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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.

Brother & Sister: Conspiracy Theories

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. 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.

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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. 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.

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. 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.

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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. 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.

The Women of the Caesars/The sisters of Caligula and the marriage of Messalina

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?

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.

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The proposal was wise, but difficult of execution, for there were many reasons why the emperor needed to have a woman at his side. Our Idiot Brother makes a crucial misstep of casting a smart guy as the titular dumb guy. Paul Rudd excels at conveying the frustrations of witty white-collar everymen in films like Knocked Up. For the new comedy Our Idiot Brother , however, Rudd grows out his hair, puts on Crocs and peppers his speech with "man" as Ned, an organic farmer in upstate New York. In the first scene, Ned gets busted for selling pot to a policeman.

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Overwhelmed Liz Emily Mortimer worries so much about her son's future success that she prevents him from having any fun in the present. Despite his good vibes and guileless innocence, Ned stabilizes his sisters' lives and frequently betrays confidences by accident.