The women of Rome’s imperial family matched the men for ruthlessness, but their reward was ingratitude rather than power.

When the 23-year-old Empress Messalina celebrated a bigamous “marriage” with her latest lover, the faction opposed to her decided that the time had come, at last, to act. Messalina’s outrages against morality and decorum were not only scandalous. They were compromising the dignity of the principate and endangering the state. They had been going on ever since her marriage, but her husband, the Emperor Claudius, seemed not to know about them, despite the fact that her orgiastic parties, where men were obliged to watch their wives having sex with others, took place inside the imperial palace.

Someone, decided the freedmen who actually governed Rome, had to inform the emperor that his wife now had another “husband” and that the two of them were plotting to oust him. The messengers chosen were two prostitutes of whom Claudius was known to be fond: their names were Calpurnia and Cleopatra.

The situation is rich in irony. Messalina was to be accused of consorting with, and acting like, prostitutes, and was killed for it. But no one seems to have seen anything amiss in the fact that Claudius’s confidential friends included two women of that profession, women whom he had presumably used for sex. Their names add an extra piquancy to the episode. They are the names of Julius Caesar’s estimable wife and of the most reviled and celebrated of his many mistresses. Caesar, the deified founder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, had set Messalina a precedent in bigamy when, in Egypt, he allowed Queen Cleopatra to present him as her spouse. The rulers who came after him presided over a Roman state where ambitious women were obliged to navigate with the utmost care between the prototypes …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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