When Tiberius died, he was succeeded by the very young and very unstable Caligula. Caligula had three older sisters: Livilla (not the previous Livilla, sometimes called Julia, not any of the previous Julias), Agrippina and Drusilla, whom he heaped with public honours (honours not extended to his various wives, not even the mother of his baby). He had the names of his sisters included in the formal oaths, so that when Romans swore in the name of the Emperor they were also swearing in the name of his sisters.
Caligula’s favourite sister was Drusilla. Their grandmother Antonia had been shocked to find them in bed together as children, in a very non-siblingy kind of way. As emperor, Caligula infamously ravished all three of his sisters at official banquets. (it passes the time between lark’s tongue & pudding)
All sources suggest that Caligula was a bit loopy. He made strange public declarations (for instance, that he was the god Jupiter, or that the newest member of the Senate was a horse). He set up temples to himself, treated his wives with extreme cruelty, and indulged in cruel and bloodthirsty entertainments.
As Emperor, Caligula established Drusilla as his consort (“treating her openly as if she were his wife,” cough cough), and also his heir. This begs a very interesting alternate history what-if, as it is the only time that a woman was officially named as an heir to the Empire.
But it was Drusilla who died: young, and suddenly.
(there is no historical evidence for the Robert Graves version of these events, where John Hurt’s Caligula finds out Drusilla is pregnant with his baby and, in true godly fashion, decides he needs to cut the baby out so that it will not be greater than him… or some such nonsense)
Caligula was crazed with grief. He made it a public offense to laugh, bathe or dine with one’s family for as long as the mourning period lasted. And then he made Drusilla a goddess. She was the first imperial woman to receive this honour (their great-grandmother Livia had to wait until the next reign to be deified) and, indeed, Drusilla was only the third Roman ever to be made a god, after Romulus (the first king, remember him, the Sabine-raper) and Augustus.
For the rest of his life, Caligula swore all oaths by the divinity of his sister, and no one dared challenge this assertion. The main reason Drusilla is remembered today is because he ensured that Rome remembered her.
Caligula died without heir. His baby daughter was killed in the conspiracy that also assassinated Caligula himself. For a moment, it looked like a return to the Republic was the only option… but the Palace Guards, desperate to keep their jobs by making sure there was someone on the throne, found themselves another emperor.
Stammering, sickly Uncle Claudius – brother of Golden Germanicus and the Livilla who got herself walled up and starved to death, son of strict Antonia and popular Drusus, grandson of Livia and Octavia and Mark Antony, great-nephew of Augustus. Claudius had always been left out of the succession because of his physical failings, which made people assume he was stupid. He wasn’t. He was a scholar, and an excellent tactician. But when it came to women… oh, yeah. Stupid.
When Claudius was found cowering behind a curtain and forced on to the throne, he was married to his third wife, the young and vivacious Messalina. She adored the spotlight that fell on her when her husband unexpectedly became Emperor. It was all statues, portraits, gorgeous frocks and excellent parties. Her two small children were likewise celebrated.
Sadly, that isn’t why Messalina is remembered. The adultery saw to that.
Not just any adultery. According to the stories (brought to you, I must admit, by the same historians who were convinced that Livia poisoned every relative of Augustus’ who died over a fifty year period), Messalina made sex into an art form. She reputedly once challenged a famous prostitute to a contest as to whom could bonk the most men in one night, and out-shagged her with flying colours. She set up a brothel among the upper classes, so aristocratic husbands could pimp out their wives.
Funnily enough, it wasn’t sex that was Messalina’s downfall. It was lurve. And, you know, UTTER STUPIDITY.
Her latest lover was Silius, and she was so enamoured of him that she kept giving him presents. Little trinkets that she found lying around the palace – the Emperor’s furniture, slaves, shiny things. And then she though, “Oh, gosh, I love Silius so much, why don’t we get married?”
So she waited until her husband Claudius was out of town, and she did it. Those crazy kids got married. Not just bigamy, but Treason with a capital T.
Messalina wasn’t the only confused one. Apparently, when Claudius hastened back to town after being told the news, he wondered aloud, “Am I still emperor?” He vacillated between punishing Messalina and forgiving her – and his advisors were so worried that he would come down on the side of forgiveness that they had her executed by the sword themselves, and told him it had been his idea.
As the ultimate example of female transgression in Ancient Rome, Messalina is also one of the most famous Roman women. She has been portrayed on stage, screen and in literature and artwork. In biblical epics like The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, she is presented as a symbol of Roman decadence (as opposed to Christian morality). In truth, the Romans were about as conservative and po-faced as the Christians later were; figures like Caligula and Messalina were exceptions, not the rule.
In I Claudius, both the Robert Graves book and the BBC mini-series, Messalina is portrayed as being almost child-like in her naivete as well as dangerously sexual. In Italian cinema, her story is in the realms of pornography.
This popular version of Messalina as the slut who couldn’t say no is so powerful that it is impossible for us to learn anything else about who she was as a person and a historical figure. Even the majority of her portraits from the time before her reputation was ruined are lost to us, because they were destroyed after her execution. We don’t know what kind of power and position she had as the wife of the emperor; what her childhood was like; who her friends were. All we know is that she was (according to the accounts that survived) promiscuous, and punished accordingly.
We know little about Calpurnia, mistress of Claudius, except that she was an intelligent woman who advised him well. When the various court toadies and ministers found out about Messalina’s second marriage, they were so scared of telling the emperor themselves that they went into the slum area where Calpurnia lived and begged her to be the one to break the news, on the grounds that Claudius would believe her above the rest of them. (but, in truth, they were probably hedging their bets in case he went wild and started chopping heads). I get the impression that she was a sensible, placid sort of woman, and that Claudius would have been way better off if society allowed him to marry someone like her.
Instead, after the train wreck that was his marriage to Messalina, he decided to choose his next wife based on experience and good genetics.
So he married his niece.
I’m reprinting the series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.