Born no later than 12 BC and on the basis of his family distinction, Messalina's father could have expected a consulship by 23. Since he didn't become consul, it has been suggested that he must have died before that date. Her mother then married consul Faustus Cornelius Sulla Lucullus III, great-grandson of Roman Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Faustus and Lepida had a son circa 22, Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix, Messalina's half brother. Messalina was most probably born and raised in Rome. Very little is known on her early life.
Messalina bore Claudius two children, a daughter Claudia Octavia (born 39 or 40), who was a future empress and first wife to future emperor Nero, and a son, Britannicus (born 41). On 24 January 41, Caligula and his family were murdered and later that day the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Claudius the new emperor and Messalina became the new empress.
Messalina became the most powerful woman in the Roman Empire. Claudius bestowed various honors on her: her birthday was officially celebrated, statues of her were erected in public places and she was given the privilege of occupying the front seats at the theatre along with the Vestal Virgins. The Roman Senate wanted Messalina to have the title of "Augusta", however Claudius refused.
In 43 Claudius held a triumphant military parade to celebrate the successful campaign in Britain. Messalina followed his chariot in a covered carriage and behind her marched the generals.
Through her status, she became very influential, however in character was very insecure. Claudius, as an older man, could have died at any moment and Britannicus would have become the new emperor. To improve her own security and ensure the future of her children, Messalina sought to eliminate anyone who was a potential threat to her and her children.
Among those who were loyal to Messalina was consul Lucius Vitellius. He begged her as a tremendous privilege for him to remove Messalina’s shoes. Vitellius would nurse her right shoe between his toga and tunic and would sometimes take the shoe out and kiss it.
Due to Claudius' devotion to her, Messalina was able to manipulate him into ordering the exile or execution of various people: Roman Historian Seneca the Younger; Claudius’ nieces Julia Livilla and Julia; Marcus Vinicius (husband of Julia Livilla); consul Gaius Asinius Pollio II (see Vipsania Agrippina), the elder Poppaea Sabina (mother of Empress Poppaea Sabina, second wife of Nero), consul Decimus Valerius Asiaticus and Polybius (freedman). Claudius had the reputation of being easily controlled by his wives and freedmen.
A well known example of Messalina trying to eliminate her rivals was when Agrippina the Younger returned from exile after January 41. Agrippina was a niece to Claudius, a daughter of Claudius’ late brother Germanicus. Messalina realised that Agrippina’s son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (the future Nero) was a threat to her son’s position and sent assassins to strangle Nero during his siesta. When they approached his couch, they saw what appeared to be a snake near his pillow and fled in terror. The apparent snake was actually a sloughed-off snake skin.
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):
During the Secular Games in 47, at the performance of the Troy Pageant, Messalina attended the event with her son Britannicus. Also present was Agrippina the Younger with her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (Nero). Agrippina and Nero received a greater acclamation from the audience than Messalina and Britannicus did. Many people began to show pity and sympathy to Agrippina, due to unfortunate circumstances that occurred in her life. This is probably a first sign of Messalina's declining popularity.
Later that year, Messalina became interested in the attractive Roman Senator Gaius Silius who was happily married to the aristocratic woman Junia Silana (sister of Caligula’s first wife). Messalina and Silius became lovers and Messalina forced Silius to divorce his wife.
Silius realised the danger that he put himself in. Messalina and Silius plotted to kill the weak emperor and Messalina would make him the new emperor. Silius was childless and wanted to adopt Britannicus. They had committed bigamy: Messalina and Silius married in a full ceremony, in front of witnesses and had signed marriage contracts while Messalina was still legally married to Claudius.
While Claudius was in Ostia, inspecting construction work done on the harbour, his freedman Narcissus, advised him of Messalina’s and Silius’ plot to kill him. Messalina travelled to Ostia with her children hoping to speak to Claudius; however the emperor left Ostia before she was able to do so. Narcissus delayed Messalina, preventing her from seeing Claudius.
Claudius ordered the deaths of Messalina and Silius in 48. In Messalina’s final hours, she was in the Gardens of Lucullus. Messalina and her mother were preparing a petition for Claudius. At the height of Messalina’s influence and prosperity, Lepida and Messalina had argued and became estranged. Apparently overcome by pity, Lepida stayed with her daughter. Lepida's last words to her were ‘Your life is finished. All that remains is to make a decent end’. Messalina was reputedly weeping and moaning. She finally realised the situation in which she had put herself.
An officer and a former slave arrived together to witness Messalina’s death. The former slave verbally insulted her while the officer stood by in silence. Messalina was offered the choice of killing herself, but was too afraid to do so, so the officer stabbed Messalina with a dagger. Her dead body was left with her mother. At the time of Messalina's death, Claudius was attending a dinner. When Messalina's death was announced to him, Claudius showed no emotion but asked for more wine.
In the days after her death, Claudius gave no sign of hatred, anger, distress, satisfaction or any other human passion. The only ones who mourned for Messalina were her children. The Roman Senate ordered Messalina’s name removed from all public or private places and all statues of her were removed.
On New Year’s Day in 49, Claudius married as his fourth wife Agrippina the Younger, who went on to remove from the imperial court anyone she considered loyal to the memory of Messalina. Agrippina’s son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was adopted by Claudius as his son and heir. He became known as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus and succeeded Claudius as emperor instead of Messalina's son Britannicus. Nero married Messalina’s daughter. Messalina’s name is now often used as a synonym for sexual promiscuity, manipulativeness, and treachery.
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:
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.