Charlemagne’s peer Oliver outdid Emperor Claudius’s wife Messalina

Valeria Messalina, who acquired as a husband the first-century Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius, is renowned for her strong, independent sexuality. Women are sexually privileged in having socially constructed near-invulnerability to charges of rape and constitutionally protected reproductive choice. Yet if men enjoyed such privileges, they too might exercise strong, independent sexuality. Lost through biases of gynocentrism is an astonishing fact: Charlemagne’s peer Count Oliver, now largely unknown, actually exceeded Messalina in one-day sexual vigor.

Roman Empress Messalina reclining

Messalina was an elite Roman woman. She was a great-grandniece of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, a cousin of Emperor Nero, and a second cousin of Emperor Caligula. She married Claudius about 40 GC in a politically astute choice. Claudius, who had recently been consul, became the Roman Emperor in 41 GC. Contrary to mistaken assertions, Messalina was in her early twenties when she married Claudius. He was then about forty-nine and still sexually vigorous. He appreciated having sex with young, beautiful women.[1]

Messalina, however, wasn’t sexually satisfied with her husband Claudius. She took numerous extra-marital lovers. For example, she quickly used and disposed of the Roman knight Traulus Montanus:

A modest youth but with an outstanding body, he within a single night had sex with Messalina and was driven away, for she was equally promiscuous in her desires and disdains.

{ Is modesta iuventa, sed corpore insigni, accitus ultro noctemque intra unam a Messalina proturbatus erat, paribus lasciviis ad cupidinem et fastidia. }[2]

Via manipulation of imperial decrees, Messalina even raped men, including the famous pantomime dancer Mnester:

She was desperately enamored of Mnester. When she found herself unable by making him promises or by frightening him to persuade him to have sexual intercourse with her, she had a talk with her husband. She asked him that the man be compelled to obey her. She pretended that she wanted his help for some different purpose. Claudius accordingly told Mnester to do whatever Messalina ordered him to do. Thus it came about that he had sex with her. He believed that this was a thing he had been commanded to do by her husband. Messalina also adopted this same method with various other men to commit adultery with them. She pretended that Claudius knew what was going on and countenanced her extra-marital affairs.

{ σφόδρα γὰρ ἤρα, καὶ ἐπεί γε μηδένα τρόπον μήθ᾿ ὑπισχνουμένη τι μήτε ἐκφοβοῦσα αὐτὸν συγγενέσθαι αὐτῇ ἀναπεῖσαι ἐδύνατο, διελέχθη τῷ ἀνδρί, ἀξιοῦσα αὐτὸν πειθαρχεῖν οἱ ἀναγκασθῆναι ὡς καὶ ἐπ᾿ ἄλλο τι αὐτοῦ δεομένη· καὶ οὕτως εἰπόντος αὐτῷ τοῦ Κλαυδίου πάνθ᾿ ὅσα ἂν προστάττηται ὑπὸ τῆς Μεσσαλίνης ποιεῖν, συνῆν αὐτῇ ὡς καὶ τοῦθ᾿ ὑπ᾿ ἐκείνου κεκελευσμένος. τὸ δ᾿ αὐτὸ τοῦτο καὶ πρὸς ἄλλους συχνοὺς ἔπραττεν· ὡς γὰρ εἰδότος τε τοῦ Κλαυδίου τὰ γιγνόμενα καὶ συγχωροῦντός οἱ ἀκολασταίνειν ἐμοιχεύετο. }[3]

Refusing to have sex with Messalina could be deadly even for a close relative or politically prominent man. Appius Junius Silanus, the governor of eastern Spain, became the third husband of Messalina’s mother. When he refused to have sex with Messalina, she fabricated a charge of treason that caused him to be executed. Marcus Vinicius, consul in 30 GC, refused to have sex with her. For that offense, she poisoned him.[4]

Not content merely to cuckold flagrantly and repeatedly her husband Emperor Claudius, Messalina “flowed onward toward untried lusts {ad incognitas libidines profluebat}.” She felt “a new love near to madness {novus et furori proximus amor}” for C. Gaius Silius. He was generally regarded as “the most beautiful of Roman young men {iuventutis Romanae pulcherrimus}.” He was also the consul designate for 49 GC and a married man. Messalina acted forcefully and decisively:

She ejected his distinguished wife, Junia Silana, from their marriage and seized that vacancy to commit adultery. Silius understood the scandal and the danger, but refusing Messalina would be certain death, and there was some hope of not being exposed. Since the rewards were great, he accepted for solace to await the future and to enjoy the present. She openly, going out accompanied by many, kept coming to his home. She clung to him and bestowed upon him wealth and honors. Finally, as if destiny had been transferred, imperial slaves, free-persons, and furnishings were seen in the adulterer’s house.

{ Iuniam Silanam, nobilem feminam, matrimonio eius exturbaret vacuoque adultero poteretur. Neque Silius flagitii aut periculi nescius erat: sed certo, si abnueret, exitio et nonnulla fallendi spe, simul magnis praemiis, opperiri futura et praesentibus frui pro solacio habebat. Illa non furtim, sed multo comitatu ventitare domum, egressibus adhaerescere, largiri opes, honores, postremo, velut translata iam fortuna, servi liberti paratus principis apud adulterum visebantur. }[5]

A foolish man, Silius suggested that Messalina and he marry. Messalina reluctantly agreed:

She took time accepting his words, not because of love for her husband, but wondering whether Silius would spurn his adulterous lover after obtaining the heights of power and then appraising the crime, approved amid peril, at its true price. Nonetheless, she desired the name of being married for its great infamy, which is the ultimate delight among the profligate. Not waiting any longer than for Claudius to depart to Ostia for a sacrifice, she celebrated with Silius the solemn rites of marriage.

{ Segniter eae voces acceptae, non amore in maritum, sed ne Silius summa adeptus sperneret adulteram scelusque inter ancipitia probatum veris mox pretiis aestimaret. Nomen tamen matrimonii concupivit ob magnitudinem infamiae, cuius apud prodigos novissima voluptas est. Nec ultra exspectato, quam dum sacrificii gratia Claudius Ostiam proficisceretur, cuncta nuptiarum sollemnia celebrat. }

For the Roman Emperor’s wife to celebrate for herself a second, concurrent marriage openly in Rome seems unbelievable. The Roman historian Tacitus recognized this credibility problem and explicitly affirmed these facts:

I am hardly ignorant that it appears to be fabulous that any humans could feel so secure in a city knowing all and keeping nothing quiet. Even more so that a consul-designate with the wife of the emperor, on a day proclaimed in advance, with witness summoned for the sealing, would come together for the purpose of freely undertaking a legitimate marriage, including her listening to fortune-tellers’ words, wearing a bridal veil, and sacrificing before the gods. Both dined among guests, kissed and hugged, and passed the night having done the sexual act of licit spouses. But I have fabricated nothing for the sake of marvellousness. I transmit truly what my elders have heard or written.

{ Haud sum ignarus fabulosum visum iri tantum ullis mortalium securitatis fuisse in civitate omnium gnara et nihil reticente, nedum consulem designatum cum uxore principis, praedicta die, adhibitis qui obsignarent, velut suscipiendorum liberorum causa convenisse, atque illam audisse auspicum verba, subisse flammeum, sacrificasse apud deos; discubitum inter convivas, oscula complexus, noctem denique actam licentia coniugali. Sed nihil compositum miraculi causa, verum audita scriptaque senioribus tradam. }

Not surprisingly, Emperor Claudius was informed that his wife Messalina had married Gaius Silius in that way on that day in Rome. The ensuing investigation led to at least ten men being condemned to death.[6] Additional men may have been condemned, but men dying attracts relatively little public notice.

Roman Empress Messalina reclining nearly nude

Messalina was recognized as a sexual champion. The first-century Roman naturalist-scholar Pliny the Elder observed:

Other animals have fixed times of year for mating, but humans, as is said, mate at all hours of the day and night. Other animals become satiated with sexual intercourse. In humans, satiety is nearly absent. Messalina, spouse of Claudius Caesar, valued the following as a royal victory. She selected for battle a certain extremely famous slave-girl living by the wages of commercial prostitution. In a night-and-day twenty-four-hour challenge, Messalina surpassed her with twenty-five sexual couplings. In humans, all the unusual sexual acts, crimes against nature, have been devised by the male sex. Females in particular have devised abortion. How much more pernicious in this area are we than wild animals!

{ ceteris animalibus stati per tempora anni concubitus, homini, ut dictum est, omnibus horis dierum noctiumque. ceteris satias in coitu, homini prope nulla; Messalina Claudii Caesaris coniunx regalem hanc existimans palmam elegit in id certamen nobilissimam e prostitutis ancillam mercenariae stipis, eamque nocte ac die superavit quinto atque vicensimo concubitu. in hominum genere maribus deverticula veneris excogitata omnia, scelera naturae, feminis vero abortus. quantum in hac parte multo nocentiores quam ferae sumus! }[7]

Pliny’s moralistic perspective is no longer widely accepted. His comparative ethology, however, is more scientific than the claims of most authorities writing about gender and sexuality today. Within the naturalistic context of Pliny’s writing, the facts that he asserts about Messalina’s sexual triumph are credible. The transgressive Roman poet Juvenal, writing about 100 GC, provides testimony consistent with Pliny’s account of Messalina’s strong, independent sexuality.[8]

While these classics about Messalina have been privileged in forming the western literary canon, even more sexually vigorous men have been historically marginalized within the gynocentric process of constraining and suppressing men’s sexuality. In eighth-century Europe, the famous Christian king Charlemagne had at least ten wives or concubines and at least eighteen children. Charlemagne also had twelve peers. Among the most eminent of those peers were Roland and his close friend Count Oliver. Oliver was the brother of Roland’s beloved, betrothed woman Aude. The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne {Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne}, an Old French poem probably written in the second half of the twelfth century, tells of Oliver’s astonishing sexual feat.

Charlemagne and his men undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Constantinople. Charlemagne’s motivation for leading his men on this long pilgrimage came from an insult that he endured. It was a typical situation for a husband:

One day, in the Church of Saint-Denis, Charles put on his crown and crossed himself. His sword with its pommel of pure gold was girt about him and in his company were dukes, lords, barons, and knights. He looked at his wife, the queen, who wore her crown with great splendor, and taking her by the hand beneath an olive tree, he began to speak forcefully to her. “My lady, have you ever seen any man on earth with a sword or crown more becoming than mine? With my lance I shall conquer yet more cities.” The queen lacked sense and made a foolish reply. “Emperor,” she said, “you think too highly of yourself. I know someone even more dashing than you when he wears his crown in the company of his knights. When he puts it on his head, it suits him better than yours.” When he heard these words, Charles was very angry.

{ Un jur fu Karleun al Seint Denis muster;
Reout prise sa corune, en croiz seignat sun chef,
E ad ceinte sa espee; li ponz fud d’or mer.
Dux i out e demeines e baruns e chevalers.
Li empereres reguardet la reine sa muillers:
Ele fut ben corunee al plus bel e al meuz.
Il la prist par le poin desuz un oliver,
De la pleine parole la prist a reisuner:
“Dame, veistes unkes hume nul dedesuz ceil
Tant ben seist espee ne la corone el chef?
Uncore cunquerrei jo citez ot mun espeez.”
Cele ne fud pas sage, folement respondeit:
“Emperere,” dist ele, “trop vus poez preiser.
Uncore en sa jo un ki plus se fait leger,
Quant il porte corune entre ses chevalers.
Kaunt il la met sur sa teste, plus belement lui set.”
Quant l’entend Charle, mult est curecez; }[9]

What husband wouldn’t be angry at his wife for such an insult and such disrespect for his lance? Charlemagne insisted that his wife tell him the name of this other, more dashing king. With considerable reluctance, she said that the other king was King Hugo the Strong, Emperor of Greece and Constantinople, ruler of all of Persia as far as Cappadocia. She said that King Hugo was the finest knight between Paris and Antioch. Charlemagne declared that he would voyage without rest until he had seen this rival in handsomeness. Societies typically value men instrumentally. Men deserve to be appreciated for their intrinsic bodily beauty, just as Charlemagne did for himself.

After spending about four months in Jerusalem and acquiring some powerful holy relics, Charlemagne and his men traveled on their mules to Constantinople. There they found a lush orchard within which twenty thousand Byzantine knights played chess and backgammon and tended their hawks and falcons. Three thousand comely maidens, dressed in simmering silk, clung to their lovers, who apparently had forgone playing chess and backgammon. Charlemagne found the Byzantine King Hugo plowing a field with a golden plow. He plowed riding in a luxurious carriage and sitting on a down cushion covered with Persian silk. King Hugo halted his plowing to greet Charlemagne.

King Hugo escorted Charlemagne into the palace at Constantinople. Everything inside the palace was made of gold. The windows were made of fine crystal, beautiful paintings hung on the walls, kinetic sculptures were alive and sounded angelic music, and the whole palace revolved on a pedestal in the wind. King Hugo’s wife and his beautiful blonde-haired daughter greeted them inside the palace. Count Oliver gazed upon the daughter and desired her. After having a lavish meal and drinking much wine, Charlemagne and his twelve peers retired to their huge, jewel-encrusted bed-chamber.

Within the privacy of their bed-chamber in that marvelous palace, Charlemagne and his peers buoyed their spirits with boasting. Charlemagne boasted that he would cleave into two a Byzantine knight wearing two helmets and two hauberks and would strike through his horse as well and leave his sword buried deep in the ground. Roland declared that with King Hugo’s oliphant he would blow down all the doors of the palace and leave King Hugo without whiskers and his robe blown inside out. The boasts of Charlemagne and Roland reflect pervasive violence against men. Count Oliver, in contrast, boasted of his capabilities for sexual service:

Let the king take his own daughter, whose hair is so fair, and place us together on our own in her bedroom. If on her testimony I do not have sex with her one hundred times during the night, tomorrow may I lose my head. On this I give my word!

{ Prenget li reis sa fille, qui tant ad bloi le peil,
En sa cambre nus metet en un lit en requeit:
Si jo ne l’ai anut, testimonie de lui, cent feiz,
Demain perde la teste, par covent le otrai! }[10]

The famous Messalina, renowned for her strong sexuality, had sex only twenty-five times across a full twenty-four hour period. Moreover, Messalina had sex as a commercial prostitute. Oliver proposed to do much more sexual labor without any financial compensation whatsoever. That difference underscores systemic gender discrimination against men’s sexuality. Gynocentric societies are obsessed with gender gaps. They should show equal concern for gender protrusions.

King Hugo had a spy hidden hidden beneath the floor of the bed-chamber in which Charlemagne and his men boasted and rested. The spy reported all their boasts to King Hugo. Hugo declared that if they were lying and couldn’t fulfill their boasts, he would cut off their heads. He turned first to Count Oliver for a truth test. He demanded that Oliver fulfill his boast. If Oliver became weak or frail even just once, he would lose his head. That’s another example of castration culture’s pernicious influence.

After allowing Oliver a restful day receiving whatever he desired, at nightfall King Hugo put Oliver to the test. The circumstances were appealing, but the daughter had absorbed gender-bigoted representations of men’s sexuality:

The king had his daughter taken to her bedroom. Its walls were completely covered with silks and curtains. Her skin was as white as a flower in summer. Oliver entered and began to smile. When the maiden saw him she was very much afraid, yet she was courtly and spoke to him in noble terms: “Lord, did you leave France in order to kill us women?” Oliver replied: “Have no fear, fair one. If you trust me, you will come to no harm.”

{ Li reis fait en sa cambre cunduire sa fille:
Purtendue est trestute de pailles e de curtines.
Ele out la carn tant blanche cum flur en esté.
Oliver i entrat, si començat a rire.
Quant le vit la pucele mult est aspourie;
Purquant si fud curteise, gente parole ad dite:
“Sire, eissistes de France pur nus femmes ocire?”
E respund Oliver: “Ne dutez, bele amie:
Si crere me volez, tute en serrez garie.” }

They talked in bed and resolved the situation satisfactorily:

Oliver lay in bed beside the king’s daughter. He turned her towards him and kissed her three times. She was very wise, and he spoke in courtly fashion: “My lady, you are very beautiful, for you are a king’s daughter. Even if I did make my jest, you would be wrong to fear it. I have, to be sure, no intention of accomplishing my desires with you.” “Lord,” said the maiden, “have mercy on me. I shall never again know joy if you dishonor me.”

{ Oliver gist el lit lez la fille le rei:
Devers sei l’a turnét, si la beisat .iii. feiz.
Ele fud ben cointe e il dist que curteis:
“Dame, mult estes bele, car estes fille de rei.
Pureoc si dis mun gab, ja mar vus en crendrez:
De vus mes volentez aamplir, ço ne quier a veir.”
“Sire,” dist la pucele, “aiez merci de mei:
Jamés ne serrai lee, se vus me hunisét.” }

The king’s daughter was wise and had previously known joy. She sought mercy from Oliver, just as many medieval men sought mercy from women. In this context, dishonoring her seems to mean not having sex with her. Most men seek to honor women. Most men are merciful toward women. So it was with Charlemagne’s peer Count Oliver:

“Fair one,” said Oliver, “let it be at your command, but it is necessary that you acquit me with the king. I shall make you my sweetheart and seek no one else.” She was most courtly and pledged her faith. That night the count did it with her no more than thirty times. In the morning, at daybreak, the king arrived and called his daughter to one side, saying: “Tell me, fair daughter, did he do it with you a hundred times?” “Yes, my lord the king,” she replied.

{ “Bele,” dist Oliver, “al vostre cumant seit,
Mais m’en cuvent que m’aquitet vers lu rei.
De vus frai ma drue, ja ne quier altre aveir.”
Cele fud ben curteise, si l’en plevit sa fei.
Li quens ne li fist la nuit mes que .xxx. feiz.
Al matin, par sun l’albe, i est venuz li reis,
E apelat sa fille, si li dist en requeit:
“Dites mei, bele fille, ad le vus fait .c. feiz?”
Cele li respunt: “Oil, sire reis”. }

Oliver put himself at the king’s daughter’s command. Perhaps she tired after thirty sexual couplings. Yet as an honorable young woman, she kept her word, acquitted him to the king with a lie, and saved his life. The king was astonished that Oliver had passed the truth test. He declared that Oliver must be a magician.

The king’s daughter loved Oliver for his service to her. When Charlemagne and King Hugo walked in a procession along with King Hugo’s wife and daughter, as soon as the daughter saw Oliver, she wanted to run to him and talk with him and kiss him. She didn’t dare for fear of her father. Her mother probably would have been more understanding. When Charlemagne and his men prepared to leave Constantinople to return to France, the king’s daughter acted more boldly:

King Hugo’s daughter ran forward without restraint and, as soon as she saw Oliver, she seized him by the lappet of his robe: “I have given you my love and affection. If you are willing to take me to France, I shall come with you. “Fair one,” said Oliver, “my love is yours completely. I shall go to France with my lord Charlemagne.”

{ La u veit Oliver, sil prent par sun gerun:
“A vus ai jo turnét ma amistét ma amur.
Que m’en porterez en France, si m’en irrai od vus.”
“Bele,” dist Oliver, “m’amur vus abandun:
Jo m’en irrai en France od mun seignur Carleun.” }

Full of prudence and common sense, Oliver replied shrewdly. He undoubtedly further impassioned her heart. Galiens li Restorés {Galien the Restored} records that Oliver and the Byzantine princess Jacqueline had a son named Galien. Jacqueline and Oliver remained ardently in love with each other right up to the time that Oliver was killed in the terrible violence against men at Roncevaux Pass.[11]

The marvelous sexual performance of Charlemagne’s peer Oliver has literally been subject to effacement. Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne survived to modern times in only one manuscript. That manuscript was “lost” in 1879. At some time prior to that date, a thin line was drawn through verse 726: “That night the count did it with her no more than thirty times {Li quens ne li fist la nuit mes que .xxx. feiz}.”[12] Some medieval scribe may have objected to Count Oliver not being credited with a full hundred sexual couplings.

Beginning in 1956, an eminent Swiss philologist identified Oliver’s sexual performance as a textual problem to be corrected. He wrote:

The problem is worth the effort to raise, if only to try to clean medieval French literature of this stain, not only on morals, but above all on good taste.

{ Le problème vaut la peine d’être soulevé, ne serait-ce que pour tenter de nettoyer la littérature française médiévale de cette tache, non point seulement à la morale, mais surtout au bon goût: }[13]

Working within gender biases of modern philology, the philologist removed verse 726 from the text and modified another verse to suggest that Oliver desired only the verbal testimony of the king’s daughter. He then argued that Oliver, in bed with the king’s daughter, merely kissed her three times. His subsequent critical edition of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, published in 1965, became the most widely used scholarly edition of that text.[14]

While Messalina has received starring representations in numerous plays, novels, and films, Charlemagne’s peer Count Oliver is largely unknown.[15] That’s a characteristic social bias. Oliver outdid Messalina’s sexual performance by thirty to twenty-five. Yet men with strong, independent sexuality aren’t culturally celebrated. Harsh penal regimes and men being legally subject to forced financial fatherhood strictly suppress men’s sexuality. That must change if progress toward gender equality is to be more than an elaborate, oppressive farce enacted through dominant media and institutions of authority. With supportive laws and institutions, men’s sexuality could be at least as vigorous as women’s sexuality. Men could sexually aspire to the worthy achievement of Charlemagne’s peer Oliver.[16]

dea6ths of Charlemagne's peers Roland, Oliver, and other men

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[1] Messalina was “no child, but in her early twenties when she married Claudius”:

Messallina’s mother was Domitia Lepida, a daughter of the consul of 16 B.C; the son of Domitia Lepida by her second marriage was Faustus Sulla Felix, consul in 52, presumably born about 20. Messallina, older than this Sulla, married Claudius shortly before 41.

Fagan (2002) p. 572 (cf. id. p. 571), Syme (1958) vol. 1, p. 437, n. 5 (biographic reference numbers omitted). Martínez Martos misleadingly declared that Messalina, “could not have been older than eighteen when she married Claudius.” Martínez (2019) p. 31, citing Fagan (2002) p. 571.

While Claudius was married to Messalina, she “took care of him by giving him sundry housemaids to lie with {ἐκείνῳ τε γὰρ θεραπαινίδιά τινα συμπαρακατέκλινε}.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.18.3, Greek text and English translation from Cary & Foster (1914). Seeking to inform Claudius about Messalina’s marriage to C. Gaius Silius, the freedman Narcissus used Calpurnia and another concubine, “to whose embraces Claudius was most habituated {quarum is corpori maxime insueverat}.” Tacitus, Annals, 11.29, Latin text and English translation from Jackson (1931). Claudius married his fourth wife, Julia Agrippina, in 49 GC. Such evidence indicates that Claudius was quite potent sexually.

[2] Tacitus, Annals 11.36, Latin text from Jackson (1931), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Subsequent quotes from Tacitus are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.22.4-5, Greek text and English translation (with my small changes for clarity and readability) from Cary & Foster (1914). Subsequent quotes from Cassius Dio are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted.

Messalina faced stiff competition for Mnester’s affection. The Roman Emperor Caligula (Gaius Caesar) had been a lover of Mnester. Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars 4.36 (Caligula). Caligula would kiss Mnester in the theater and privilege his performances. Id. 4.55. After Caligula was assassinated, the Roman Senate had all bronze coins bearing Caligula’s likeness melted. Messalina had the resulting bronze used to make a statue of Mnester. Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.22.3.

Poppaea Sabina the Elder, a beautiful and eminent Roman woman, had a sexual affair with Mnester. Messalina regarded her as a rival and drove her to suicide with a charge of adultery. Tacitus, Annals 11.1-4.

Once she had Mnester as a lover, Messalina kept him with her in the palace. The Roman people demanded that Mnester, a highly popular pantomime dancer, return to the theater:

Mnester pleased the people as much by his skill as he did the empress by his good looks. Indeed, he was such a clever actor that once, when the crowd with great enthusiasm begged him to perform a famous pantomime, he put his head out from behind the stage and said: “I cannot comply, for I am in bed with Orestes.”

{ ὅσον γὰρ ἐκείνῃ διὰ τὸ κάλλος, τοσοῦτον τῷ δήμῳ διὰ τὴν τέχνην ἤρεσκεν. οὕτω γάρ που δεινὸς σοφιστὴς ἐν τῇ ὀρχήσει ἦν ὥστε τοῦ ὁμίλου μεγάλῃ ποτὲ σπουδῇ δρᾶμά τι αὐτὸν ἐπιβόητον ὀρχήσασθαι δεομένου, παρακῦψαί τε ἐκ τῆς σκηνῆς καὶ εἰπεῖν ὅτι “οὐ δύναμαι τοῦτο ποιῆσαι· τῷ γὰρ Ὀρέστῃ συγκεκοίμημαι.” }

Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.28.5. Orestes’s mother was Clytemnestra. When her husband / Orestes’s father Agamemnon was absent, Clytemnestra had an affair with Aegisthus. She had Agamemnon killed when he returned home. Orestes in revenge killed both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. As a close friend or lover of Orestes (“in bed” with Orestes), Mnester was unwilling to act the pantomime role of Clytemnestra, a plausible pun with Mnester. Mnester’s remark gains added piquancy given that he was actually committing adultery with Messalina. Mnester’s remark “might be Tacitus’ funniest joke.” Baldwin (1977) p. 138. That joke may have originated with the clever, popular pantomime performer Mnester himself.

Through fear of Messalina and to spare Mnester, Claudius wasn’t informed of Mnester’s affair with Messalina. Claudius wrongly told the Roman people that Mnester wasn’t in the palace. Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.28.5.

[4] On Messalina and Narcissus’s conspiracy against Appius Junius Silanus (also called Gaius Appius Silanus) and Silanus’s execution, Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.14; Suetonius, Caesars 5.29, 37 (Claudius). On Messalina poisoning Marcus Vinicius, Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.27.4. For Vinicius being a famous physician, Pliny, Natural History 29.1.8.

Messalina had a sexual affair with Polybius (Gaius Julius Polybius), who was Claudius’s literary advisor. Suetonius, Caesars 5.28 (Claudius). However, at some point during Messalina’s affair with Polybius, she falsely accused him. He thus was executed in 48 GC. Cassius Dio, Roman History 61.31.2.

Messalina’s favor saved Cornelius Sabinus from being executed for killing another man:

Sabinus, the former prefect of the German bodyguard in the time of Gaius, killed in a gladiatorial combat. Messalina saved him, for he had been one of her paramours.

{ τὸν Σαβῖνον τὸν τῶν Κελτῶν ἐπὶ τοῦ Γαΐου ἄρξαντα ἐν μονομαχίᾳ τινὶ ἀποκτεῖναι, ἡ Μεσσαλῖνα ἔσωσε· καὶ γὰρ ἐκείνῳ ἐπλησίαζε. }

Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.28.2; on Cornelius Sabinus, who participated in the assassination of Emperor Caligula, id. 59.29.1, 59.30.3. The German Bodyguard {Numerus Batavorum}, which differs from the Praetorians, were personal guards for Roman emperors during the Julio-Claudian imperial era.

[5] Tacitus, Annals 11.12. For a similar perspective on Silius’s dilemma with respect to Messalina, Juvenal, Satires 10.329-45. For an interpretative guide to Juvenal’s tenth satire, Murgatroyd (2017).

The three previous short quotes above are from Tacitus, Annals 11.26, 11.12, and again 11.12. The subsequent two quotes above are from id. 11.26 and 11.27.

[6] All the men were condemned to execution, but some chose instead to commit suicide. The men condemned as a result of Messalina’s bigamous marriage were: C. Gaius Silius (senator), Iuncus Vergilianus (ex-praetor), Titius Proculus (equestrian), Vettius Valens (equestrian, renowned physician), Pompeius Urbicus (equestrian, Messalina’s bodyguard), Saufeius Trogus (equestrian), Decrius Calpurnianus (equestrian, prefect of the night watches), Sulpicius Rufus (equestrian, procurator for the training school for gladiators), Traulus Montanus (equestrian), and Mnester (famous pantomime dancer). Seneca, Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii 13 provides a slightly different list. Fagan (2002) pp. 566-7, n. 4.

Mnester had sex with Messalina only under mortal coercion. He thus was executed for Messalina having raped him. Claudius had some misgivings about that punishment. Others, however, successfully urged him to go forward with it. Tacitus, Annals 11.36. Today, men being raped commonly is ignored. That’s social justice progress from having men executed for being raped. However, currently men are forced to make sex payments (“child support” payments) to their women rapists.

Suillius Caesoniunus was spared despite participating in debauchery with Messalina. Tacitus explained: “Suillius was protected by his vices, since he had accepted a woman’s sexual role in that most filthy intercourse {Caesoninus vitiis protectus est, tamquam in illo foedissimo coetu passus muliebria}.” Tacitus, Annals 11.36. Suillius apparently either applied his mouth to Messalina’s genitals or welcomed her to penetrate his anus. Women’s sexual crimes are typically treated much more leniently than men’s sexual crimes.

[7] Pliny, Natural History 10.83, Latin text from Rackham (1940), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Pliny elsewhere notes that unlike other animals, humans reproduce all years long and their period of gestation varies. Natural History 7.38.

[8] In the ancient world, sex work typically was permitted and served social justice by promoting sexual equality. Without her husband Emperor Claudius’s knowledge, the highly privileged Empress Messalina eagerly took up lowly sex work:

When Claudius’s wife Messalina realized that her husband was asleep, she would leave, with no more than a single maid as her escort. Preferring a mat to her bedroom in the Palace, she dared to put on a night-time hood, the whore-empress. Like that, with a blonde wig hiding her black hair, she went inside a brothel reeking of ancient blankets to an empty cubicle — her very own cubicle. Then she stood there, naked and for sale, with her nipples gilded, under the trade name “She-Wolf. She put on display the belly you came from, noble-born Britannicus! She welcomed her customers seductively as they came in and asked for their money. Continually lying down, she took in the thrusts of all. Later, when the pimp was dismissing his girls, she left reluctantly, waiting until the last possible moment to shut her cubicle, still burning with desire and with her clitoris inflamed and stiff. She went away, exhausted by the men but not yet satisfied. A disgusting creature, with her cheeks filthy, her body dirty from the smoke of the lamp, she took back to the emperor’s couch the stench of the brothel.

{ dormire virum cum senserat uxor,
linquebat comite ancilla non amplius una.
sumere nocturnos meretrix Augusta cucullos
ausa Palatino et tegetem praeferre cubili.
sic nigrum flavo crinem abscondente galero
intravit calidum veteri centone lupanar
et cellam vacuam atque suam; tunc nuda papillis
prostitit auratis titulum mentita Lyciscae
ostenditque tuum, generose Britannice, ventrem.
excepit blanda intrantis atque aera poposcit.
continueque iacens cunctorum absorbuit ictus.
mox lenone suas iam dimittente puellas
tristis abit, et quod potuit tamen ultima cellam
clausit, adhuc ardens rigidae tentigine volvae,
et lassata viris necdum satiata recessit,
obscurisque genis turpis fumoque lucernae
foeda lupanaris tulit ad pulvinar odorem. }

Juvenal, Satires 6.116-132, Latin text and English translation (with my small changes) from Braund (2004). Braund brackets 6.126 and leaves it untranslated. That verse is less securely attested in surviving manuscripts. I’ve included it, with an inserted English translation, to provide all possible credit to Messalina for her sexual vigor.

In calling Messalina the “whore-empress {meretrix augusta},” Juvenal may have adapted Propertius’s description of Cleopatra as “whore-queen {meretrix regina}.” Propertius, Elegies 3.11.39.

Britannicus was Messalina and Claudius’s son. He was positioned to become the next Roman Emperor. However, Messalina’s bigamous marriage and subsequent condemnation allowed Nero to become the next emperor. Britannicus died from poisoning at age fourteen. That poisoning apparently occurred under Emperor Nero’s order to eliminate Britannicus, a potential rival.

An elite Roman woman becoming a common commercial prostitute wasn’t unprecedented. In 19 GC, Vistilia, a woman from an eminent Roman family of equestrian status, was sentenced to exile for prostitution:

In the same year, constraints on female lasciviousness were set by weighty Senate resolutions. It was established that no woman should commercially trade her body if her father, grandfather, or husband had been a Roman equestrian. Vistilia, the daughter of a praetorian family, had advertised her liberty of lewdness on the aediles’ list. This was the received practice among our ancestors. They believed that the immodest were sufficiently punished by the avowal of their disgraceful profession. Her husband, Titidius Labeo Vistilius, was also required to explain why, in view of his wife’s manifest guilt, he had not invoked the law’s penalty. He pleaded that sixty days, not yet elapsed, were allowed for deliberation. But enough time had passed for seeing Vistilia sentenced. She was exiled to the island of Seriphos.

{ Eodem anno, gravibus senatus decretis libido feminarum coercita cautumque ne quaestum corpore faceret cui avus aut pater aut maritus eques Romanus fuisset. Nam Vistilia, praetoria familia genita, licentiam stupri apud aedilis vulgaverat, more inter veteres recepto, qui satis poenarum adversum impudicas in ipsa professione flagitii credebant. Exactum et a Titidio Labeone Vistiliae marito cur in uxore delicti manifesta ultionem legis omisisset. Atque illo praetendente sexaginta dies ad consultandum datos necdum praeterisse, satis visum de Vistilia statuere; eaque in insulam Seriphon abdita est. }

Tacitus, Annals 2.85. Outrage at Vistilia’s sex work apparently motivated the Senate’s resolutions. This Vistilia probably was the daughter of Sextus Vistilius. She differs from the Vistilia who had seven children from six different husbands. Vervaet (2000) pp. 96-7. All of the second Vistilia’s children became eminent in first-century Roman society. Id. p. 96. Raia, Luschnig & Sebesta (2005), entry for Vistilia, conflates the two Vistilias.

Throughout history, many have tended to deny women’s sexual agency and women’s strong, independent sexuality. Thus the Wikipedia’s entry for Messalina declares: “The accusations of sexual excess that were made in the years that followed were arguably a smear tactic and the result of ‘politically motivated hostility’.” Cf. Stadelmann (1924) and Martínez (2019). The multiple, detailed ancient accounts of Messalina’s sexual behavior are as good as it gets for ancient historical documentation of a specific person’s sexual behavior. Whether they document “sexual excess” is a moral judgment that can be separated from the facts in a sincere quest for truth. Instead, modern scholars have subjected those ancient sources to smear tactics and politically motivated hostility. That’s a tedious and mindless approach to ancient literature.

[9] The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne {Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne}, section 1, Old French text and English translation (with my small changes) from Burgess & Cobby (1988). My small changes to the translation are either for ease of readability or to provide a slightly broader translation contextually. Subsequent quotes from Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne are similarly sourced.

After Charles sat in Jesus’s chair at the table where Jesus sat with his twelve apostles in Jerusalem, the patriarch of Jerusalem gave Charles the name Charlemagne in Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, v. 158. That text uses the name “Charles” and “Emperor of France” before v. 158. It subsequently continues to use “Charles,” but also uses “Charlemagne.”

Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne depicts Charlemagne much differently from an epic king. Yet the tale’s purpose probably isn’t merely comic. For one abstract theory, Burns (1984). More obviously, the tale represents Charlemagne and his peers as having emotions and desires that ordinary men could understand. It thus humanizes these heroes and increases the potential for popular identification with them.

Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne survives in only one manuscript, British Library MS Royal 16 E VIII. That manuscript, which sadly went missing on June 7, 1879. probably dates to the thirteenth century. Various scholars have dated the text from the late-eleventh century to the late-thirteenth century. Burgess & Cobby date it to the second half of the twelfth century. Burgess & Cobby (1988) pp. 1-2.

Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne doesn’t have a standard title. It’s also commonly called The Journey of Charlemagne to Jerusalem and Constantinople {Le voyage de Charlemagne à Jérusalem et à Constantinople}.

Burgess (1998) is a better produced edition than Burgess & Cobby (1988). The former, however, isn’t readily available. Gaunt & Pratt (2016) includes an English translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, which it calls Charlemagne’s Journey to Jerusalem and Constantinople. It doesn’t include the Old French text. The foundational critical study of the manuscript is Koschwitz (1879). Michel (1836) is an earlier edition.

In an abbreviated translation into epic prose, Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne became part of thirteenth-century Old Norse Karlamagnus Saga. Burgess & Cobby (1988) p. 13. In the Old Norse text, Oliver merely kisses the Byzantine princess a hundred times. Brians (1973) p. 167. Versions also exist in other Scandinavian languages and Middle Welsh (Pererindod Siarlymaen). Burgess & Cobby (1988) p. 13.

[10] Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, section 27. Charlemagne’s peer (paladin) Oliver, also called Olivier de Vienne, is described in the Song of Roland as holding the frontier regions of Rivier and Genoa. He is variously called a baron or a count. On the textual history of Charlemagne’s peers, Brault (2012). Oliver, along with Roland, is a fixture on all lists of Charlemagne’s leading associates.

Oliver may have been seeking to outperform literary predecessors. Catullis promised his girlfriend Ipsitilla that in one night they would have “nine continuous fucks {novem continuae fututiones}.” Catullus 32.8, Latin text of Merrill (1893), my English translation, Harris’s comments. Proculus, who usurped the throne of the Roman Empire in 280, reportedly wrote to his kinsman Maecianus:

I have captured one hundred young women from Sarmatia. Of these I had sexual intercourse with ten in a single night. However, all of them, with what I was able to do, were transformed into women within fifteen days.

{ centum ex Sarmatia virgines cepi, ex his una nocte decem inivi; omnes tamen, quod in me erat, mulieres intra dies quindecim reddidi. }

Historia Augustus, “The Lives of Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus and Bonosus” 12.7, Latin text from Magie (1932), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Oliver’s proposed one-night sexual feat exceeded those of Catullus and Proculus.

Subsequent quotes above from Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne are (cited by section number in Burgess & Cobby (1988)): 43 (The king had his daughter…), 44 (Oliver lay in bed…; “Fair one,” said Oliver…), 54 (King Hugo’s daughter ran forward…).

[11] “Galien” is more accurately written as “Galïen.” Dembowski (1983). I’ve used the more common form “Galien.” On the Byzantine princess Jacqueline and Galien, id., p. 89,  Burland (2006) pp. 154-8. Oliver didn’t love women only because he enjoyed having sex with them. He loved his sister Aude even more than he loved his lover Jacqueline. Id. Jacqueline seems to have regretted that Oliver didn’t marry her. Id. But even in ancient Rome, men understood marriage to be disadvantageous to men under gynocentrism. Here’s textual and bibliographic information on Galiens li Restorés.

[12] Brians (1973 ) pp. 167-8, Burgess & Cobby (1988) p. 152, note to v. 726. Men’s vigorous sexual performance was central to the original understanding of chivalry. The term “curteis {courtly}” is used three times within the sexual affair between Oliver and the king’s daughter. Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne vv. 710, 716, and 725.

[13] Aebischer (1956) p. 161, my English translation. Aebischer characterizes the depiction of Oliver’s sexual affair with the Byzantine princess as “frankly crude in its obscenity {franchement grossière dans son obscénité}.” Id.

[14] For a review of this philological history, Brians (1973) pp. 167-71. The anti-meninism of that philological history isn’t an isolated occurrence. With respect to Oliver in Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, two leading medieval academics recently declared:

It is particularly disturbing, perhaps, to see Oliver associated with courtly language on the one hand, but raw sexual aggression on the other, and none of the French emerges from this episode with his heroic reputation intact.

Gaunt & Pratt (2016) p. xxiv. “particularly disturbing, perhaps {sic}”? “raw sexual aggression”? — that’s nonsense in jackboots. Similar nonsense has been extraordinarily socially damaging.

The historical philological problem of men’s genitals is associated with deeply entrenched castration culture. Early in the ninth century, Charlemagne himself was made subject to symbolic sexual assault:

Ausonia’s sometime ruler and master of the mighty
Roman people was upright on planted feet;
opposite him an animal was tearing at his genitals as he stood.
Fortunately the rest of his body was spared this punishment.

“Awful is the plight in which he is held here.
Terrible too is the heavy punishment and grim affliction he endures.”

{ Ausoniae quondam qui regna tenebat et altae
Romanae gentis, fixo consistere gressu,
Oppositumque animal lacerare virilia stantis
Laetaque per reliquum corpus lue membra carebant.

“Ast hic quam saeva sub conditione tenetur,
Tam tristique notam sustenat peste severam!” }

Walahfrid Strabo, Visio Wettini vv. 6.111-4, 122-3, Latin text from Dümmler (1881), English translation from Godman (1985) pp. 314-5, with phrases from Pollard (2018), p. 2, and me. The quoted two verses are an observation of the monk Wetti. Visio Wettini describes Charlemagne’s sexual offense as only “filthy lust {libidinis turpis}” (Visio Wettini 6.125).

Like sexual violence against men in general, the continual castrating of Charlemagne has attracted relatively little attention historically. In his chronicle written about 962, Folcuin of Lobbes referred explicitly to this passage in Visio Wettini and the sexual violence Charlemagne endured: “tearing at his genitals as he stood {lacerare virilia stantis}.” Pollard (2018) p. 7, which provides the relevant passage in Latin and English translation. Writing about 1125, Guibert of Nogent described a vision of “the genitals of a certain prince were being gnawed away daily by the bites of an animal that I don’t know {principis cujusdam virilia quotidiano animalis nescio cujus morsu corrosa}.” Guibert of Nogent, On the relics of the saints {De pignoribus sanctorum} 4.4, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 156, 629B, my English translation, benefiting from that of McAlhany & Rubenstein (2011) p. 274.

No other allusions to the sexual violence against Charlemagne in the Visio Wettini have survived from 962 to 1513. Pollard (2018) p. 7. The Visio Wettini didn’t function historically to disparage Charlemagne’s reputation. Id. pp. 13-4. Disparagement of Charlemagne’s sexual behavior emerged through other channels. Hafner (2002).

[15] Charlemagne’s peer Oliver has a relatively low cultural profile. His most influential rerpresentation was in the Song of Roland, an eleventh-century French epic depicting the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. Charlemagne’s peer Oliver has never been the title character in a work of literature, play, or film. Wikipedia’s entry for Oliver includes no work depicting Oliver after Ludovico Ariosto’s early sixteenth-century epic in Italian, Orlando furioso {Raging Roland}.

Messalina, in contrast, is one of the most famous women in post-medieval Wikipedia herstory. The influential early sixteenth-century illustrated erotic manual I Modi {The Ways} included Messalina. The play The Tragedy of Messalina, Empress of Rome was staged in London about 1635. Messalina starred in at least five nineteenth-century plays or stage productions (listed with place and date of debut / issue): Adolf Wilbrandt’s Arria und Messalina (Austria, 1874); Pietro Cossa’s La Messalina: Commedia in 5 Atti in Versi Con Prologo (Italy, 1876); Luigi Danesi’s ballet Messalina (Italy, 1885); Algernon Sydney Logan’s Messalina: a tragedy in five acts (Philadelphia, 1890); and Isidore de Lara’s opera Messaline {Messalina} (Monte-Carlo, 1899). Since 1900, Messalina has starred in at least eighteen films (see, for example, Enrico Guazzoni’s Messalina, or The Fall of an Empress (1924)) and many novels. For more on the historical reception of Messalina, Wyke (2002), chapters 9-10, and Wikipedia.

Heinrich Stadelmann’s 1924 work on Messalina shows the extent of engagement with Messalina’s life. A blurb for that book explains:

This work by Stadelmann, a German psychiatrist, challenges Messalina’s notorious reputation and casts her instead as a proto-feminist who fought against Roman oppression.

Stadelmann’s two-volume work concludes:

“Rome! — thy might shall sway the nations of the earth!”
In the beyond Messalina celebrates her hymen.

{ “Rome — dein Machtsoll den Völkern der Welt gebieten!”
Jenseits hielt Hochzeit Messalina. }

German text from Stadelmann (1924) vol. 2, p. 328, English translation from Angold’s 1931 English translation of Stadelmann’s book, p. 319. A reader of Angold’s translation in an instance held in the San Francisco Public Library apparently resisted Stadelmann’s romanticism. That reader wrote at the bottom of p. 319:

This dude (writer) was a psycho himself. Without Rome — Western civilization would not exist. Every society, civilization, culture, corporation, individual, ever, has used might to exist. Indeed every animals. Such is the world of predator & prey.

Now such debates are not tolerated and largely cannot occur.

[16] According to the twelfth-century Old French Roman d’Eneas, the princess-warrior Camilla was an even greater sexual super-hero. On the battlefield, the Trojan warrior Tarcon taunted her for her prowess in bed and offered to buy sex from her. Proposing to share a purchase of sex from her with his squires, he declared:

You will have from it double profit:
one that you have my money,
the other that you will do your good.
But that won’t be sufficient for you,
I believe, unless you have a hundred of us.
You may become tired,
but you will not be satisfied.

{ vos en avreiz doble guaaing:
l’uns iert que de m’enor avreiz,
l’altre que vostre buen fereiz;
mais ne vos sofira neient,
ge cuit, s’il en i aveit cent;
vos porriëz estre lassée,
pas n’en seriez saolee.” }

Roman d’Eneas vv. 7100-6, Old French text from Salverda de Grave (1891), my English translation, benefiting from that of Yunck (1974). Camilla in response attacked and killed Tarcon. The great, marginalized Trojan hero Arrun later managed to kill Camilla. In addition to killing Tarcon, Camilla had also killed many other Trojan men. Gender inequality in violent deaths is deeply entrenched historically.

[images] (1) Charlotte Wolter as Messalina in Adolf Wilbrandt’s tragedy, Arria und Messalina. Painting by Hans Makart; painted about 1875. Preserved in the Vienna Museum {Wien Museum} (Austria). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Messalina reclining nearly nude. Marble statue by Eugène Cyrille Brunet; made in 1884. Preserved in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Saint-Brieuc (Saint-Brieuc, France). Image thanks to Ash_Crow and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Video musical performance of Rolandskvadet, a medieval Norwegian ballad recounting the Song of Roland. Thanks to Harald Foss and Skallagrim3 on YouTube. Here are performances of Rolandskvadet by Trio Mediaeval, by Duo Arcanum, and by Ariadne’s Thread. (4) Death of Roland in the terrible violence against men at the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778. Illumination (cropped slightly) from the Large Chronicle of France {Grandes Chroniques de France}, illuminated by Jean Fouquet, Tours, about 1455-1460. Preserved as BnF MS French 6465, fol. 113 (in Fifth Book about Charlemagne). Via Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Wikimedia Commons.


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