Messalina’s fall was sudden and the story strange (Tacitus, Annales, 11.26–38; Dio, 60. 31.1–5). She became involved with a certain C. Silius. This man was consul designate and the very man who had attacked Suillius Rufus in the senate. For some reason, she apparently underwent a semi-public ceremony with this man and then engaged in a post-nuptial revel. Narcissus, Claudius’ trusted freedman, organised two concubines to break the news to Claudius while he was staying in Ostia. Claudius hurried back in a carriage with Vitellius and Narcissus, Vitellius refusing to condemn Messalina explicitly. News of Claudius’ approach reached the revellers, who dispersed in a panic, but no effort was made to raise the army or to oppose Claudius. Messalina was deserted. Her only hope was to reach Claudius. She set out for Ostia to meet him on the road, but could find no carriage and travelled on the city waste cart. The meeting was brief, but she was not arrested.
Claudius was taken to a house where the revels had been taking place. He saw imperial possessions and those of Silius and was presented with further evidence of Messalina’s adulteries. He retreated to the praetorian camp and then the revellers were rounded up. Some confessed, presumably in the hope of pardon, and were then killed. The prefect of the vigiles (night watch) among them.
Modern historians have seen in it conspiracy, characteristically preferring politics to sex as an explanation. It is difficult to see how such a ‘marriage’ could have ever been kept secret or how the effective divorce of the emperor by the mother of his presumed heir could be anything less than treason. Claudius certainly reacted as if there were a direct threat to the regime. Yet, there was no organised resistance to Claudius’ retribution, a retribution that affected many prominent men: were the ‘conspirators’ not expecting Claudius to be evenly mildly annoyed?
Even the death of Messalina rebounds to Claudius’ detriment. Claudius softened his sorrows with wine. He started to talk about his wife and rather than being angry, he seemed sorrowful. Then, he seemed sympathetic. Narcissus acted. He left the dining room and found a praetorian officer. He instructed him to kill Messalina. Narcissus could not afford Messalina returning and seeking her revenge. Claudius received news of her death without emotion. He continued drinking.
- Is the story novelistic invention?
- Is it an excuse for another Claudian purge of the aristocracy?
- How did our sources know so much about these events? Who told them?
- Did Messalina really set out to find Claudius by hitching a lift in a cart filled with excrement? That image is so perfect and so literary that only the most outrageous of novelists would have invented it.
- How do we know what was said in Claudius’ carriage ride back from Ostia?
- Did Narcissus boast that he himself had condemned Messalina to death while Claudius drank himself into a stupor? How else might we know these details?
Sex and Politics
The issue of sex and politics recurs under the Julio-Claudians in different ways. It was a feature of the narratives of Tiberius and Gaius. It is not difficult to see why people might be interested: it makes the emperors seem human in their failings. It is also a way of making sense of the complicated relations in the imperial court. But do they tell us anything about the behaviours of the Roman aristocracy?
- The Romans themselves believed in the stories. Perhaps they had doubts about some elements of the stories, but none of our sources were obviously fantasists. Nor did they operate uncritically with regard to the stories that came down to them.
- We know very little about the sexual culture of the time. There was no sense of sex as sin. Adultery was a social crime not, as we would see it, a moral issue: it was an assault on a husband’s rights. The poetry of the time is filled with illicit sexual relations. It might be that society was generally relaxed about sexual behaviour.
- Sexual behaviour was a cultural matter. Traditional Roman men and women were chaste (only had sex with their spouses). But those who posed as traditional portrayed themselves as standing out against the conventionally lax morals of the age. Perhaps they were right. To be relaxed about sexual fidelity was perhaps to take a sophisticated cultural and social position.
- Aristocratic men were not expected to be faithful to their wives. Claudius had several concubines. Men were normally much older than their wives. The sexual bond between husband and wife was not as it is our culture of romantic love.
- Messalina is accused not just of her own infidelities, but of encouraging others into promiscuous sexual behaviour. Are we looking at a social group who came together to engage in certain modes of behaviour? Perhaps we should think of it as the equivalent to a drinking club, only the pleasure was sex not alcohol.
- In a cultural environment in which sex was used to cement legitimate political links, it is feasible that close illegitimate political ties could be developed through adultery. Such activity was illegal and, when it involved an empress, potentially fatal. This may have added a certain frisson to the liaison and would have bound the adulterers more closely to each other.
- It is possible that Messalina was less than faithful to her husband. But it is also possible that as long as this remained behind closed doors and did not pose a significant threat to the emperor, no-one cared very much.
- The easiest way to purge a queen and her circle was to suggest that they were all engaged in promiscuous sexual activity: sexual desire is a powerful passion and audiences love a good sex scandal.
What strikes Tacitus is that Messalina and Silius tried to make their relationship more than a private adultery. Silius was an important figure. Becoming involved with Messalina could be seen as supplanting the emperor and the first stage of a coup. He was also a former enemy.
Claudius’ went to the Praetorian Camp. His fear may be seen as the reaction of a deluded paranoiac, but the speed with which Messalina was removed and the summary execution of her circle suggest that we are seeing a serious conspiracy. A prefect of the vigiles was involved and that brought some military force. Although the loyalty of the praetorians held, there were persistent doubts about the prefects, who continued to be seen, even after the removal of Messalina, as loyal to her and her children. Keeping the praetorians on his side was crucial for Claudius and once their loyalty was assured, Messalina was doomed.
But why would Messalina take such a step?
The only explanation (other than her being driven mad by lust) is that she thought her position was slipping. She feared being replaced. Replacing Claudius with Silius would maintain her position, but it was a desperate act. Bringing a former enemy into her camp suggests an attempt to realign her position, and a fear of what happening. What did she think was happening? The only obvious event that could damage the emperor’s wife and the mother of his children was divorce. We have to wonder whether Messalina acted because she feared that she was about to be dropped in favour of a new wife, perhaps Agrippina?
The historical tradition has seen Claudius as the foolish unknowing victim of his wife’s adulteries. But what if he knew all along? It was undeniably useful for him to have the support of Messalina’s circle. She had given him two children. Did he necessarily care if she slept around? There is a strange story of Claudius signing the contract for Messalina’s dowry to pass to Silius (Suetonius, Claudius 29.3)
Dropping Messalina would allow him to marry someone else and get her supporters. She could then be blamed for everything that had happened. Was this very different from Tiberius dropping Sejanus? To believe this, we have to see Claudius as a much more intelligent and brutal politician that the tradition allows.