You might think Messalina would have learned from the mistakes of Livilla, Tiberius’s daughter-in-law whose failed conspiracy against Tiberius just 17 years before had led to her death and the damning of her reputation. Despite the damnatio memoriae passed on her, there’s no way Messalina wouldn’t have known Livilla’s story from the constant gossip of the imperial household. But hindsight’s a wonderful thing, and as it was Messalina went on to repeat the same mistakes as her imperial predecessor.
Of noble blood, Messalina was the great-granddaughter of Octavia, sister of the first emperor Augustus. She married the future emperor Claudius in 38 or 39 AD, a couple of years before he took power. She had two children with him, Britannicus (named after Claudius’s conquest of Britain) and Octavia. Both would perish under the next emperor, Nero: Britannicus through poison; Octavia, Nero’s wife, by having her wrists slashed before being suffocated in a hot vapor bath.
Messalina’s noble blood didn’t, however, translate to nobility of character. As empress she gained a reputation for sexual insatiability, reportedly competing in a form of sexual Olympics with Rome’s leading prostitute. And winning. In 48 AD she married her lover Gaius Silius while Claudius was out of town and made a grab for power. Their plan failed. The Emperor returned to Rome and re-established himself while Silius and his co-conspirators were arrested and executed. Messalina was briefly detained but ultimately put to death by Claudius’s advisors who feared the emperor might have a change of heart and spare her life.
Immediately after her death, the Senate struck again, just as they had with Livilla after her failed plot against Tiberius. They agreed that, in order to ensure the absolute oblivio, or obliteration, of her memory, they would wipe all traces of her existence. Her name would be chiseled out of inscriptions and her image would be removed, not just from public places but also from private residences across the Empire. Such was the hatred felt towards her that it didn’t stop at that. Coins minted in the Greek provinces that bore her name and image were defaced and many of her portraits were mutilated, vandalized with hammers and chisels until her likeness became unrecognizable.