The Roman Orgy Was Taboo But Not Fictional (Part 6, Messalina’s Demise Revisited)

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The preponderance of evidence thus seems to suggest a certain model for the nature of orgiastic celebrations in the Roman world, not quite the image promulgated by Hollywood and nineteenth century history painters, perhaps, but also not quite the staid narrative endorsed by mainstream academia either, often discounting the possibility of lived experiences for the sake of emphasizing the overarching power of Discourse with a capital D, and suggesting that believing authors who describe women engaging in group sex is tantamount to believing authors who said women committed witchcraft in the early modern period.

Let us return, now, to Messalina’s famous “wedding.” Was everything about her behavior simply fabricated by chauvinist authors uncomfortable with the idea of women in positions of power?[1] If my model is correct and her marriage was in fact an orgy, we would expect her celebrations to have the following very specific features if they were plausible charges rather than the products of generalizing and non-specific slander:

  • They would include group sex.
  • They would evoke the thematic ambiance of a mystery cult and/or a brothel, which were the usual social contexts for group sex.
  • They would include characteristic party games, like the placing of aristocratic women into brothel stalls, competitions to see who could wear out the most men, and faux marriage ceremonies appropriated from Dionysian ritual.
  • They would probably be associated with political conspiracy, since only someone with the authority of an emperor could usually get away with hosting such an event.
  • They would probably be associated with coercion against the aristocracy during the later Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Of course, one would expect slanderous stories to have specific features in common in accordance with the general cultural context; for example, the fact that numerous witches in early modern Europe were accused of dancing around fires does not necessarily make the claim true. It might be the case that the historiographical tradition about Messalina is largely imaginary. But unlike the alleged activities of witches’ covens, the empress’s orgies were held publicly and described as factual by centuries of historians. If all five of these highly specific features of orgies are described in consistent terms by multiple trustworthy authors, and if no dissenting voices survive discrediting the tradition, it would seem at least equally likely that Tacitus and others were telling the truth about Messalina than that everybody was simply writing on a vague generalizing trope with no basis in reality. Indeed, if Messalina’s orgy has these five features, her behavior would be completely consistent with what other surviving historical voices insist was taking place in Italy at this time.

The sources speak for themselves.

Messalina’s parties were said to feature group sex. At 60.18, Dio Cassius says that Messalina compelled aristocratic women to have promiscuous sex in the palace in the presence of their husbands, who, if they played along, were rewarded by the empress with “honors and offices.” Those who refused her advances were in danger of their lives. Tacitus suggests at Ann. 11.36 that Suilius Caesoninus was spared Claudius’ wrath because he was being sodomized at Messalina’s “wedding” rather than penetrating anyone.

Messalina’s parties were said to evoke the thematic ambiance of mystery cults and brothels. Juvenal describes Messalina as a prostitute at 6.114-141, suggesting that she frequented brothels. Aurelius Victor 4.5 says that Messalina had aristocratic matrons put up for sale with herself in the fashion of prostitutes, and that males were compelled to attend if they valued their lives. At 11.31, Tacitus says that Messalina’s bigamous public “marriage” included the imagery of a Bacchic revelry, including a masquerade, cult objects, and costumes.

Messalina’s parties included characteristic games including the forced prostitution of aristocrats, competitions to wear out men, and faux marriage ceremonies. This is born out jokingly by Pliny 10.172, which claims that while most animals mated seasonally, Messalina was an exception, having intercourse with 25 men in a single night and out-competing a prostitute. Juvenal repeats the charge. Aurelius Victor 4.5 says that Messalina compelled aristocratic women to pretend to be prostitutes. At 11.26 Tacitus describes Messalina bigamously marrying Silius at an orgy. The anonymous play Octavia confirms a second marriage as the cause of Messalina’s destruction.[2] Suetonius mentions that Messalina married twice at Claud. 26: “but when he learned that besides other shameful and wicked deeds she had actually married Gaius Silius, and that a formal contract at been signed in the presence of witnesses he put her to death.” Dio 61.31 also repeats the story of the orgiastic marriage, in addition to the charge that Messalina had previously forced aristocratic matrons to pretend to be prostitutes in the palace. The fact that Mnester, one of Rome’s most popular actors, was implicated in the orgy shows that it might have involved theatrical pantomiming.

Messalia’s antics were associated with political conspiracy. Tacitus’ Annals 11.12 suggests that Messalina was politically active, manipulating the legal system to destroy her enemies. Ann. 11.26 describes the affair between Messalina and Gaius Silius as a potential coup, with Silius offering to adopt her son Britannicus. The very fate of the wedding party, with almost everyone executed in a kangaroo court, shows that the event was interpreted as a conspiracy. Dio 61.31 makes it clear that Claudius was in fear of his life. At 11.32, Tacitus mentions that among the people executed at Messalina’s wedding were several important men in the city, including Decius Calpurnianus, commander of the watch, and Sulpicius Rufus, who was in charge of public spectacles.

Messalina’s parties were coercive. We have already examined evidence that women were forced to act as prostitutes at Messalina’s parties. Juvenal 10-329-345 describes Silius as a poor sap, lamenting that people who resisted participating in Messalina’s parties risked sticky fates. Aurelius Victor 4.5 repeats that those who refused Messalina’s advances were promptly destroyed. Tacitus 11.36 has Mnester complaining that he was forced to participate in the conspiracy by Messalina. Dio Cassius 60.18 reconfirms the danger of rejecting Messalina.

 

Recent scholarship usually attempts to explain Messalina’s fall without resorting to literal readings of the sources. It seems plausible to me, however, that this reckless young woman might have involved herself in a dangerous party scene with origins extending back to the Roman Republic, especially since she first  came to prominence in the orgiastic reign of Caligula. As we have already noted, sex parties provided potential opportunities for conspirators to mutually entrap each other with knowledge of seriously scandalous behavior, and the fact that Messalina rewarded those who partied with her but quickly destroyed those who hesitated is evidence that she understood the game she was playing was potentially dangerous. The idea that she married Silius in a hieros gamos ceremony akin to the orgiastic faux-weddings described by Petronius and historians of the age of the emperor Nero is especially interesting. It would neatly explain the unanimity of the sources that she seems to have gone through a public ceremony of some kind. This would have been particularly confusing to a Roman audience, since many common law marriages simply involved moving into each other’s houses, and Messalina’s Bacchic revelry and masquerade probably really did seem like a wedding in the same way that Tacitus, Dio, and Suetonius could write about Nero’s dalliances with Sporus and Pythagoras seeming like ones. Perhaps they were meant to evoke the ambiance of ceremonies such as the hieros gamos of the Athenian Anthisteria festival in honor of Dionysus.

Motives for Messalina’s orgies may not have been completely irrational. This paper suggests that by the time of her husband’s reign, these kinds of pageants were being held to cement popularity with the masses and control over the aristocracy. But at the same time, just as Caligula and Nero were young and reckless and naïve about the longevity of their absolute power, so too was Messalina. It might have been difficult for the young empress to resist the temptation of being at the center of Rome’s nightlife, sponsoring outlandish parties on order with those of her imperial predecessors. And at the point that she began to host these kinds of parties at all, it would have become increasingly difficult to extricate herself from a web of potential informers, who would need to be killed, and trustworthy lovers, who could serve as a potential source of political conspiracy.

There is a final piece that needs to be added to this puzzle. Why did Messalina arrange this final conspiracy when her son Britannicus was the heir to the throne and she was already the Roman empress? According to Barbara Levick, Messalina might have been afraid that her son was less popular with the masses than the young Nero, who was a direct lineal descendant of Augustus through his great grandmother, Julia.[3] Suetonius tells us that at certain public games, the emperor’s niece Agrippina and her son Nero was applauded by the crowd more warmly than Messalina and her son. If her husband Claudius died unexpectedly, her position might have been threatened. However, complicating this thesis is the striking fact that at Ann. 11.26, Silius offers to adopt Britannicus. Why should Silius have been promising to adopt someone who was already clearly the heir to the throne, even if the boy was losing popularity?

Something that could conceivably endanger the position of Britannicus is if his father, the emperor Claudius, disowned him. Messalina’s parties were probably beginning to seriously endanger her position in Roman society—major figures in Roman politics like the wealthy senator Asiaticus were becoming entrapped in her web of intrigue, and word would inevitably reach her husband. If Claudius found out about Messalina’s behavior, he might begin to doubt the paternity of his son. Perhaps this was the reason that Messalina would have been attracted to Silius’ offer to categorically declare Britannicus the heir by adopting him. After Claudius adopted Nero, Nero in fact began to insist that Britannicus was illegitimate, and Claudius preferred his step-son to his natural child at every opportunity.[4]

Dio’s account of Messalina’s fall makes it clear that while she was planning a coup against her husband, the banquet was not meant to set it off. The conspiracy was perhaps still in the planning stages, and the revelers were literally caught with their togas down. Discovered at the orgy were some of the greatest names in Rome: her lover Silius, the famous and popular actor Mnester, the commander of the watch, and (tellingly) the organizer of Rome’s public spectacles. Because Claudius distrusted the loyalty of his Praetorian Guardsman Geta, he temporarily made Narcissus, the freedman who exposed Messalina, head of the imperial bodyguard for the day. Narcissus might have been enacting revenge against Messalina for her destruction, the previous year, of his fellow counselor Polybius, one of the emperor’s most trusted freedmen who, according to Aurelius Victor 4, once even walked among the consuls. Somehow along the way, Messalina had lost the trust and confidence of Claudius’ inner circle of freedmen advisors, and when she did so, it did not take long for them to trap her. They merely had to wait until she hosted one of her notorious orgies and break up the proceedings, which is just what seems to have happened.

A final word should be said on this topic involving an anecdote from Suetonius’ biography of Nero. In book 6, Suetonius explains:

Another manifest indication of Neros’s future unhappiness occurred on the day of his purification, for when Gaius Caesar (Caligula) was asked by his sister to give the child whatever name he liked, he looked at his uncle Claudius, who later became emperor and adopted Nero, and said that he gave him his name. This he did, not seriously, but in jest, and Agrippina scorned the proposal, because at that time Claudius was one of the laughing stocks of the court.

Why did Claudius ultimately adopt Nero and marry his niece? According to Tacitus’ Annals 12.3, his motive was lust. The court of Caligula, of which Claudius was once a part, was said to be characterized by ubiquitous incest among imperial family members.[5] Might Claudius, the sympathetic emperor famous from Robert Graves’ novels and a renowned BBC miniseries, have actually committed incest with his niece even before marrying her? This would certainly seem to explain Caligula’s punch line more plausibly than Suetonius’ interpretation. Normally, a Roman child would take the name of his father’s gens. To tell Agrippina to name the boy after Claudius could potentially mean Caligula was implying that Claudius was the boy’s natural father. Messalina certainly saw Agrippina as a threat, contriving the execution of her sister, and allegedly once attempting to have Nero assassinated. If Claudius suspected that Britannicus was illegitimate and Nero might be more likely to be his natural son, his adoption of Nero and choice to ignore Britannicus would make perfect sense, as would Messalina’s alarm at the power of Agrippina.[6] Some of Nero’s psychological problems would begin to make more sense in light of this theory too, since his marriage to Claudius and Messalina’s daughter, Octavia, might have been to his own half-sister. Suetonius tells us that for whatever reason, he evidently did not consummate the marriage, and remained so infuriated with his mother and sister-bride that he eventually had them both murdered.

We will of course never know definitively what happened to Messalina. Tacitus, however, swears that she was participating in orgies and political conspiracies, and the evidence put forward in this paper suggests that if she were indeed doing so, she would be in the company of others. According to the preponderance of evidence, Roman sex parties were so taboo that when they were held, a seriously dangerous political gambit was inherently being committed. That they were perhaps used in spectacles by the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty speaks to the existence of a striking and unusual political strategy emphasizing short term popularity among the masses, who held the nobility as common enemies just like the prince did. The cruelty and exploitation inherent in this strategy invariably rendered it ineffective in the long run.

In many ways, Blanshard is correct that orgy-going was not central to ancient Romans’ sexual identities, but the very fact that the activity was so off-limits may have made participation irresistible for certain kinds of people. The argument that all of the discourse on the subject is grounded in fiction and hyperbole ultimately makes less sense than the idea that sex parties were really being held in unusual circumstances involving certain cults, brothels, and people corrupted by absolute power. The unanimity of the ancient sources on the subject, the lack of any dissenting voices, the corroboration of historical and archeological evidence, the fact that most of the evidence must have been lost in the Middle Ages yet so much still survives, the extreme and uncontested specificity of the charges, and the fact that eminent ancient historians attested to the truth of these publically witnessed events all suggest that the Roman orgy was taboo, but not a fictional, and that the Julio-Claudian dynasty was its golden age. Its characteristic features explain events such as the fall of Messalina more satisfactorily than endless recourse to accusations of authorial fantasy denying the lived experience of its victims.

A final word on the subject. It must be said that modern orgies accentuating a free and open exchange of bodies in a non-judgmental and loving context have little to do with the Roman orgies as they were described by conservative ancient historians. Today, many who participate in group sex perhaps find it liberating because it breaks down monogamous norms. But, at least for men, these kinds of monogamous norms did not exist in antiquity, when it was considered acceptable to penetrate social inferiors even after getting married. In light of this, the transgressive edge to the imperial Roman orgies were not bound to the titillation of being able to sleep with multiple partners in itself, but being able to engage in intercourse with individuals with whom it was usually categorically forbidden to do so, inverting traditional hierarchies in the deindividuated ambiance of the throng of bodies. The coercion inherent in the overturning of traditional sexual hierarchies was seen as congruent with political tyranny and upheaval, just as the sexual act itself was seen as a microscopic reenactment of the macroscopic social order of things, with the Roman man’s privilege of penetrating his wife, slaves, freed slaves, and non-citizens being understood as parallel to, symbolic of, and perhaps even synonymous with the imperium of the Roman state in general. Yet for all of its subversive nature, the Roman orgy was a novel institution, and a cultural amalgamation unique to the early Roman Empire. There was no single word to describe it–more often than not, it was simply called a party or vigil (convivium or pervigilium). To me, this is the final piece of evidence for the idea that orgy-going reflected three dimensional lived experience rather than simply hostile discourse–for unless authorial descriptions were bound to actual cultural behavior consistent across time and space, how else would the thematic picture painted by authors have been so consistent without an overarching word/rhetorical concept to encapsulate the “myth”? At the very least, the Romans were hearing stories of orgy-going constantly being repeated in their history books. It would be remarkable indeed if they never once practiced what they were constantly taught their ancestors practiced.

***

[1] For the argument that the portrayals of Roman women in general should be interpreted as permutations of rhetorical stereotypes, Dixon, Reading Roman Women : Sources, Genres, and Real Life. pp. 225-250. For a well-written exploration of the rhetorical forces at play in Tacitus’ description of the empress, see Sandra R. Joshel’s expertly written article in Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities. Pp.221-255.

[2] See Lucius Annaeus Seneca and E. F. Watling, Four Tragedies and Octavia, Penguin Classics, (Baltimore,: Penguin Books, 1966). Pp. 266-267.

[3] Barbara Levick, Claudius (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

[4] Nero, 7.

[5] Caligula, 24.

[6] I am very proud to be the first person to interpret Caligula’s joke this way. My suggested reconstruction of the relationship between Claudius and Agrippina could make for interesting historical fiction some day. I always thought that “Agrippinilla” was underdeveloped in I, Claudius compared to Messalina (whose marriage even the observant Graves described as a legitimate wedding rather than an appropriated orgiastic hieros gamos parallel to Nero’s later ceremonies and events described in the writing of Petronius.)

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