposed sexual promiscuity has launched a thousand fantasies. Agrippina’s relationships with Claudius and with her son, Nero, have symbolised a different form of female immorality.
How do we understand this focus?
- It is certainly possible that family relations at the imperial court was not straightforward.
- Attributing women’s political behaviours to lust was an effective way of diminishing the rationality of the women involved.
- For members of the imperial family, their sexual partnerships were potentially political. Men and women married for political reasons. We might perhaps assume that their adulteries had political aspects as well. Messalina might be an extreme case, but her story does parallel that of the Julias, daughter and granddaughter of Augustus.
- There is a consistency to the portrayal of Claudius. His capacity to make rational decisions is doubted. He is fearful and he is lustful. Such moral weakness can be seen also in an over-fondness for wine (Suetonius, Claudius 33). Roman political morality increasingly placed emphasis on the ability of the ruler to control himself. This line of thought was central to the teachings of Seneca, for instance. A man who was swayed by his desires could not be respected as a ruler. We could thus read the emphasis placed on the wives as an attack on Claudius himself.
- The imperial women also had an invaluable political asset. They could gain access to the emperor and could thereby influence his decisions. These women were not merely decorative or ‘heir-producers’; they were serious players of the political game and, given the fatality rate in the imperial family, were playing for extremely high stakes.
- Who could an emperor trust? Aristocrats might change sides. They might decide that they would prefer a different emperor. They might decide that they themselves had a chance of being emperor. A wife was in a dependent position. She was closely tied to her husband and her power was through him. Like the freedmen, the wives needed the emperor, or so he thought. Claudius might have thought his wives to be reliable because their interests and his should have meshed perfectly.
- The imperial women were not just pawns in the political game. They had their own networks of friends and associates. They could be expected to manage those networks on behalf of the emperor.
Underlying the narratives around the imperial wives is a mixture of misogynistic myth making, prurient excitement at the scandal, antipathy to Claudius, and insight into the working of court politics.