Messalina, Empress and Harlot

“Other animals become sated with venereal pleasures,” Pliny the Elder remarked in his Natural History; “man hardly knows any satiety”. As a case in point, he told a story about Messalina, the wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who challenged a prostitute to a contest in sexual stamina, “and outdid her, after continuous intercourse, night and day, at the twenty-fifth embrace”.

The historian Tacitus and the biographer Suetonius tell similar tales about the empress’s rampant sexual behaviour, portraying a woman who was completely out of the control of her imperial husband. Messalina was eventually executed after Claudius found out that she had married another man and was plotting to overthrow him… At least, that is the story preserved in the ancient sources. Whatever the truth may have been, Messalina was certainly described in the blackest terms possible by male authors who abhorred independent-minded women with desires of their own.


• Cesare Questa, ‘Messalina, meretrix Augusta’, in: R. Raffaelli (ed.), Vicende e figure femminili in Grecia e a Roma. Atti del convegno Pesaro 28-30 aprile 1994 (Ancona 1995) 399-423
• Sandra R. Joshel, ‘Female desire and the discourse of empire: Tacitus’s Messalina’, in: J.P. Hallett & M.B. Skinner (eds.), Roman Sexualities (Princeton 1997) 221-254
• Garrett G. Fagan, ‘Messalina’s folly’, The Classical Quarterly 52 (2002) 566-579
• Friederike Haedecke, Göttinnen und Mörderinnen. Die First Ladies des Römischen Reiches (Mannheim 2010)

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