Five Roman Empresses You Shouldn't Invite to Dinner

Don't Mess with These Dangerous Dames

Trying to put together your fantasy dinner party? Some famous Roman women would definitely be entertaining guests of honor, even if they might tip some arsenic into your wine or behead you with a gladiator's sword. Women in power were no better than anyone else, grasping to keep their hands on the imperial seat, said ancient chroniclers. Here are five Roman empresses whose sins - at least, as the historians of the time portayed them - should keep them off your guest list.

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Valeria Messalina

Messalina certainly created a mess(alina!) for herself. DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images

You might recognize Messalina from the classic BBC miniseries I, Claudius. There, the beautiful young bride of Emperor Claudius finds herself discontented with her lot…and riles up a lot of trouble for her hubby. But there’s much more to Messalina than a pretty face.

According to Suetonius in his Life of Claudius, Messalina was Claudius’s cousin (they wed around 39 or 40 A.D.) and third wife. Even though she bore him children – a son, Britannicus, and a daughter, Octavia - the emperor soon found that his choice of wife was ill-advised. Messalina fell for Gaius Silius, whom Tacitus dubs the “most handsome of Roman youths” in his Annals, and Claudius wasn’t too pleased about it. In particular, Claudius was afraid that Silius and Messalina would depose and murder him. Messalina actually drove Silius’s lawful wife out of his home, Tacitus claims, and Silius obeyed, “since refusal was certain death, since there was some little hope of avoiding exposure, and since the rewards were high…” On her part, Messalina carried out the affair with little discretion.

Among Messalina’s misdeeds are multiple counts of exiling and torturing people – ironically, on the grounds of adultery - because she didn’t like them, according to Cassius Dio. These included a member of her own family and the famous philosopher Seneca the Younger. She and her friends also organized murders of other people she wasn’t fond of and brought false charges against them, says Dio: “for whenever they desired to obtain any one's death, they would terrify Claudius and as a result would be allowed to do anything they chose.” Just two of these victims were the famed soldier Appius Silanus and a Julia, granddaughter of former emperor Tiberius. Messalina also sold citizenship based on her proximity to Claudius: “many sought the franchise by personal application to the emperor, and many bought it from Messalina and the imperial freedmen.”

Eventually, Silius decided he wanted more from Messalina, and she complied, marrying him when Claudius went out of town. Says Suetonius, “…a formal contract had been signed in the presence of witnesses.” After, as Tacitus says dramatically, “A shudder, then, had passed through the imperial household.” Claudius found out and feared they’d depose and murder him. Flavius Josephus – the former Jewish commander-turned-client of the emperor Vespasian – sums her ending up up nicely in his Antiquities of the Jews: “he had before this slain his wife Messalina, out of jealousy…” in 48.

Claudius wasn’t the brightest bulb in the shed, as, according to Suetonius recounts, “when he had put Messalina to death, he asked shortly after taking his place at the table why the empress did not come.” Claudius also vowed to stay single forever, though he later married his niece, Agrippina. Ironically, as Suetonius reports in his Life of Nero, Messalina might've once tried to kill Nero, a rival potential heir to the throne, alongside Britannicus.

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Julia Agrippina (Agrippina the Younger)

Check out Agrippina the Younger. Looks nice, doesn't she?. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images

When choosing his next wife, Claudius looked really close to home. Agrippina was the daughter of his brother, Germanicus and the sister of Caligula. She was also a great-granddaughter of Augustus, so royal lineage seeped from her every pore. Born while her war hero father was on campaign, probably in modern Germany, Agrippina was first married to her cousin Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, great-nephew of Augustus, in 28. Their son, Lucius, eventually became the emperor Nero, but Ahenobarbus died when their son was young, leaving him to Agrippina to raise. Her second husband was Gaius Sallustius Crispus, by whom she had no offspring, and her third was Claudius.

When it came time for Claudius to choose a wife, Agrippina would provide “a link to unite the descendants of the Claudian family,” says Tacitus in his Annals.  Agrippina herself charmed Uncle Claudius in order to gain power, even though, as Suetonius says in his Life of Claudius, “he made he constantly called her his daughter and nursling, born and brought up in his arms.” Agrippina agreed to wedlock to secure her son’s future, even though, as Tacitus exclaims of the marriage, “it was positively incest.” They married in 49.

Once she became empress, though, Agrippina wasn’t content with her position. She convinced Claudius to adopt Nero as his successor (and eventual son-in-law), despite the fact that he already had a son, and assumed the title of Augusta. She brazenly assumed near-imperial honors, which ancient chroniclers despised as unwomanly. A sample of her reported crimes includes the following: she encouraged Claudius’s one-time would-be bride, Lollia, to suicide, ruined a guy named Statilius Taurus because she wanted his beautiful gardens for herself, destroyed her cousin Lepida by accusing her of disturbing domestic piece and attempted murder via witchcraft, killed Britannicus’s tutor, Sosibius, on false treason charges, imprisoned Britannicus, and, overall, as Cassius Dio summarizes, “quickly became a second Messalina," even desiring to to be an empress regnant. But perhaps her most heinous alleged crime was the poisoning of Claudius himself.

When Nero became emperor, Agrippina’s reign of terror continued. She strove to continue her influence over her son, but it eventually waned due to the other women in Nero’s life. Agrippina and her kid were rumored to have had an incestuous relationship, but, regardless of their affection for one another, Nero grew tired of her meddling. Various accounts of Agrippina’s death in 59 survive, but most involve her son helping plan her murder. 

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Annia Galeria Faustina (Faustina the Younger)

Faustina the Younger is missing her nose here - but she had all her wits in life. Glyopothek, Munich, courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Faustina was born to royalty - her dad was Emperor Antonius Pius and she was the cousin and wife of Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps best known to modern audiences as the old guy from Gladiator, Aurelius was also a famed philosopher. Faustina was originally betrothed to Emperor Lucius Verus, but she ended up marrying Aurelius and had numerous children with him, including the crazy emperor Commodus, as recorded in the Historia Augusta. By marrying Faustina, Aurelius established imperial continuity, as Antoninus Pius was both his adoptive father and Faustina’s father (by his wife, Faustina the Elder). Faustina couldn't have found a more honorable hubby, says the Historia Augusta, as Aurelius had a great “sense of honour [sic] and…modesty.” 

But Faustina wasn’t as modest as her husband. Her chief crime was lusting after other men. The Historia Augusta says her son, Commodus, may even have been illegitimate. Stories of Faustina’s affairs abounded, like when she “saw some gladiators pass by, and was inflamed for love of one of them,” although “afterwards, when suffering from a long illness, she confessed the passion to her husband.” It’s no coincidence that Commodus really enjoyed playing gladiator, then. Faustina also enjoyed Fleet Week, apparently, as she regularly “used to choose out lovers from among the sailors and gladiators.” But her dowry was the empire (after all, her father was the previous emperor), so Aurelius supposedly said, so he stayed married to her.

When Avidius Cassius, an usurper, declared himself emperor, some said – as the Historia Augusta claims – that it was Faustina’s desire that he do so. Her husband was sick and she feared for herself and her children if someone else took the throne, so she promised herself to Cassius, says Cassius Dio; if Cassius revolted, “he might obtain both her and the imperial power.” The Historia later debunks that rumor that Faustina was pro-Cassius, claiming, “but, on the contrary, [she] earnestly demanded his punishment.”

Faustina died in 175 A.D. while she was on campaign with Aurelius in Cappadocia. No one knows what killed her: the proposed cause ranges from gout to suicide “to avoid being convicted of her compact with Cassius,” according to Dio. Aurelius honored her memory by bestowing upon her the posthumous title of Mater Castrorum, or Mother of the Camp – an military honor. He also requested that Cassius’s co-conspirators be spared, and built a city named after her, Faustinopolis, at the site where she died. He also had her deified and even “delivered a eulogy of her, although she had suffered grievously from the reputation of lewdness.” It sounds like Faustina married the right guy after all.

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Flavia Aurelia Eusebia

A gold medal of Eusebia's hubby, Constantius II. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Let’s jump ahead a few hundred years to our next extraordinary empress. Eusebia was the wife of Emperor Constantius II, son of the famed Constantine the Great (the guy who may or may not have formally brought Christianity to the Roman Empire). A longtime military commander, Constantius took Eusebia as his second wife in 353 A.D. She appeared to be a good egg, both in terms of her bloodline and personality, according to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus: she was “sister of the ex-consuls Eusebius and Hypatius, a lady distinguished before many others for beauty of person and of character, and kindly in spite of her lofty station…” Besides, she was “conspicuous among many women for the beauty of her person.”

In particular, she was kind to Ammianus’s hero, the Emperor Julian – the last real pagan ruler of Rome – and allowed him to “go to Greece for the sake of perfecting his education, as he earnestly desired.” This was after Constantius executed Julian’s older brother, Gallus, and Eusebia stopped Julian from being next on the chopping block. It also helped that Eusebia’s brother, Hypatius, was Ammianus’s patron. 

Julian and Eusebia are inextricably intertwined in history, since it’s Julian’s Speech of Thanks to the empress that serves as one of our chief sources of info about her. Why did Eusebia care about Julian? Well, he was one of the last remaining male dynasts of Constantine’s line, and, since Eusebia herself couldn’t have children, it’s likely she knew Julian would one day ascend the throne. In actuality, Julian became known as the “Apostate” because of his pagan beliefs. Eusebia reconciled Constantius with Julian and helped prepare the boy for his future role, according to Zosimus. At her urging, he became an official Caesar, which, by this time, indicated a future heir to the imperial throne, and married Constantius’s sister, Helena, further solidifying his claim to the throne.

In his speeches about Eusebia, Julian wants to give back to the lady who gave him so much. It’s worth noting that these were also pieces of propaganda to extol those who went before him. He goes on and on about her “noble qualities,” her “mildness” and “justice,” as well as her “affection for her husband” and generosity. He claims Eusebia hails from Thessalonica in Macedonia and acclaims her noble birth and great Greek heritage – she was the “daughter of a consul.” Her wise ways allowed her to be “the partner of her husband’s counsels,” encouraging him to mercy. That’s especially important for Julian, whom she helped spare.

Eusebia sounds like a perfect empress, right? Well, not so much, according to Ammianus. She got so jealous of Julian’s wife, Helena, who would probably provide the next imperial heir, especially since, as Ammianus says, Eusebia “herself had been childless all her life.” As a result, “by her wiles she coaxed Helena to drink a rare potion, so that as often as she was with child she should have a miscarriage.” Indeed, Helena had borne a child before, but someone bribed the midwife to kill it – was that Eusebia? Whether or not Eusebia truly poisoned her rival, Helena never did bear children.

So what are we to do with these conflicting accounts of Eusebia? Was she all good, all bad, or somewhere in between? Shaun Tougher smartly analyzes these approaches in his essay “Ammianus Marcellinus on the Empress Eusebia: a Split Personality?” There, he notes that Zosimus portrays Eusebia as “an uncommonly well-educated intelligent and manipulative woman.” She does what she thinks is right for the empire, but works her husband to get what she wants. Ammianus portrays Eusebia as both “malevolently selfish” and “kindly by nature” at the same time. Why would he do so? Read Tougher’s essay for an insightful analysis into Ammianus’s literary intent…but can we tell which Eusebia was the true empress?

Eusebia died around 360. She allegedly embraced the Arian "heresy" when priests weren't able to cure her infertility, and it was a fertility drug that killed her! Revenge for poisoning Helena? We will never now.

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Galla Placidia

St. John pops up to say hi to Galla Placidia in this painting by Niccolo Rondinelli. DEA/M. CARRIERI/Getty Images

Galla Placidia was a bright star of imperial nepotism in the twilight of the Roman Empire. Born in 389 A.D. to Emperor Theodosius I, she was a half-sister to future emperors in Honorius and Arcadius. Her mother was Galla, daughter of Valentinian I and his wife, Justina, who used her daughter to get Theodosius’s attention. says Zosimus.

As a child, Galla Placidia received the prestigious title of nobilissima puella, or“Most Noble Girl." But Placidia became an orphan, so she was raised by the general Stilicho, one of the great leaders of the late empire, and his wife, her cousin Serena. Stilicho attempted to rule for Arcadius, but he only got Placidia and Honorius under his thumb. Honorius became emperor of the West, while Arcadius ruled the East. The empire was split … with Galla Placidia in the middle.

In 408, chaos reigned when the Visigoths under Alaric besieged the Roman countryside. Who caused it? The “Senate suspected Serena of bringing the barbarians against their city,” though Zosimus mantains she was innocent. If she was guilty, then Placidia figured her subsequent punishment was justified. Zosimus says, “The whole Senate therefore, with Placidia ... thought it proper that she should suffer death, for being the cause of the present calamity.” If Serena was killed, the Senate figured, Alaric would go home, but he didn’t.

Stilicho and his family, including Serena, were killed, and Alaric stayed. This slaughter also put to rest the possibility of her marrying Eucherius, Serena and Stilicho’s son. Why did Placidia support Serena’s execution? Perhaps she hated her foster mother for trying to take imperial power that didn’t belong to her through marrying off her daughters to potential heirs. Or she may have been coerced into supporting it.

In 410, Alaric conquered Rome and took hostages – including Placidia. Comments Zosimus, “Placida, the emperor's sister, was also with Alaric, in the quality of an hostage, but received all the honour and attendance due to a princess..” In 414, she was married to Ataulf, Alaric’s eventual heir. Eventually, Ataulf was a “keen partisan of peace,” according to Paulus Osorius in his Seven Books against the Pagans, thanks to Placidia, "a woman of keen intellect and clearly virtuous in religion.” But Ataulf was assassinated, leaving Galla Placidia a widow. Their only son, Theodosius, died young.

Galla Placidia returned to Rome in exchange for 60,000 measures of grain, according to Olympiodorus, as quoted in the Bibliotheca of Photius. Soon after, Honorius commanded her to marry the general Constantius, against her will; she bore him two children, the Emperor Valentinian III and a daughter, Justa Grata Honoria. Constantius was eventually declared emperor, with Placidia as his Augusta.

Rumor has it that Honorius and Placidia might’ve been a bit too close for siblings. Olympiodorus sas they took “immoderate pleasure in one another” and they kissed each other on the mouth. Love turned to hatred, and the siblings got into fistfights. Eventually, when her accused her of treason, she fled east to the protection of her nephew, Theodosius II. After Honorius’s death (and the brief reign of an usurper named John), young Valentinian became emperor in the West in 425, with Galla Placidia as the supreme lady of the land as his regent.

Although she was a religious woman and built chapels in Ravenna, including one to St. John the Evangelist in fulfillment of a vow, Placidia was, first and foremost, an ambitious lady. She began to educate Valentinian, which turned him into a bad guy, according to Procopius in his History of the Wars. While Valentinian was off having affairs and consulting with sorcerers, Placidia served as his regent - entirely unsuitable for a woman, said the men

Placidia became embroiled in troubles between Aetius, her son’s general, and Boniface, whom she had appointed general of Libya. On her watch, King Gaiseric of the Vandals also took over parts of northern Africa, which had been Roman for centuries. He and Placidia made peace officially in 435, but at a great cost. This empress officially retired in 437, when Valentinian married, and died in 450. Her stunning mausoleum in Ravenna exists as a tourist site even today – even if Placidia wasn’t buried there. Placidia’s legacy wasn’t so much an evil one was it was one of ambition in a time when the legacy of everything she held dear was falling apart.

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Your Citation
Silver, Carly. "Five Roman Empresses You Shouldn't Invite to Dinner." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Silver, Carly. (2023, April 5). Five Roman Empresses You Shouldn't Invite to Dinner. Retrieved from Silver, Carly. "Five Roman Empresses You Shouldn't Invite to Dinner." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).