Empress Valeria Messalina died in 48 AD from a certain headlessness on her part. After she scandalously staged a mock marriage with a lover, her husband Claudius I finally realised what a monstrous woman she was, and had her beheaded. Or so the historians tell us. Obviously Messalina lacks a mouth to speak for herself.

Both her parents were grandchildren of Augustus' sister, Octavia. She was therefore a suitable match for Claudius, future emperor. They were married in 38 or 39 AD; he was in his late forties, she in her teens. The couple had two children, and the birth of a son caused all of Rome to celebrate the empress. The Senate voted to give her the exalted title Augusta, but Claudius rejected the move.

The third wife of Claudius had belonged to the scandalous court of Caligula, and was apparently well taught in the arts of scheming and deceiving. She sold off imperial favours to those who could pay for them, and thus won the favour of many wealthy Roman families. She skimmed money where she could and lived a life of lust and luxury. Later historians described her as a nymphomaniac, sometimes using 25 men to satisfy her needs. These claims, used to blacken Messalina's reputation after her death, are not necessarily true. However, she may well have preferred young lovers to her aging husband.

The empress plotted against all perceived enemies to herself and her children. She had Julia Livilla, Claudius' beautiful niece, and Seneca exiled under the Lex de Adulteriis. Her real rival, Agrippina the younger, daughter of Germanicus, proved too virtuous to be convicted on the same charge.

Shielding her husband by surrounding him with her allies, Messalina ruled Rome according to her whims for seven years, much to the horror of the Roman public. The emperor's wife was supposed to be the embodiment of virtue, and Messalina was nothing of the sort. She was considered a major flaw in the government of Claudius, who in himself was a capable ruler. The theory went like this: If Claudius did not know about her conduct, he must be a weak emperor, but if he did know about it and did nothing about it, he must be even worse than she was. The city buzzed with rumours and talk of revolt.

Things came to a head when, while Claudius was away in Ostia, Messalina divorced him and staged a wedding with her handsome lover Caius Silius. Not only was this a highly shocking thing to do - it may even have been a plot to depose of Claudius. Unfortunately for Messalina, Claudius' secretary Narcissus informed the emperor, and he decided to have her killed. The plot against the emperor's life, if there was one, had failed.

Messalina became about 35 years old. She left behind her the children Britannicus and Octavia. Claudius married Agrippina and adopted Nero, who was older than Britannicus. Valeria Messalina's son did not become emperor, and she suffered defeat even in the afterlife. Her daughter, however, did become Nero's empress. As time would prove, that wasn't such a lucky thing to be, either.

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