From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Valeria Messalina, sometimes spelled Messallina, (c. 17/20 – 48) was a Roman Empress as the third wife of Emperor Claudius. A powerful and influential woman with a reputation for promiscuity, she conspired against her husband and was executed when the plot was discovered. The oft-repeated tale of Messalina’s all-night sex competition with a prostitute comes from Book X of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia.
The ancient Roman sources (particularly Tacitus and Suetonius), portray Messalina as insulting, disgraceful, cruel, avaricious, and a foolish nymphomaniac. Many women of her age and status enjoyed festivities and parties, but the two historians contended that Messalina unwisely combined her zest for meeting people with a sexual appetite.
The oft-repeated tale of Messalina’s all-night sex competition with a prostitute comes from Book X of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. Pliny does not name the prostitute; the Restoration playwright Nathaniel Richards calls her Scylla in The Tragedy of Messalina, Empress of Rome, published in 1640, and Robert Graves in his novel Claudius the God also identified the prostitute as Scylla. According to Pliny, the competition lasted for 24 hours and Messalina won with a score of 25 partners.
Roman sources claim that Messalina used sex to enforce her power and control politicians, that she had a brothel under an assumed name and organised orgies for upper class women and that she participated much in politics and sold her influence to Roman nobles or foreign notables.
Juvenal is also highly critical of her in his Satire VI (first translation by Peter Green and second translation from wikisource):
- Then consider the God's rivals, hear what Claudius
- had to put up with. The minute she heard him snoring
- his wife - that whore-empress - who dared to prefer the mattress
- of a stews to her couch in the Palace, called for her hooded
- night-cloak and hastened forth, with a single attendant.
- Then, her black hair hidden under an ash-blonde wig,
- she'd make straight for her brothel, with its stale, warm coverlets,
- and her empty reserved cell. Here, naked, with gilded
- nipples, she plied her trade, under the name of 'The Wolf-Girl',
- parading the belly that once housed a prince of the blood.
- She would greet each client sweetly, demand cash payment,
- and absorb all their battering - without ever getting up.
- Too soon the brothel-keeper dismissed his girls:
- she stayed right till the end, always last to go,
- then trailed away sadly, still | with burning, rigid vulva,
- exhausted by men, yet a long way from satisfied,
- cheeks grimed with lamp-smoke, filthy, carrying home
- to her Imperial couch the stink of the whorehouse.
- Then look at those who rival the Gods, and hear what Claudius
- endured. As soon as his wife perceived that her husband was asleep,
- this august harlot was shameless enough to prefer a common mat
- to the imperial couch. Assuming night-cowl, and attended by a single maid,
- she issued forth; then, having concealed her raven locks under a light-coloured peruque,
- she took her place in a brothel reeking with long-used coverlets.
- Entering an empty cell reserved for herself, she there took her stand, under the feigned name of Lycisca,
- her nipples bare and gilded, and exposed to view the womb that bore thee, O nobly-born Britannicus!
- Here she graciously received all comers, asking from each his fee;
- and when at length the keeper dismissed his girls,
- she remained to the very last before closing her cell,
- and with passion still raging hot within her went sorrowfully away.
- Then exhausted by men but unsatisfied,
- with soiled cheeks, and begrimed with the smoke of lamps,
- she took back to the imperial pillow all the odours of the stews.
Messalina was featured prominently in Robert Graves' novels I, Claudius, and Claudius the God. In keeping with the historical views at the time the novels were written (1934-35), Messalina is portrayed as a young teenager at the time of her marriage. She is also credited with all the actions mentioned in the ancient sources. This character was played by Sheila White in the 1976 BBC television adaptation of the two books, and was to have been played by Merle Oberon in Josef von Sternberg's 1937 film of I, Claudius.
Besides the adaptation of Graves' work, the character of Messalina has been portrayed many times elsewhere in movies and television films or miniseries. Here are some of the other actresses who have played Messalina:
- Maria Caserini in the 1910 Italian silent film Messalina, directed by Enrico Guazzoni.
- Rina De Liguoro in the 1922 Italian silent film Messalina, directed by Enrico Guazzoni.
- Merle Oberon in the 1937 film I, Claudius directed by Josef von Sternberg.
- Maria Felix in the 1951 Italian film Messalina, directed by Carmine Gallone.
- Susan Hayward in the 1954 Biblical epic Demetrius and the Gladiators, a completely fictionalized interpretation in which Messalina reforms and becomes a Christian.
- Belinda Lee in the 1960 film Messalina, Venere imperatrice.
- Sheila White in the 1976 BBC Masterpiece Theater mini-series I, Claudius.
- Anneka Di Lorenzo in the 1979 film Caligula.
- Jennifer O'Neill in the 1985 TV series A.D. Anno Domini.
- Sonia Aquino in the 2004 TV movie Imperium: Nero.
The French writer Alfred Jarry based his novel Messalina (or The Garden of Priapus in Louis Colman's English translation) on the myths surrounding the subject. She is referred to in his book Le Surmâle (in English the Supermale); these two books are offered as diametrically opposed entities in his 'pataphysical œuvre. The Messalinas of these books are highly fictionalized and subject to Jarry's fanciful and extravagant imagination.
In Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, the Forsaken Mesaana is named after Messalina. In Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Messalina is a guest at Satan's ball. In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester refers to his first wife as his Indian Messalina. In Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, the protagonist's aunt, who 'first aroused [his] desire for women' is referred to as a Messalina. Mario Puzo's The Last Don revolves around a film called "Messalina" based on the notorious all night exploits of the empress. Chuck Palahniuk's novel Snuff makes numerous references to Messalina's sexual exploits (in particular, the story of her competition with Scylla) as a sort of precedent for the feats attempted by the novel's central character. Messalina is the name given to a Native American orphan by a Presbyterian family before she is taken in by Jacob Vaark in Toni Morrison's 2008 novel A Mercy. She goes by the nickname Lina. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, a dog with many pups is named after the Empress. Messalina is also mentioned in Paulo Coelho's book "Eleven Minutes."
- Cassius Dio, Roman History, LX. 14-18, 27-31
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX. 8; The Wars of the Jews II. 12
- Juvenal, Satires 6, 10, 14
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10
- Plutarch, Lives
- Seneca the Younger, Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii; Octavia, 257-261
- Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Claudius 17, 26, 27, 29, 36, 37, 39; Nero 6; Vitellius 2
- Tacitus, Annals, XI. 1, 2, 12, 26-38
- Sextus Aurelius Victor, epitome of Book of Caesars, 4