This painting is one of several artworks created by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (c. 1836–1912) that was based on the assassination of the insane Emperor Caligula of Rome (r. 37-41) and the subsequent ascendance to the throne of the late emperor’s uncle, Claudius (r. 41-54). The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), described the famous incident which would later inspire Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings:
“Claudius became emperor, at the age of fifty, by an extraordinary accident. When the assassins ordered Gaius’ courtiers to disperse, pretending that he wished to be alone, Claudius went off with the rest and retired to a room called the Hermaeum; but he soon heard about the murder and slipped away in alarm to a nearby balcony, where he hid trembling behind the door curtains. A common soldier who happened to be running past noticed a pair of feet beneath the curtain, pulled their owner out for identification, and recognized him. Claudius dropped on the floor and clasped the soldier’s knees, but found himself acclaimed emperor” (The Twelve Caesars, Divus Claudius, section 10).
Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted many different scenes from this tale, ranging from the assassination of Caligula, to the discovery of Claudius and his subsequent proclamation as the next emperor. This particular painting, dated to 1867, shows Claudius kneeling before the warriors who had just killed Caligula. In other iterations of the same tale, however, Claudius can be found hiding behind a curtain, and sometimes Lawrence Alma-Tadema left the body of Caligula still in the field of view. Additionally, character positioning, scenery and angles of view were adjusted or completely changed by the artist from painting to painting.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.