Messalina and Agrippina in History of Roman Empire

Categories: HistoryRoman empire

Tiberius Claudius Augustus Germanicus or commonly known as Claudius I was descended from Julio-Claudian dynasty. He was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia Minor, the daughter of Marc Anthony. He was the brother of highly favored Germanicus, the father of Caligula. He suffered what was like cerebral palsy during his youth and this made his childhood very difficult and was kept out of sight of the public because of this physical condition (Seutonius, 1957).

The physical condition which he endured and the seclusion during his youth proved to be favorable to him because he was not perceived to be a competitor to the throne; and thus survived the political violence in association with the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula.

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His condition improved during his teens and afterwards pursued his scholarly interest under the tutorship of Anthenodorus, the philosopher and Livy the historian (Barrett, 1996). Augustus thought it to be appropriate to make Claudius his heir on the third degree where there were two more heirs before him, Tiberius and Caligula.

These made the political career of Claudius to be delayed of twenty years or more. When Caligula was assassinated on January 24, 41 Claudius I became the fourth Julio-Claudian Roman Emperor. This happened because the Praetorian Guard proclaimed him emperor believing that a Julio-Claudian emperor would help retain their posts in Rome. Claudius had a reputation of strong appetite for women even before he was proclaimed Emperor. It was said that he was the only emperor who was never involved with men sexually.

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Claudius I was married to four wives.

After the first and the second marriage, in 38 AD he married Valeria Messalina with which he had a daughter whose name was Octavia and a son whose name was Tiberius Claudius Caesar Germanicus, known also as Britannicus. Messalina was a powerful Roman Empress during her time and was alleged to have a huge sexual appetite by some historian (Barret, 1996; Baldson, 1962). Silius and Messalina were put to death by Claudius , and later married Aggripina the Younger (Bauman, 1992). Messalina’s Marriage to Claudius Valeria Messalina was the daughter of Domitia Lepida Minor and Marcus Valerius Messala Barbatus, a Roman consul of Ancient Rome.

Both of her father and mother were grandchildren of Augustus’s sister Octavia, this fact gave Messalina a bloodline connected to Augustus. Messalina was very young when she married the then 50 years old Claudius in 38 AD. She was a very ambitious woman with strong political aspirations and quite popular for being promiscuous. She was wealthy, influential and said to have frequented the court of Caligula, her cousin during the time when Caligula was the emperor. When Claudius married her, it was said to be born of political intentions.

Messalina became a powerful woman of Rome when her husband Claudius was appointed emperor after the death of Caligula. At this point in time, the Roman Empire was a chapter of the Roman Republic of the Ancient Rome. Roman Empire was characterized by autocratic government with huge protective holdings in Europe and Mediterranean. Claudius was generous in honoring Messalina. Her birthday was officially celebrated and many statues of her were erected in public places. She was given the respect of being seated with the Vestal Virgins in theatres. The Roman Senate would have named Messalina Augusta if Claudius has not refused.

In spite of all the glory and fortune Messalina had, she was a woman that was said to have very loose morals and at one instance was said to have competed with a prostitute for who could file up sexual partners in one night. Messalina won by scores of 25 partners (Bauman, 1992). Her life revolved around politics and love life. Ambitious, Messalina would do everything in her power to make her son Britaniccus the next emperor, and so she planned for the murder of Nero. Unfortunately Messalina fell in love with the good-looking Roman senator by the name of Gaius Silius, who was then happily married to Julia Silana.

The two became lovers and Messalina asked Gaius to divorce his wife and plotted to kill Claudius I. When Claudius was inspecting the harbor in Ostia, Messalina and Gaius Silius got married in an open manner while she was still legally married to Claudius. This insolence resulted of course to the execution of the two (Bauman, 1992; Scramuzza 1990). Before Messalina’s execution she retreated to the garden in Lucullus and was with her mother Lepida who was rumored to have become estranged with her during her popularity. Lepida, Messalina’s mother took pity on her and she accompanied her at the last hours of her life.

When an officer and a former slave came for the execution Messalina and Lepida were preparing a petition to Claudius. It was said that Messalina was offered to kill herself but could not make herself to do so. In the end the officer stabbed her to her death. Claudius did not show any emotion upon learning the death of his wife, instead he asked for more wine to drink. Not long after the death of Messalina, the freeman Pallas persuaded Claudius to marry Agrippina the younger (Seutonius). Agrippina the Younger Julia Agrippina also known as Agrippina the younger was one of the most important women in the history of Roman Empire.

She played a distinguished role in the drama of the Julio-Claudian clan. A daughter of Agrippina the Elder and the most loved imperial heir Germanicus. So distinct was her influence that it can only be compared to a male authority. She has similarity with Livia, the wife of Augustus, who was a wife of an emperor and a mother of another. She was born clothed with the grandeur and shadow of the political power of her family. If she could not have avoided the fate she was born with, she sure knew how to work things to favor her political aspiration.

She has written a memoir depicting the tragedy of her family (Pliny). Lineage of Agrippina the Younger Agrippina the younger was great granddaughter of Augustus the man who established Roman Empire from the ruins of the Roman Republic. Agrippina was the daughter of Vipsania Agrippina also known as Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus Julius Caesar. Germanicus was the son of Livia wife of Augustus from a former husband. His mother was the daughter of Marc Anthony and Octavia, Augustus’ sister. Germanicus was a nephew and designated heir of Tiberius the successor of Augustus.

The younger Agrippina was born in a military camp not far from the German tribes in AD 14 as it was her mother’s practice to accompany her father to any of his military expedition. Her father Germanicus was handsome and most popular member of the family of the emperor. When Agrippina was four, her father died of an illness, it was an illness that was not diagnosed and the people of the empire thought that Tiberius had something to do with death of Germanicus. The elder Agrippina thought also of the same. The funeral procession of the beloved Germanicus left a lasting impression on the mind of the Roman people.

The grief of Agrippina the Elder at the death of Germanicus was carried in a dignified manner although people must have understood the pain of losing not only a beloved husband but of a wonderful leader and this forever won the heart of the Roman people. In 28AD Agrippina was betrothed by Tiberius to a much older Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a wicked man and most deceitful. Agrippina was fourteen when her mother and oldest brother were thrown into exile in 29AD. The second brother of Agrippina was next arrested and was starved to death in the imperial palace, and this happened even when he has supplied evidence against his mother and brother.

Regarding Caligula the third brother of Agrippina, Tiberius would sometimes honor him or sometimes would ignore him. In 33 AD Agrippina the Elder killed herself through starving. In AD 37 Tiberius died, Caligula succeeded him and Nero the only son and child of Agrippina the Younger was born. This time Agrippina the younger might have thought that she was safe because her brother who was now the emperor was particularly devoted to his three sisters, their portrait were even put in coins. On 38 AD the favorite sister of Caligula Drusilla died.

While they, the imperial family were visiting the armies in Rhine frontier in the North, Caligula suspected that his two sisters were conspiring against him and having an affair with Marcus Aimilius Lepidus the widower of Drusilla. Marcus Aimilius Lepidus was hoped to be the intervening successor of Caligula, but it did not happen because of the sudden death of Drusilla. Even though the thought that the two sisters were involved with the same man, it was also possible the three were thinking that Caligula was no longer stable and becoming a danger to them.

While Caligula was retrieving the ashes of his older in the island of Ponti, he sent Agrippina the Younger in exile. It was believed that Caligula was planning the execution of his two sisters at the time that he died6. It was also believed that the positive character of Agrippina was twisted because of her experience during her childhood and youth as she went from one extreme to another (Griffin, 1985). After the assassination of Caligula, she and her sister were summoned from exile by the elderly uncle, the new emperor Claudius.

Nero, the son of Agrippina was left in scarcity when her mother was sent to exile and his father Domitius Ahenobarbus died in AD 40-41. They were left in poverty because Caligula took their assets after the husband of Agrippina died. Claudius returned all of the assets that belonged to her and her family, but Agrippina now was looking for security soon set her eyes on men she could possibly marry. Not long and she married C. Sallustius Crispus Passienus. He was a former husband of the sister of Domitius Ahenobarbus and therefore was her brother in law. He was wealthy and was a consul in 27 and 44 AD.

In AD 47 Agrippina was again a widow with the rumor that she poisoned her husband (Barrett, 1996). Agrippina was seemingly calculating every move that now at this time she was close to becoming an empress. Claudius married Agrippina the Younger not long after Messalina died through the influence of Pallas the freeman. It was rumored that Agrippina seduced Claudius by behaving in a way not fitting for a niece to her uncle. Agrippina and Claudius became husband and wife and both of them benefited the union. Agrippina was now an Empress and Claudius got hold of the daughter of the still beloved Germanicus.

Pallas the freedman was working closely with Agrippina watching things were happening right for her; they were so close that they were rumored to have been involved sexually. Agrippina was a very cunning woman that she made sure things will turn out the way she wanted through the network of alliances. She was eyeing for the seat of the emperor for her son Nero. Nero was betrothed to Octavia, the daughter of Claudius and Messalina when he was only eleven years old. By AD 50 Nero was adopted by Claudius and now his name was Nero Claudius Caesar.

Britannicus on the other hand, who was the natural son of Claudius stood only second in line to becoming the emperor, with Nero being the first. It was the hope of Claudius that his adoption of Nero would do him good. Nero was older than Britannicus and he would soon be matured enough to rule and provide protection for Claudius and the family. Agrippina the Empress The Empress Agrippina became so powerful that she was able to be at the stage at the same time with her husband receiving the defeated British tribal chief Caractus. Once she chaired a ceremony wearing a golden cloak putting forth her ancestral claim to the empire.

Agrippina also was generously honored in the public; in 50 AD she was the first woman alive to be named Augusta just like Livia, but Livia was not allowed to use the name until her husband was dead. The moment that she set her foot at the palace she got total control of Claudius (Putnam, 1924, 1925). She was determined to accomplish her imperial ambition, and she did everything to secure the throne for her son Nero. Now that Nero has become a legal son of Claudius because of the adoption, the emperor hoped that this would ensure the loyalty of the follower of Germanicus and Nero.

He was mistaken. There was a constant disagreement between Claudius and Agrippina over the progression of Nero and Britannicus during the last months of his life. At the age of 64 in 54 AD Claudius died. It was assumed by the people of his generation that he was poisoned by Agrippina. The death of Claudius was in good timing because he has established already the reputation of Nero. Claudius lived just long enough to grant many public honors to Nero while Nero on the other hand used the time to make himself known to the Roman Empire and by the time Claudius died, he was mature enough to rule.

Britannicus on one hand was not given the same opportunity, he did not live long enough to assume man’s toga. Nobody thought it to be just a freak coincidence. It was said that the end of what was going to happen was not hidden to Agrippina for she consulted astrologers and told her that Nero her son, at the end she will be by murdered her own son on which she replied “let it be just that he becomes the next emperor” (Barrett, 1996). The Reign of Nero Now that Nero was the reigning Emperor, it was the most opportune time for Agrippina to accomplish her political ambitions. She was holding a role of influence to her son Nero.

She was at this time granted many awards and she was made priestess of a cult that deified Claudius. Her portrait was put on the imperial currency together with the reigning emperor. She was allowed to listen from behind the curtain the meeting of the Senate. She was in many ways a powerful individual that can move through Nero; but these however are far from holding the seat of power. She recalled the Stoic philosopher Seneca from exile to be a tutor of Nero. She also asked Burrus the Praetorian Guard and Seneca to be the practical regents for her son which later was proven to be a wrong move for her advances.

Seneca and Burrus were faithful counselors to Nero thinking that it would not be good for the emperor all these political advances of Agrippina. They thought that this will eventually lead to regrettable circumstances for Nero and the empire itself. It was said that at one point just like what she did in the time Claudius reign, she tried to join Nero on the same platform to received the ambassador from Armenia, from which Burrus and Seneca did not agree and urged Nero to step down the stage to greet his mother as seemingly act of respect and lead her to a lower seat.

In 55 AD her influence over her son soon has faded through the encouragement of Burrus and Seneca. This time Nero was completely dependent on the advices of his regents. Nero and Agrippina now have open conflict over a woman named Acte, she was a woman who was challenging the position of Nero’s wife Octavia, whom Nero really hated. Agrippina was trying very hard to hold on the past regime that could somehow assert her position in the empire, and Octavia being the daughter of Messalina and Claudius was a best tool to do it.

As Agrippina’s influence on Nero become weaker and weaker she depended more and more on Claudius for prestige. It was made even more unbearable that Pallas, the ally and champion of Agrippina was removed from “powerful administrative post”. As it was not the intention of Burrus and Seneca remove Agrippina from the palace, it was just that they become the shelter of Nero from the unreasonable and proud demands of Agrippina. There was rumor that she even seduced her son and might have succeeded to cling to the loyalty of her son.

No one understood Agrippina better than Nero because since his childhood and unto his adulthood he saw how Agrippina maneuvered everything for her favor, and he helped her in the fatal conspiracy in order to make him emperor. They knew each other very well ( Barrett,1996). Agrippina’s End Nero began plotting to kill his mother. The first plan did not work out when he attempted to drown the boat that she was riding. Agrippina luckily swam sportingly to the shore. Nero was aware that by this time her mother already knew what was happening and he was anxious about what she was capable to do.

Seneca and Burrus by this time did not want in any way to be involved, even warning Nero that the Praetorians would possibly not carry out the plan of killing her if asked by Nero because many of them were in those posts because of Agrippina. Burrus also made it clear to Nero that the loyalty of the Praetorians were not aimed at the emperor only but to the whole imperial family. Most especially the Praetorians would not lay their hands on the daughter of Germanicus who was most loved and well remembered.

Thus, Nero resorted to call a navy to kill Agrippina; she was stabbed in her villa while she was asleep. There were many inconsistencies on the report of her death, but the one recorded and was sent to the senate was that she was killed during the time when she was attempting on the life of her son rather than the other way. Seneca prepared a letter to the Senate for Nero. In his letter the emperor had related to the Senate how his mother wanted and demanded to co-rule the Empire.

This however was probably true; the Senate was well aware of the reputation of Agrippina and such claim of Nero was believable. A woman interfering with the affairs of the land was contemptible and against the Roman tradition, thus Nero was even applauded after the death of his mother. The end came for Agrippina just like what she was told. She will be killed by her own son, for which she just responded, “so be it, as long as he becomes the Emperor”. The Senate believed everything that Nero reported in connection with the death of Agrippina. Agrippina accomplished many things during her lifetime. One notable was her recall of Seneca from the exile, with which after that he was able to accomplish many works important to Stoic tradition (Barrett, 1996).


As depicted in Women and Politics in Ancient Rome, both Messalina and Agrippina were very ambitious women. They both desired the grandeur of being on the top of Roman Empire and they achieved whatever they wanted. Both were strong and cunning and would not stop at any point ever wanting for more. Many historians have depicted Messalina as being hungry for sex and Agrippina for power; if one would look closely, they were just the same.

Messalina and Agrippina used their allure to influence people in order for them to get what they wanted. Both of them had organized network of connections to protect them. They each used to the maximum advantage their imperial lineage. Messalina and Agrippina, although had achieved what they painfully sought after -power, prestige, wealth and adoration of the people, they both died miserably, paying for every action they had done. But they will never be forgotten, their story will be told time and again.


  1. Balsdon, J. P. V. D. (1962). Roman Women, Barnes & Noble
  2. Barrett, A. A. (1996). Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire. Yale University Press (New Haven and London)
  3. Bauman, Richard (1992). Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
  4. Griffin, Miriam T. (1985). Nero: The End of a Dynasty, Yale University
  5. Press Levick, Barbara (1990). Claudius, Yale University Press Pliny the Elder, Natural History
  6. Scramuzza, Vincent (1940). The Emperor Claudius Harvard University Press.
  7. Cambridge Suetonius (1957). The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Tacitus. (1971). The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin

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Messalina and Agrippina in History of Roman Empire. (2016, Sep 12). Retrieved from

Messalina and Agrippina in History of Roman Empire

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