Messalina holding her son Britannicus, Louvre

The tale of Messalina, Empress of Rome, who lived almost 2000 years ago, has been interpreted two ways. One sees her as the victim of a slur campaign, the other as a cheap whore with a voracious sexual appetite who met her just desserts.

How Accurate is History?

Because it happened so long ago, we cannot be sure just how accurate “historical information” about her really is. Did those reporting it have an axe to grind, and what of the “Chinese whispers” effect on stories transmitted through the Ages? God only knows it’s hard enough to get consistent reports about what happened yesterday …

Messalina, third wife of Emperor Claudius, was put to death in 48 CE on his instructions at the tender age of 28 or 31 (there is some dispute as to whether she was born in 17 or 20 CE). Supposedly she had plotted to have him killed, but on the other hand it was well known that he was planning to leave her and remarry, providing him with ample reason for wanting her out of the way. Her reported infidelities and lascivious behavior seemingly gave him the moral upper hand. But since moral turpitude, deception and murder were rife amongst both men and women in the Roman ruling class was it just a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Was Messalina’s badness just conveniently exaggerated?

Image of the Empress Valeria Messalina on Roman coins 41-48 AD

Image of the Empress Valeria Messalina on Roman coins 41-48 AD

A 16th-century cameo of Messalina and her children

A 16th-century cameo of Messalina and her children

In any case, Messalina’s lurid reputation seems not to have arisen till some 70 years after her death.

Regarding images of Messalina, they are more likely to be wholesome till the 16th century. But in the late 16th century a truly raunchy one appears, representing her alleged voracious penchant for whoring.

Credibility of the Historians

This latter-day slur on Messalina’s character, alleged to have been started by less-than-credible-historians Tacitus  (56-117 CE) and Suetonius (69-122 CE), could maliciously have been instigated by Agrippina, Emperor Claudius’ new wife with the intention of discrediting Messalina’s royal line. Agrippina’s son Nero, keen to have a clear path to the throne, poisoned Messalina’s son and rightful heir Britannicus in 54 CE. In 62 CE Nero also had Messalina’s daughter murdered. Messalina’s line was thus extinguished.

Messalina working in a brothel. Etching by Agostino Carracci, late 16th century

Messalina working in a brothel. Etching by Agostino Carracci, late 16th century


Agrippina and son Nero, were clearly not virtuous souls themselves. It was Agrippina’s memoirs which formed the basis of Tacitus’ interpretation of historical events, casting some doubt on the impartiality of his account. Regarding the “historian” Seutonius, it has been reported that he was perceived as a scandal-monger by his contemporaries.

Images of Messalina become consistently sexual in later centuries.

Sex and Smear Campaigns

Messalina Gustave Moreau 1874

Messalina Gustave Moreau 1874

In this period of history it was commonplace to use accusations of sexual excess in a smear campaign to discredit a person (almost 2,000 years later, not much has changed!) If anyone had wished to quash any residual support for Messalina, juicy tales of gross immorality may well have done the trick.

The second, and far more captivating interpretation of Messalina’s character is very well covered by Maggie McNeill in her detailed and entertaining account of Messalina’s whoring and outrageous behavior so we feel no need to go into it here (see link to Maggie’s article at the end of this one).

This tale sees Messalina as an insatiable nymphomaniac, victim of her inbred bloodline and corrupting wealth, whose excesses precipitated her own death. It is well worth a read with its echoes of similar tales of the excesses of Roman rulers.

Why has Messalina’s Tale Survived?

Of more interest, perhaps, is the reason why Messalina’s name has survived for 2000 years as the archetype of the promiscuous, treacherous woman. What is the fascination with supposed lurid behavior in women?

Worthy of consideration in solving this mystery is the fact that it is, by and large, men who have reported history, and it is mostly men who have been the renowned artists, directors and film producers and have chosen which subjects to make famous and which images to keep alive. These are the images that shape the unconscious mind of humanity, the current beliefs of our world.

Messalina returning home Aubrey Beardsley 1896

Messalina returning home Aubrey Beardsley 1896

Could it be that these same men have perpetuated the story of Messalina, the avaricious and insatiable nymphomaniac, because it is an archetype with which much male society is obsessed; and is the reason for this obsession the fact that many men hope and pray that women will, one day, be just as horny as they are?

Unfortunately for these men, due to the laws of biology we know this is very unlikely to happen because it is testosterone which is responsible for sex drive and men get 10 or 20 times as much testosterone as women. Escorts are abundantly aware of the marked difference in the need for sex between men and women; escorts also know how fascinated many men are with the idea of the insatiable, nymphomaniac woman. It is an image or symbol, arising out of the collective male unconscious, that they find enthralling and irresistible.

italianmessalinaIn complete contradistinction to the obsession with female nymphomania is the penchant of the alpha male of our species for controlling his women. The tale of Messalina also suits his psychology perfectly in being a cautionary tale of the sticky end that befalls naughty women who don’t obey their husbands. So perhaps it’s no real surprise that the tale of Messalina, the deceitful nymphomaniac who got what was coming to her, has survived so long.

Prurient but Moralistic Fixations

messalinaposter3It’s a bit like the famous painting entitled “Vanity” by John Berger. This depicts a naked woman looking at herself in a hand mirror. The male artist enjoys drinking in her nakedness with his eyes, while at the same time condemning her vanity. In Messalina’s case, men can get their jollies off enjoying the lurid details of her life while at the same time celebrating her “morally just” demise. With this tale, moralistic voyeurs can truly have their cake and eat it …

The Abuse of the Archetype

Of interest also is that there are many examples of men using the archetype of the sexually dangerous woman to gain career advancement or push some political barrow, or when their own necks are on the line. The “evil woman” syndrome can be a distraction from what is truly going on. Mata Hari is a tale along these lines where a man with a lackluster career invents a “notorious woman” whom he can then capture and execute, heroically ridding France of a spy-traitor.


Or we can take the modern day case of Vicki Efandis, innocent, but currently serving 24 years in an Australian prison in Victoria, for allegedly murdering her partner. Dubbed the “black widow” by police she is the victim of a setup by the men who committed the crime but who are protected by the nature of their jobs. In cases like these, the evil woman archetype is a convenient device for setting society’s unconscious mind against her, like a rabid dog, regardless of the facts. In these examples we can see shades of the witch burning hysteria of the 15th century.

1960 Novel on Messalina

1960 Novel on Messalina

It is the popular archetype itself which can be dangerous, when it replaces conscious thought and induces irrational mob behavior. When Hitler blamed an ethnic race for all the evils in Germany, many people fell for that archetype and were suitably outraged. Hitler was able to use this lemming-like outrage for his own sociopathic aims. Such devices are still being used by politicians today to manipulate the emotions of the public into supporting greed or power-inspired wars masquerading as righteous causes.

So, an archetype, while it may produce a comfortable, shared set of responses in a large number of people, does not always achieve the best result for humanity. The archetype can induce an intellectual laziness which obscures what is really going on.

Messaline Imperatrice et Putain Italian X-rated film of 1981 director Sergio Corbucci

Messaline Imperatrice et Putain Italian X-rated film of 1981 director Sergio Corbucci

Can Wanton Eroticism be Respectable?

In Messalina’s case the truth of her life is buried in the mists of time, but what we do know is that the eroticism surrounding her lives on, and is fanned with the passing of the years, providing inspiration for serious artists, directors and x-rated film makers alike, as our sample of art devoted to her in this article demonstrates. But what is truly behind the enduring preoccupation with the life of Messalina? What is this tale really concealing?

Could it be that mankind, in his psyche, harbors a deep need for the freedom to be wantonly erotic but still “respectable” but cannot find the courage to face it, let alone work it out.

It would be a touch amusing (albeit tragic) if all the chasing after power in this world, and all the killing and destruction it causes, was just the deviant behavior of men who simply wanted access to more and raunchier sex more often …

If you would like to read more on Messalina click here.




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