Can One Believe the Ancient Sources That Describe Messalina?

BY HISTORY OF THE ANCIENT WORLD – SEPTEMBER 29, 2012 the Ancient Sources That Describe Messalina?

Hosack, Kristen A. (Illinois Wesleyan University)

Constructing the Past: Volume 12: Issue 1, Article 7 (2011)


If readers were to believe everything the ancient sources wrote about the Empress Valeria Messalina, they might conclude that she was a conniving, sex-crazed megalomaniac who worked as a prostitute in her spare time. The historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the satirist Decimus Junius Juvenali (Juvenal), and the biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillius were Roman citizens who wrote slightly before and during the middle second century CE and are just some of the ancient authors who describe Messalina in unflattering ways. However, to what degree are these sources accurate representations of Messalina? It may be difficult to gain a coherent sense of Messalina‟s true character and behavior from the ancient sources, but it is possible to identify who she most likely was not and what she probably did not do. After all, each depiction of Messalina reflects certain personal biases and motives, such as Tacitus‟s dislike of Messalina‟s husband or Suetonius‟s tendency to gossip.

In addition, the natures of history, satire, and biography can affect accuracy, as can the sources that each author used. For example, ancient historical writing‟s primary purpose was to provide lessons in morality, while biography tended to focus on anecdotal evidence, and satirical works employed exaggeration in order to be effective. Therefore, as a result of personal and literary biases, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Juvenal most likely provide exaggerated, fabricated, or intentionally one-sided portrayals of Messalina, which subsequently reduce the accuracy of their depictions.

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