A Woman to Know: Messalina

She carried home to her imperial couch the stink of the whorehouse. — Juvenal

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In reading about Messalina's life, it's hard to tell what's real and what's fake. As Emperor Claudius's wife, Nero's cousin and Caligula's distant relative, her imperial pedigree already raised her profile in ancient Rome.

Rumors swirled about her political ambitions, her alleged adultery and her notorious promiscuity. And because (of course) people love to hate women in power, Claudius's enemies had an absolute field day with her less-than-traditional behavior. In one particularly eviscerating piece, the poet Juvenal reported that the empress moonlighted as a low-rent prostitute (calling herself "the She-Wolf") in Rome's red light district. He said she gilded her nipples and stood in the window, begging men to enter her "cubicle." Pliny the Elder wrote that she even competed at a local brothel for the prize of "top whore" — embarrassingly crude illustrations of this imagined contest exist even today.

As late as the 16th century, artists and historians continued to malign Messalina as a maneater, a treacherous conspirator and yeah, of course, the "whore empress.""Messalina" became a misogynistic slur — shorthand for a woman crazed for sex.

Many historians today think many of these stories (particularly Juvenal's biting descriptions) are largely fabricated to smear a powerful woman's reputation. But that's how she died, in the midst of a regime change, at one of the worst times in history for a woman to have political ambitions. Claudius ordered her killed, and the Roman Senate decreed that her name be removed from public record, and all statues of her demolished.

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