Rome's Most 'Dangerous' Woman, Messalina

Messalina: Rome’s Most Dangerous Woman

If you’re familiar with Roman history, you may have heard of the notorious Empress Messalina. She’s often referred to as one of the most dangerous women in ancient Rome due to her scandalous behavior and the ruthless way she handled her enemies. In this article, we’ll delve into the life and legacy of Messalina, exploring the many facets of her character that made her such a formidable force in Roman history.


Messalina statue

To begin, it’s important to understand who Messalina was and why she’s so famous. Born in 17 AD, Messalina was the third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius. She was known for her beauty, charm, and cunning, but also for her sexual promiscuity and willingness to use violence to get what she wanted. During her reign as empress, Messalina was involved in numerous scandals and intrigues, ultimately leading to her downfall.

Early Life and Marriage of Messalina

Early Life and Marriage of Messalina
Scene from the Wedding of Messalina and Gaius Silius, possibly an episode from a Play (Brothel Scene)

The empress was born into a wealthy and influential Roman family, the Valerii Messallae. Her father, Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus, was a consul and a well-known orator. Messalina was married to Claudius in 38 AD when she was just 20 years old. At the time of their marriage, Claudius was still a relatively unknown figure in Roman politics, but the empress quickly recognized his potential and helped him rise to power.

Scandals and Intrigues

Scandals and Intrigues of messalina
Messalina working in a brothel: etching by Agostino Carracci, late 16th century

As empress, she was involved in a number of scandals and intrigues that earned her a reputation as one of the most dangerous women in Rome. Perhaps the most infamous of these scandals was her marriage to Gaius Silius, a high-ranking Roman senator. Empress married Silius in secret while Claudius was away from Rome, and the two of them planned to overthrow Claudius and take the throne for themselves.

However, their plot was discovered, and Messalina was arrested and ultimately executed for her treachery. It’s also said that Messalina was involved in numerous sexual affairs, even working as a prostitute in the streets of Rome under a false name. Her wild behavior scandalized the conservative Roman elite, and she became a symbol of moral decay and corruption.

Legacy of Messalina

Messalina bearing Britannicus
Messalina bearing Britannicus

Despite her scandalous reputation, Messalina remains an intriguing and complex figure in Roman history. While some historians see her as a manipulative and power-hungry woman who stopped at nothing to get what she wanted, others see her as a victim of the patriarchal society in which she lived. Whatever your opinion of her, there’s no denying that she left a lasting impression on Rome and on history as a whole.


In conclusion, Messalina was a fascinating and complex figure in Roman history, known for her beauty, charm, and cunning, as well as her scandalous behavior and ruthless tactics. While her legacy is often overshadowed by her many scandals and intrigues, it’s important to remember the role she played in shaping the history of ancient Rome. Whether you see her as a villain or a victim, there’s no denying that Messalina was one of the most dangerous women to ever hold power in Rome.


Was Messalina really as dangerous as people say she was?

Yes, Messalina was known for her willingness to use violence and manipulation to get what she wanted, and she was involved in numerous scandals and intrigues during her reign as empress.

Why did Messalina marry Silius in secret?

Messalina married Silius in secret because she was plotting to overthrow her husband, Emperor Claudius, and take the throne for herself. The marriage was a way for her to gain the support of Silius and other influential Romans who were opposed to Claudius’ rule.

What ultimately led to Messalina’s downfall?

Messalina’s downfall was the discovery of her plot to overthrow Claudius and her marriage to Silius. Claudius was outraged by her treachery and had her executed for her crimes.

Was Messalina the only woman in ancient Rome to hold significant power?

No, there were other women in ancient Rome who held significant power and influence, such as Livia Drusilla, the wife of Emperor Augustus, and Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Emperor Nero.

What can we learn from Messalina’s story?

Messalina’s story serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked ambition and the corrupting influence of power. It also highlights the complex and often fraught relationship between gender, sexuality, and politics in ancient Rome.

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