This painting, by the Danish artist Nicolai Abildgaard (c. 1743 – 1809), was inspired by the historical death of Messalina, a wife of Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54). Messalina had been wed to Claudius before he unexpectedly ascended to the throne, and she reigned alongside him as his consort for nearly a decade. Together, she and Claudius had two children—a son named Britannicus and a daughter by the name of Octavia. Claudius was reportedly quite fond of Messalina, but intrigue and affairs drove them apart.
In the year 48, Messalina reportedly had a dalliance with a certain Gaius Silius (said to be the most handsome man in Rome). This affair got out of hand, however, and rumors soon spread that she allegedly married him despite her preexisting marriage with the emperor. Even worse, beyond cheating on the emperor, Messalina was soon suspected by Claudius’ spies and advisors of working with Gaius Silius on a plot to usurp power from Claudius and place young Britannicus on the throne. Whether or not these rumors and suspicions were real is vague, but the reports filed by the emperor’s advisors and their informers caused enough actionable suspicion that Claudius began making inquiries into the goings-on of Messalina, Gaius Silius, and their groups of friends.
As the story goes, most of Emperor Claudius’ advisors clamored for Messalina to be sentenced to death. Claudius, however, was struggling to come to a decision, and he reportedly wanted Messalina to be given a chance to defend herself against her accusers. Yet, this would not do for Claudius’ Secretary-General and temporary commander of the emperor’s Guard, Narcissus (who happened to be the official that was most hostile to Messalina). In a move that might have been more self-serving than of service to the emperor, Narcissus was said to have gone around the emperor to order the Guard to execute Messalina. The incident was recorded by the Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 56/57-117):
“So Narcissus hurried away. Ostensibly on the emperor’s instructions, he ordered a Guard colonel, who was standing by, and some staff officers to kill Messalina. A former slave, name Euodus, was sent to prevent her escape and see that the order was carried out. Hastening to the Gardens ahead of the officers, he found her prostrate on the ground, with her mother Domitia Lepida sitting beside her…And so the officer ran her through. The body was left with her mother” (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, XI.37-38).
It is this morbid scene that Nicolai Abildgaard re-created. Messalina can be seen lying on the ground, with her mother kneeling at her side. The scandal that caused Messalina’s downfall later claimed more victims. Several other members of the alleged conspiracy were executed, including Gaius Silius (Messalina’s partner in the affair), Juncus Vergilianus (a senator), Titius Proculus (Messalina’s guardian), Decrius Calpurnius (commander of the watch), Sulpicius Rufus (a gladiator school superintendent), and three members of the equites order, named Vettius Valens, Pompeius Urbicus and Saufeius Trogus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.