After the death of Tiberius, the problem of the succession presented to the senate was not an easy one.
By Dr. Guglielmo Ferrero (1911)
Early 20th-Century Historian
After the death of Tiberius (37 A.D.), the problem of the succession presented to the senate was not an easy one. In his will, Tiberius had adopted, and thereby designated to the senate as his successors, Caius Caligula, the son of Germanicus, and Tiberius, the son of his own son Drusus. The latter was only seventeen, and too young for such a responsibility. Caligula was twenty-seven, and therefore still very young, although by straining a point he might be emperor; yet he did not enjoy a good reputation. If we except him, there was no other member of the family old enough to govern except Tiberius Claudius Nero, the brother of Germanicus and the only surviving son of Drusus and Antonia. He was generally considered a fool, was the laughing-stock of freedmen and women, and such a gawk and clown that it had been impossible to put him into the magistracy. Indeed, he was not even a senator when Tiberius died.
Bust of Caligula in the Capitoline Museums / From G. Ferrero, The Women of the Caesars, New York, 1911, Wikimedia Commons
As they could not consider him, there remained only Caligula, unless they wished to go outside the family of Augustus, which, if not impossible, was at least difficult and dangerous. For the provinces, the German barbarians, and especially the soldiers of the legions, were accustomed to look upon this family as the mainstay of the empire. The legions had become specially attached to the memory and to the race of Drusus and Germanicus, who still lived in the minds of the soldiers as witnesses to their former exploits and virtues. During the long watches of the night, as their names were repeated in speech and story, their shades, idealized by death, returned again to revisit the camps on the banks of the Rhine and the Danube. The veneration and affection which the armies had once felt for the Roman nobility were now centered about the family of Augustus. In this difficulty, therefore, the senate chose the lesser evil, and, annulling a part of the testament of Tiberius, elected Caligula, the son of Germanicus, as their emperor.
The death of Tiberius, however, was destined to show the Romans for the first time that although it was hard to find an emperor, it might even be harder to find an empress. During the long reign of Augustus, Livia had discharged the duties of this difficult position with incomparable success. Tiberius had succeeded Augustus, and after his divorce from Julia had never remarried. There had therefore been a long interregnum in the Roman world of feminine society, during which no one had ever stopped to think whether it would be easy or difficult to find a woman who could with dignity take over the position of Livia. The problem was really presented for the first time with the advent of Caligula; for, at twenty-seven, he could not solve it as simply as Tiberius had done. In the first place, it was to be expected that a man of his age would have a wife; secondly, the Lex de maritandis ordinibus made marriage a necessity for him, as for all the senators; furthermore, the head of the state needed to have a woman at his side, if he wished to discharge all his social duties. The celibacy of Tiberius had undoubtedly contributed to the social isolation which had been fatal both to him and to the state.
Therefore in Caligula’s time the Roman public became aware that the problem confronting it was a most difficult one. A most exacting public opinion, hesitating between the ideals of two epochs, wished to see united in the empress the best part, both of the ancient and of the modern customs, and was consequently demanding that the second Livia should possess virtually every quality. It was necessary that she should be of noble birth; that is, a descendant of one of those great Roman families which with every year were becoming less numerous, less prolific, less virtuous, and more fiercely divided among themselves by irreconcilable hatreds. This latter was a most serious difficulty; for by marrying into one of these lines, the emperor ran the risk of antagonizing all those other families which were its enemies. The empress, furthermore, must be the model of all the virtues; fruitful, in order to obey the Lex de maritandis ordinibus; religious, chaste, and virtuous, that she might not violate the Lex de adulteriis; simple and modest, in deference to the Lex sumptuaria. She must be able to rule wisely over the vast household of the emperor, full of his slaves and freedmen, and she must aid her husband in the fulfilment of all those social duties—receptions, dinners, entertainments—which, though serious concerns for every Roman nobleman, were even more serious for the emperor. That she should be stupid or ignorant was of course out of the question. In fact, from this time to the downfall of Nero the difficulties of the imperial family and its authority arise not so much from the emperors as from their wives; so that it may truly be said that it was the women who unwittingly dragged down to its ruin the great Julio-Claudian house.
A bronze sestertius with the head of Agrippina the Elder, daughter of Agrippa and Julia, the daughter of Augustus. She was the wife of Germanicus, and their daughter, Agrippina the younger, was the mother of the Emperor Nero. / Wikimedia Commons
But if the difficulty was serious, there never was a man so little fitted and so ill prepared to face it as this young man of twenty-seven who had been exalted to the imperial dignity after the death of Tiberius. Four years before his election as emperor, he had married a certain Julia Claudilla, a lady who doubtless belonged to one of the great Roman families, but about whom we have no definite information. We cannot say, therefore, whether or not at the side of a second Augustus she might have become a new Livia. In any case, it is certain that Caligula was not a second Augustus. He was probably not so frenzied a lunatic as ancient writers have pictured him, but his was certainly an extravagant, unbalanced mind, given to excesses, and unhinged by the delirium of greatness, which his coming to the throne had increased the more because it had been conferred upon him at a time when he was too young and before he had been sufficiently prepared. For many years Caligula had never even hoped to succeed Tiberius; he had continually feared that the fate of his mother and his two brothers was likewise waiting for him. Far from having dreamed that he would be raised to the imperial purple, he had merely desired that he might not have to end his days as an exile on some desert island in the Mediterranean. So much good fortune after the long persecutions of his family profoundly disturbed his mental faculties, which had not originally been well balanced, and it fomented in him that delirium of grandeur which violently directed his desires toward distant Egypt, in the customs of which, rather than in those of Rome, he, in the exaltation of power, sought satisfaction for his imperial vanity. From his earliest youth Caligula had shown a great inclination for the products and the men of that far country, then greatly admired and greatly feared by the Romans. For instance, we know that all his servants were Egyptians, and that Helicon, his most faithful and influential freedman, was an Alexandrian. But shortly after his elevation this admiration for the land of the Ptolemies and the Pharaohs broke forth into a furor of Egyptian exoticism, which impelled him to an attempt to bring his own reign into connection with the policies of his great-grandfather Mark Antony. He sought to introduce into Rome the ideas, the customs, the sumptuousness, and the institutions of the Pharaoh-Ptolemaic monarchy, to make of his palace a court similar to that of Alexandria, and of himself a divine king, adored in flesh and blood, as sovereigns were adored on the banks of the Nile.
Caligula was undoubtedly mad, but his madness would have seemed less chaotic and incomprehensible, and a thread of sense would have been discovered even in his excesses and in the ravings of his unsettled mind, if it had been understood that many of his most famous freaks were moved and inspired by this Egyptian idea and tendency. In the madness of Caligula, as in the story of Antony and the tragedy of Tiberius, there is forever recurring, under a new form, the great struggle between Italy and the East, between Rome and Alexandria, which can never be divorced from the history of the last century of the republic and the first century of the empire. Whoever carefully sifts out the separate actions in the disordered conduct of the third Roman emperor will easily rediscover the thread of this idea and the trace of this latent conflict. For instance, we see the new emperor scarcely elected before he introduced the worship of Isis among the official cults of the Roman state and assigned in the calendar a public festival to Isis. In short, he was favoring those Egyptian cults which Tiberius, with his “old-Roman” sympathies, had fiercely combatted. Furthermore, we see Caligula prohibiting the festival in commemoration of the battle of Actium, which had been celebrated every year for more than half a century. At first sight the idea seems absurd; but it must not be considered a caprice; for with this act Caligula was intending to initiate the historical rehabilitation of Mark Antony, the man who had tried to shift the center of Roman politics from Rome to Alexandria. The emperor meant to make plain to Rome that she was no longer to boast of having humiliated Alexandria with arms, since Alexandria would henceforth be taken as a model in all things.
Claudius, Messalina, and their two children in what is known as the “Hague Cameo” / From G. Ferrero, The Women of the Caesars, New York, 1911, Wikimedia Commons
Just as the dynasty of the Ptolemies had been surrounded by a semi-religious veneration, Caligula, inspired as he was by Egyptian and Ptolemaic conceptions, sought to have this same veneration bestowed upon his entire family—that family which under Tiberius had been persecuted and defamed by suits and decimated by suicides through the envy of the aristocracy, which was forever unwilling to forgive its too great prestige. Caligula not only hastened to set out in person to gather up the bones of Agrippina, his mother, and of his brother, in order to bring them to Rome and deposit them piously in the tomb of Augustus,—that was a natural duty of filial piety,—but he also prohibited any one to name among his ancestors the great Agrippa, the builder of the Pantheon, because his very obscure origin seemed a blot upon the semi-divine purity of his race. He had the title of Augusta and all the privileges of the vestal virgins bestowed upon his grandmother Antonia, the daughter of Mark Antony and the faithful friend of Tiberius; he had these same vestal privileges bestowed upon his three sisters, Agrippina, Drusilla, and Livilla; he had assigned to them a privileged position equal to his own at the games in the circus; he even had it decreed that their names should be included in the vows which the magistrates and pontiffs offered every year for the prosperity of the prince and of his people, and that in the prayers for the conservation of his power there should also be included a prayer for their felicity. This was a small revolution from the constitutional point of view; for the Romans, though allowing their women ample freedom to occupy themselves with politics from the retirement of their homes, had never recognized for them any official capacity. Tiberius, faithfully adhering in this also to tradition, had gone as far as to prevent the senate, at the time of Livia’s death, from voting public honors to her memory, which, he thought, might have justified the belief that his mother had been, not a matron of the old Roman stamp, but a public personage. Caligula, however, was quite indifferent to tradition, and by his expressed will, as if in reaction against the persecutions and the humiliations which the imperial family had suffered under Tiberius, even the sisters of the emperor acquired a sacred character and a privileged position in the state. For the first time the women of the imperial family acquired the character of official personages.
It cannot be denied that the transition from atrocious prosecutions to divine honors was somewhat sudden, but this is merely a further proof that Caligula was endowed with a violent, impulsive, and irreflective temperament. In any case, there was neither scandal nor protest at that time. Caligula during the first months of his rule was popular, not for his measures in favor of the women of his family, but for reasons of far greater importance. He had inaugurated a régime which promised to be more indulgent, more prodigal, less harsh than that of Tiberius. Extravagance had made rapid strides, especially in the ranks of the aristocracy, during the twenty-two years of Tiberius’s rule: and although the latter, especially toward the end of his life, had ceased struggling against this tendency, nevertheless his well-known aversion to sumptuous living, and the example of simplicity which he set before the eyes of all, had always been a cause of preoccupation to the aristocracy—to men as well as women. There was no certainty that the emperor might not again, some day, try to enforce the sumptuary laws. When Caligula therefore began his career, indicating very clearly his sympathies with the modernizing party by his eagerness to do away with the old Roman simplicity, the young aristocracy of both sexes did not conceal their satisfaction. After a long period of old-fashioned traditional policy, enforced by the two preceding emperors, they welcomed with joy the young reformer who set out to introduce in the imperial government the spirit of the new generations. No one was sorry that all the purveyors of voluptuousness,—mimes, singers, actors, dancers of both sexes, cooks, and puppets,—should with noisy joy break into the imperial palace, which had been official, severe, and cold under Tiberius, and bring back pleasure, luxury, and festivals. All hoped that under the rule of this indulgent, youthful emperor, life, especially at Rome, would become more pleasant and gay; and no one therefore felt disposed to protest against the official honors which, contrary to custom, had been bestowed upon the women of the imperial family.
In truth, if he, still harking back to Egyptian ideas and customs, had been content with surrounding his family, especially its women, with a respect which would have protected them against the infamous accusations and iniquitous persecutions to which many had fallen victims, he might have had credit for an action which was good, just, and useful to the state. That strange condition of affairs which had been growing up under Tiberius was both absurd and dangerous to the country: the emperor was honored with extraordinary powers and made the object of a semi-religious veneration; but his family, and especially its women, were, as a sort of retribution, set outside the laws and fiercely assailed in a thousand insidious ways. But the lunatic Caligula was not the man to keep even a wise proposal within reasonable limits. Power, popularity, and praise quickly aroused all that was warped and excessive in his nature, and very soon, as he showed at the end of the year 37, he entertained an idea which must have seemed to the Romans a horrible impiety. His wife died soon after he became emperor. Another marriage seemed obligatory, and he decided that he would marry his sister Drusilla.
Historians have represented this intention as the perverse delirium of an unbridled sensuality. It was certainly the gross act of a madman, but there was perhaps more politics in his madness than perversity; for it was an attempt to introduce into Rome the dynastic marriages between brothers and sisters which had been the constant tradition of the Ptolemies and the Pharaohs of Egypt. This oriental custom certainly seems a horrible aberration to us, who have been educated according to the strict and austere doctrines of Christianity, which, inheriting in these matters the fine flower of Greco-Latin ideas, has purified and rendered them more rigorous. But for centuries in Egypt,—that is, in the most ancient of the Mediterranean civilizations,—this horrible aberration was looked upon as a sovereign privilege which brought the royal dynasty into relationship with the gods. By means of it, this family preserved the semi-divine purity of its blood; and perchance this custom, which had survived up to the fall of the Ptolemies, was only the projection of ideas and customs which in most ancient times had had a much wider diffusion along the Mediterranean world, for traces of it can be found even in Greek mythology. For were not Jupiter and Juno, who constituted the august Olympian couple, at the same time also brother and sister? Gradually restricted through the spreading of Greek civilization, this custom was finally eradicated at the shores of the Mediterranean by Rome after the destruction of the kingdom of the Ptolemies.
The lunatic Caligula now suddenly took it into his head to transplant this custom to Rome—to transplant it with all the religious pomp of the Egyptian monarchy, and thus transform the family of Augustus, which up to the present had been merely the most eminent family of the Roman aristocracy, into a dynasty of gods and demigods, whose members were to be united by marriage among themselves in order not to pollute the celestial purity of their blood. A fraternal and divine pair were to rule at Rome, like another Arsinoë and Ptolemy, whom the Alexandrian throngs had worshiped on the banks of the Nile. The idea had already matured in his mind at the end of the year 37, and among his three sisters he had already chosen Drusilla to be his wife. This is proved by a will made at the time of an illness which he contracted in the autumn of the first year of his rule. In this will he appointed Drusilla heir not only of his goods, but also of his empire, a wild folly from the point of view of Roman ideas, which did not admit women to the government; but it proves that Caligula had already thought and acted like an Egyptian king.
Remains of the Bridge of Caligula in the Palace of the Caesars / From G. Ferrero, The Women of the Caesars, New York, 1911, Wikimedia Commons
It is easy to understand why the peace and harmony which had been reestablished for a moment in the troubled imperial family by the advent of Caligula should have been of brief duration. His grandmother and his sisters were Romans, educated in Roman ideals, and this exotic madness of his could inspire in them only an irresistible horror. This brought confusion into the imperial family, and after having suffered the persecutions of Sejanus and his party, the unhappy daughters of Germanicus found themselves in the toils of the exacting caprices of their brother. In fact, in 38, Caligula had already broken with his grandmother, whom the year before he had had proclaimed Augusta; and between the years 38 and 39, catastrophes followed one another in the family with frightful rapidity. His sister Drusilla, whom, as Suetonius tells us, he already treated as a lawful wife, died suddenly of some unknown malady while still very young. It is not improbable that her health may have been ruined by the horror of the wild adventure, which was neither human nor Roman, into which her brother sought to drag her by marriage. Caligula suddenly declared her a goddess, to whom all the cities must pay honors. He had a temple built for her, and appointed a body of twenty priests, ten men and ten women, to celebrate her worship; he decreed that her birthday should be a holiday, and he wished the statue of Venus in the Forum to be carved in her likeness.
But in proportion as Caligula became more and more fervid in this adoration of his dead sister, the disagreement between himself and his other two sisters became more embittered. Julia Livilla was exiled in 38; Agrippina, the wife of Domitius Enobarbus°, in 39, and about this same time the venerable Antonia died. It was noised about that Caligula had forced her to commit suicide, and that Agrippina and Livilla had taken part in a conspiracy against the life of the emperor. How much truth there may be in these reports it is difficult to say, but the reason for all these catastrophes may be affirmed with certainty. Life in the imperial palace was no longer possible, especially for women, with this madman who was transforming Rome into Alexandria and who wished to marry a sister. Even Tiberius, the son of Drusus and co-heir to the empire with Caligula, was at about this time defeated in some obscure suit and disappeared.
Caligula therefore remained alone at Rome to represent in the imperial palace the family which only ironically can be considered as the most fortunate in Rome. Of three generations, upon whom fate seemed to have showered all the gifts of life, there remained at his side only Claudius, the clownish old man, the plaything of slaves and freedmen, whom no one molested because all could make game of him. A madman and an imbecile,—or at least one who was reputed such by everybody,—this was all that remained of the family of Augustus seventy years after the battle of Actium.
Alone, with no sisters now to elevate to the divine honors of the Roman Olympus, Caligula was reduced to hunting for wives in the families of the aristocracy. But it seems that even there could be found no great abundance of women who had all the necessary qualities to make them the Olympian consorts of so capricious a god. In three years he married and repudiated three—and in a very strange manner, if we are to trust the ancient accounts of Caligula’s loves. The first was Livia Orestilla, the wife of Caius Piso. The emperor, who had seen the woman at the marriage celebration, became, we are told, so infatuated with her that he obliged the husband to divorce her; he then married her, and a few days later repudiated her. Caligula is said to have compared himself on this occasion to Romulus who ravished the Sabine woman, and to Augustus who raped Livia. The second was Lollia Paulina, wife of Caius Memmius, proconsul of a distant province. Caligula heard of the prodigious beauty of Lollia’s grandmother. The portrayal of her charms made him fall in love with her granddaughter, though absent and distant. He gave orders for her immediate recall to Rome, and as soon as she could be divorced from her husband he married her. This union, like the former one, lasted only a brief time. The third wife was Milonia Caesonia, and to her Caligula was more faithful, though from the accounts of ancient writers she appears to have been much older than he, rather homely, and already a mother of three daughters when he first loved her. It is difficult to determine how much truth there is in these reports: Caligula was, it is true, a raving maniac, and his frenzy became more accentuated when under the sway of love—a passion which deranges somewhat even wise men. It is not strange, therefore, that in regard to women he may have been guilty of even greater excesses than he was capable of in his dealings with men. Yet some of these accounts seem a little incredible even when ascribed to a madman. However that may be, Livia Orestilla, Lollia Paulina, Milonia Caesonia are figures without relief, shades and ghosts of empresses, no one of whom had time enough even to occupy the highest post. In vain the people expected that there would appear in the imperial palace a worthy successor to Livia. Caligula, like all madmen, was by nature solitary, and could not live with other human beings: he was to remain alone, a prey to his ravings, which became even stranger and more violent. He now wished to impose upon the empire the worship of his own person, without considering any opposition or local traditions and superstitions. In doing this he did violence not only to the civic and republican sentiment of Italy, which detested this worship of a living man as an ignoble oriental adulation, but also to the religious feeling of the Hebrews, to whom this cult appeared most horrible and idolatrous.
Statue of Caligula / From G. Ferrero, The Women of the Caesars, New York, 1911, Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Wikimedia Commons
In this way difficulties, dissatisfaction, and sedition arose in all parts of the empire. The extravagances, the wild expenditures, the riotous pleasures, and the cruelties of Caligula increased the discontent and disgust on every hand. We need not take literally all the accounts of his cruelty and violence which ancient writers have transmitted to us,—even Caligula has been blackened,—but it is certain that his government in the last two years of his reign degenerated into a reckless, extravagant, violent, and cruel tyranny. One day the empire awoke in terror to the fact that the imperial family—that family in which the legions, the provinces, and the barbarians saw the keystone of the state—no longer existed; that in the vast imperial palace, empty of women, empty of children, empty of hope, there wandered a raging madman of thirty-one, who divorced a wife every six months, who foolishly wasted the treasure and the blood of his subjects, and who was concerned with no other thought than that of having himself worshiped like a god in flesh and blood by all the empire. A conspiracy was formed in the palace itself, and Caligula was killed.
The senate was much perplexed when it heard of the death of Caligula. What was to be done? The majority was inclined to restore the former republican government by abolishing the imperial authority, and to give back to the senate the supreme direction of the state, which little by little had passed into the hands of the emperor. But many recognized that this return to the ancient form of government would be neither easy nor without danger. Could the senate, neglected, divided, and disregarded as it was, succeed in governing the immense empire? On the other hand, it was not much easier to find an emperor, granted that an emperor was henceforth necessary. In the family of Augustus there was only Claudius, too foolish and ridiculous for them to think of making him the head of the state. It seems that some eminent senator offered his candidacy, but the senate hesitated in perplexity, on the ground that if the authority of the members of the family of Augustus was already so uncertain, so debatable, and so darkly threatened, what would happen to a new emperor, unknown to the legions and the provinces, and unsupported by the glory of his ancestors? While the senate was debating in such uncertainty, the pretorians discovered Claudius in a corner of the imperial palace, where he had been cowering through fear lest he too be killed. Recognizing in him the brother of Germanicus, the pretorians proclaimed him emperor. An act of will is always more powerful than a thousand scruples or hesitations: the senate yielded to the legions, and recognized Claudius the imbecile as emperor.
Bust of Claudius / / From G. Ferrero, The Women of the Caesars, New York, 1911, Uffizi Gallery, Wikimedia Commons
But Claudius was not an imbecile, although he appeared such to many. Instead, he was, so to speak, a man half-grown, in whom certain parts of the mind were highly developed, but whose character had remained that of a child, timid, capricious, impulsive, giddy, and incapable of self-mastery. In intellect he was learned, even cultivated; he was fond of studies, of history, literature, and archaeology, and spoke and wrote well. But Augustus had been forced to give up the attempt to have him enter upon a political career because he had been unable to make him acquire even that exterior bearing which confers the necessary dignity upon him who exercises great power, to say nothing of the firmness, precision, and force of will required in governing men. Credulous, timorous, impressionable, and at the same time obstinate, gluttonous, and sensual, this erudite, overgrown boy had become in the imperial palace a kind of plaything for everybody, especially for his slaves, who, knowing his defects and his weaknesses, did with him what they wished.
He did not lack the intellectual qualities necessary for governing well, but of the moral qualities he had none. He was intelligent, and he looked stupid: he was able to consider the great questions of politics, war, and finance with breadth of view, with original and acute intelligence, but he never succeeded in having himself taken seriously by the persons who surrounded him. He dared undertake great projects, like the conquest of Britain, and he lost his head at the wildest fable about conspiracy which one of his intimates told him; he had mind sufficient to govern the empire as well as Augustus and Tiberius had done, but he could not succeed in getting obedience from four or five slaves or from his own wife.
Such a man was destined to turn out a rather odd emperor, at once great and ridiculous. He made important laws, undertook gigantic public works and conquests of great moment; but in his own house he was a weak husband, incapable of exercising any sort of authority over his wife. With these conjugal weaknesses he seriously compromised the imperial authority, while at the same time he was consolidating it and rendering it illustrious with beautiful and wise achievements, especially in the first seven years of his rule, while he lived with Valeria Messalina.
We must admit in his justification that in this matter he had not been particularly fortunate; for fate had given him to wife a lady who, notwithstanding her illustrious ancestors,—she belonged to one of the greatest families of Rome, related to the family of Augustus,—was not exactly suited to be his companion in the imperial dignity. Every one knows that the name of Valeria Messalina has become in history synonymous with all the faults and all the vices of which a woman can be guilty. This, as usual, is the result of envy and malevolence which never offered truce to the family of Augustus as long as any of its members lived. Many of the infamies which are attributed to her are evidently fables, complacently repeated by Tacitus and Suetonius, and easily believed by posterity. But it is certain that if Messalina was not a monster, she was a beautiful woman, capricious, gay, powerful, reckless, avid of luxury and of money, who had never scrupled to abuse the weakness of her husband in any way either by deceiving him or by obliging him to follow her will and her caprice in everything. She was a woman, in short, neither very virtuous nor serious. There are such women at all times and in all social classes, and they are generally considered by the majority not as monsters, but as a pleasing, though dangerous, variety of the feminine sex. Under normal conditions, nevertheless, when the husband exercises a certain energy and sagacity, even the danger which may result from them is relatively slight.
But chance had made of Messalina an empress, and Messalina was not a sufficiently intelligent or serious woman to understand that if she had been able to abuse the weakness of Claudius with impunity while he had been the most obscure member of the imperial family, it was a much more difficult matter to continue to abuse it after he had become the head of the state. It was from this error that all their difficulties arose. Elated by her new position, Messalina more than ever took advantage of her husband’s infirmity. She began by starting new dissensions in the imperial family. Claudius had recalled to Rome the two victims of Caligula’s Egyptian caprices, Agrippina and Julia Livilla; but if the latter no longer found a brother in Rome to persecute them, they did find their aunt, and they had gained but little by the exchange. Messalina soon took umbrage at the influence which the two sisters acquired over the mind of their weak-willed uncle, and it was not long before Julia Livilla was accused under the Lex de adulteriis, and exiled with Seneca, the famous philosopher, whom they wished rightly or wrongly to pass off as her lover. Agrippina, like her mother, was a virtuous woman, as is proved by the fact that she could not be attacked with such weapons and was enabled to remain in Rome; though she also had to live prudently and beware of her enemy, and much the more as she had only recently become a widow and could therefore not even count upon the protection of a husband. Though Agrippina remained at Rome, she was isolated and reduced to a position of helplessness.
Messalina alone, together with four or five intelligent and unscrupulous freedmen, hedged Claudius about, and there began the period of their common government—a government of incredible waste and extortion. Among these freedmen there were, to be sure, men like Narcissus and Pallas, intelligent and sagacious, who did not aim merely at putting money into their purses, but who helped Claudius to govern the empire properly. Messalina, on the other hand, thought only of acquiring wealth, that she might dissipate it in luxury and pleasures. The wife of the emperor had been selling her influence to the sovereign allies and vassals, to all the rich personages of the empire, who desired to obtain any sort of favor from the imperial authority; she had been seen bartering with the contractors for public works, mingling in the financial affairs of the state every time that there was any occasion to make money. And with the money thus amassed she indulged in ostentatious displays which violated all the prohibitions of the Lex sumptuaria, leading a life of unseemly pleasures, in which it is easy to imagine what sort of example of all the finer feminine virtues she set. Claudius either knew nothing of all this or else submitted without protest.
Messalina then, with her peculiar levity of character and violence of temperament, continued to emphasize the modernizing Asiatic tendency introduced by Caligula into the state, and was influential in destroying the puritanic traditions of Rome and replacing them by the corruption and pomp of Asia. Her rôle was exactly the opposite of that of Livia. The latter had been the embodiment of the conservative virtues of traditionalism: the former by her egoism, her extravagance, and her wantonness was in a fair way to destroy all such traditions. Livia had been almost a vestal in her fight for the puritanism of old Rome: Messalina most ardently and violently fought to destroy it.
Such an empress, however, could hardly please the public. While those who profited by her dissipations greatly admired Messalina, a lively movement of protest was soon started among the people, for they, unlike many of the aristocrats, who affected modern views and who pretended to scorn the traditions of ancient Rome, were faithful to all such puritanical traditions and wished to see at their emperor’s side a lady adorned with all the fairer virtues of the ancient matron—with those virtues, in short, which Livia had personified with such dignity. How could they tolerate this sort of dissipated Bacchante, who should have been condemned to infamy and exile with the many other Roman women who had been faithless to their husbands; who with the effrontery of her unpunished crimes dishonored and rendered ridiculous the imperial authority?
To the middle classes the emperor was a semi-sacred magistrate, charged with maintaining by law and example the purity of the family, fidelity in marital relations, and simplicity of customs. Now, to their amazement, they saw in the person of the empress all the dissipations, corruptions, and perversions of the woman who wished to live only for her pleasure, to enjoy her beauty, and to have others enjoy it, enthroned, to the scandal of all honest minds, in the palace of the emperor. Furthermore, it seemed to every one a scandal that one who was an emperor should at the same time be a weak husband; for the simple good sense of the Latin would not admit that a man who could govern an empire should not be able to command a woman. It soon became the general opinion of all reasonable people that Messalina, in the position of Livia upon the Palatine, and with so weak a husband, was not only a scandal, but also a continual menace to the public.
Bust of Nero / From G. Ferrero, The Women of the Caesars, New York, 1911, Vatican Museums, Wikimedia Commons
Nevertheless, it would now have been no easy matter, even if the emperor had wished it, to convict an empress of infidelity and disobedience to one of the great laws of Augustus. Caligula was a madman and had been able to secure three divorces, but a wiser emperor would have to think for a long time before rendering public the shame and scandals of his family, especially when confronted with an aristocracy which was as eager to suspect and calumniate as was the aristocracy of Rome. But the problem became hopeless as soon as the emperor did not see or did not wish to see the faults of his wife. Would any one dare to step forward and accuse the empress?
The situation gradually became grave and dangerous. The state, governed with intelligence, but without energy, with vast contradictions and hesitations, was being strengthened along certain lines and was going to pieces along others. The power and extortions of the freedmen were breeding discontent on every hand. Both through what she really did, and what the populace said she had done, Messalina was being transformed by the people into a legendary personage whose infamous deeds aroused general indignation; but all in vain.
It now became quite evident that an empress was virtually invulnerable, and that, once enthroned upon the Palatine, there was no effective means of protesting against the various ways in which she could abuse her lofty position unless the emperor wished to interfere. In its exasperation, the public finally vented upon Claudius the anger which the violence and misconduct of Messalina had aroused. They declared that it was his weakness which was responsible for her conduct; and intrigues, deeds of violence, conspiracies, and attempts at civil war became, as Suetonius says, every-day occurrences at Rome.
A sense of insecurity and doubt was spreading throughout the state as a result of the indecision of the emperor, and all began to ask themselves how long a government could last which was at the mercy of a wanton. The violent death of Caligula, which was still fresh in the minds of the people, added to this wide-spread feeling of insecurity and alarm. As Caligula, notwithstanding the pontifical sacredness of his person, had been slain, to the apparent satisfaction of everybody, in his palace by a handful of his supposed friends and supporters, it seemed possible that the tragedy might easily be repeated in the case of Claudius. Could not the whole Claudian government be overturned,—in a single night, perhaps, as that of Caligula had been overturned? All hearts were filled with suspicion, distrust, and alarm, and many concluded that since Claudius had not succeeded in ridding the empire of Messalina it would be well to rid it of Claudius.
Bust of Mesalina, Third Wife of Claudius / From G. Ferrero, The Women of the Caesars, New York, 1911, Capitoline Museum, Wikimedia Commons
So for seven years Messalina remained the great weakness of a government which possessed signal merits and accomplished great things. Of all the emperors in the family of Augustus, Claudius was certainly the one whose life was most seriously threatened, especially because of his wife. Such a situation could not endure.
It finally resolved itself into a tragic scandal, which, if we could believe Suetonius and Tacitus, would certainly have been the most monstrous extravagance to which an imagination depraved by power could have abandoned itself. According to these writers, Messalina, at a loss for some new form of dissipation, one fine day took it into her head to marry Silius, a young man with whom she was very much in love, who belonged to a distinguished family, and who was the consul-designate. According to them, for the pleasure of shocking the imperial city with the sacrilege of a bigamous union, she actually did marry him in Rome, with the most solemn religious rites, while Claudius was at Ostia! But is this credible, at least without admitting that Messalina had suddenly gone insane? To what end and for what reason would she have committed such a sacrilege, which struck at the very heart of popular sentiment? Dissolute, cruel, and avaricious Messalina certainly was, but mad she was not. And even if we are willing to admit that she had gone mad, is it conceivable that all those who would have had to lend her their services in the staging of this revolting farce had also gone mad? It is difficult to suppose that they acted through fear, for the empress had no such power in Rome that she could constrain conspicuous persons publicly to commit such sacrilege.
This episode would probably be an unfathomable enigma had not Suetonius by chance given us the key to its solution: “Nam illud omnem fidem excesserit, quod nuptiis, quas Messalina cum adultero Silio fecerat, tabellas dotis et ipse consignaverit” (“For that which would pass all belief is the fact that in the marriage which Messalina contracted with the adulterer Silius, he himself [Claudius] should have signed the figures for the dowry”). If Claudius himself gave a dowry to the bride, he therefore knew that the marriage of Messalina and Silius was to take place; and it is precisely this fact which seems so incredible to Suetonius. But we know that in the Roman aristocracy a man could give away his own wife in this manner; for have we not recounted in this present history how Livia was dowered and given in marriage to Augustus by her first husband, the grandfather of Claudius? The deeding of a wife with a dowry was a part of the somewhat bizarre marriage customs of the Roman aristocracy, which gradually lost ground in the first and second century of our era in proportion as the prestige and power of that aristocracy declined, and in proportion as the middle classes acquired influence in the state and succeeded in imposing upon it their ideas and sentiments. The passage in Suetonius proves to us that he no longer understood this matrimonial custom, and it is doubtful whether even Tacitus thoroughly understood it. Nor is it improbable that it should have seemed strange even to many of the contemporaries of Claudius. We could therefore explain how, not really understanding what had happened, the historians of the following century should have believed that Messalina had married Silius while she was still the wife of Claudius.
In short, Claudius had been persuaded to divorce Messalina and to marry her to Silius. The passage from Suetonius, if carefully interpreted, clearly tells us this. What means were employed to persuade Claudius to consent to this new marriage we do not know. Suetonius refers to this, but he is not clear. In any case, this point is less important than that other question: Why was Messalina, after seven years of empire, willing to divorce Claudius and marry Silius? The problem is not an easy one, but after long examination I have decided to accept with slight modification the explanation given by Umberto Silvagni in his beautiful work, “The Empire and the Women of the Caesars,” a book which contains many original ideas and much acute observation.
Bust of the Philosopher Seneca / Photo by Massimo Finizio, National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Wikimedia Commons
Silvagni, who is an excellent student of Roman history, has well brought out how Silius belonged to a family of the aristocracy famous for its devotion to the party of Germanicus and Agrippina. His father, who had been a great friend of Germanicus, had been one of the victims of Sejanus, and accused in the time of Tiberius under the law of high treason, he had committed suicide. His mother, Sosia Galla, had been condemned to exile on account of her devotion to Agrippina. Starting out with these considerations, and examining acutely the accounts of all the ancient historians, Silvagni concluded that behind this marriage there lay a conspiracy to ruin Claudius and to put Caius Silius in his place. Messalina must sooner or later have felt that the situation was an impossible one, that Claudius was not a sufficiently strong or energetic emperor to be able to impose the disorganized government of himself and his freedmen upon the empire, and that any day he might fall a prey to a plot or an assassination. What would happen, she must have asked herself, if Claudius, like Caligula, should some day be despatched by a conspiracy? The same fate would doubtless be waiting for her, for, having killed him, the conspirators would certainly murder her also. Consequently she entertained the idea of ruining the emperor herself in order to contribute to the elevation of his successor, and thus to preserve at his side the position which she had occupied in the court of Claudius. But once Claudius had been slain, there would be no other member of the family of Augustus old enough to govern. She therefore decided to choose him in a family famous for its devotion to Germanicus and the more popular branch of the house, thus hoping the more easily to win over the legions and the pretorians to the cause of the new emperor, Since the descendants of Drusus were dead, what other option remained to her than to choose a successor in the families of the aristocracy who had shown for them the greatest devotion and love?
Thus, for the first time, a woman was placed at the head of a really vast political conspiracy destined to wrest the supreme power from the family of Augustus; and this woman proved her sagacity by knowing how to organize this great plot so well and so opportunely that the most intelligent and influential among the freedmen of Claudius debated for a long time whether they would join her or throw in their lot with the emperor. So doubtful seemed the issue of this struggle between the weak husband and the energetic, audacious, and unscrupulous wife! They allowed Messalina and Silius to enlist friends and partisans in every part of Roman society, to come to an understanding with the prefect of the guards, to obtain the divorce from Claudius, even to celebrate their marriage, without opening the eyes of the emperor. Claudius would probably have been destroyed if at the last moment Narcissus had not decided to rush to the emperor, who was at Ostia, and, by terrifying him in some unspeakable way, had not induced him to stamp out the conspiracy with a bold and unexpected stroke. There followed one of those periods of judicial murder which for more than thirty years had been costing much Roman blood, and in this slaughter Messalina, too, was overthrown.
After the discovery of the conspiracy, Claudius made a harangue to the soldiers, in which he told them that as he had not been very successful in his marriages he did not intend to take another wife. The proposal was wise, but difficult of execution, for there were many reasons why the emperor needed to have a woman at his side. We very soon find Claudius consulting his freedmen on the choice of a new wife. There was much discussion and uncertainty, but the choice finally fell upon Agrippina. That choice was significant. Agrippina was the niece of Claudius, and marriages between uncle and niece, if not exactly prohibited, were looked upon by the Romans with a profound revulsion of feeling. Claudius and his freedmen could not have decided to face this repugnance except for serious and important reasons. Among these the most serious was probably that after the experience with Messalina, it seemed best not to go outside the family. An empress belonging to the family would not be so likely to plot against the descendants of Augustus as had been this strange woman, who belonged to one of those aristocratic families who deeply hated the imperial house. Agrippina, furthermore, was the daughter of Germanicus. This was a powerful recommendation with the people, the pretorian cohorts, and the legions. In addition, she was intelligent, cultured, simple, and economical; she had grown up in the midst of political affairs, she knew how the empire was governed, and up to this point she had lived a life above reproach. She seemed to be the woman above all others destined to make the people forget Messalina and to reestablish among the masses respect for the family of Augustus, now seriously compromised by many scandals and dissensions. Furthermore, she did not seem to suffer too much by comparison with Livia.
Claudius asked the senate to authorize marriages between uncles and nieces, as he did not dare to assume the responsibility of going counter to public sentiment. And thus the daughter of Germanicus and the sister of Caligula became an empress.
Originally published in The Women of the Caesars, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911, republished under a public domain license.