Ancient Rome wasn’t known for its enlightened attitude toward women. They were expected to be homemakers and to stay out of public life. Yet some women did manage to gain political power behind the scenes—even if they had to be ruthless to keep it.
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Messalina is best remembered for accusations about her wild sexual escapades, which Roman writers tended to throw at anyone they didn’t like. Pliny the Elder even claimed that she had sex with 25 men in a row to win a contest with Rome’s most famous prostitute.
This hostility probably came from the fact that Messalina was the most powerful woman in Roman history up to that point. Her husband was Claudius, who became emperor mostly because his ambitious relatives considered him a drooling idiot and never bothered having him murdered. When Caligula was assassinated, Claudius was found hiding behind a curtain and took the throne as the last man standing.
Messalina dominated her meek husband and soon controlled his administration. Anyone who opposed her risked being arrested on false charges. She even persuaded Claudius to execute her stepfather by saying she’d dreamed he was plotting against the emperor.
But she went too far in AD 48, when she married another man. It was probably a coup attempt, with Messalina and her new husband planning to replace Claudius entirely. Unfortunately, Rome’s bureaucrats preferred the easily manipulated Claudius and persuaded him to put the conspirators to death. They prevented Messalina from seeing Claudius before her execution, fearing she would be able to talk him out of it.
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After Messalina’s death, Claudius rewrote Rome’s incest laws and married his niece, Agrippina, a hardened veteran of imperial intrigue. (Her sister had been starved to death on Messalina’s orders.) As before, Claudius was easily pushed around by his new wife, who quickly took control of the empire. Agrippina even signed government documents and officially dealt with foreign ambassadors.
Agrippina had a son, Nero, from a previous marriage, and she was determined to make him emperor. She talked Claudius into adopting Nero and favoring him over his biological son, Britannicus. Anyone who opposed Nero was systematically eliminated.
After Claudius granted Nero equal imperial power, Agrippina decided that she no longer needed Claudius and served him a tasty dish of poisonous mushrooms. Lucky to the end, Claudius suffered a massive bout of diarrhea, which saved him from the poison. But Agrippina’s allies were everywhere, and Claudius’s doctor pushed more poison down his throat with a feather. Nero became emperor, and Agrippina’s triumph was complete.
8 Poppaea Sabina
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After Nero became emperor, Agrippina continued to exert influence behind the scenes. However, she met her match in her son’s lover, Poppaea Sabina.
Poppaea wanted Nero to marry her, but he was already married to Octavia, daughter of Claudius and Messalina. Agrippina had worked hard to secure the match (even framing Octavia’s first fiance for treason) and refused to allow her son to get divorced. Meanwhile, Poppaea (whose mother had been forced into suicide by Messalina) hated Octavia and demanded that Nero stand up to his mother.
Trapped between the women in his life, Nero chose Poppaea and gave his mother a boat designed to collapse and kill her. But Agrippina survived and swam to safety. Worse, she knew it was an assassination attempt because she had seen the crew of a “rescue” ship clubbing survivors to death with their oars. In a panic, Nero gave up on making it look like an accident and had his mother hacked to death. She supposedly went out bravely, telling the her son’s henchmen to strike the first blow at her womb.