The Fate of Messalina
As might naturally have been expected, there were two very different emotions awakened in the mind of Silius by the situation in which he found himself placed with Messalina,—one was ambition, and the other was fear. Finding himself suddenly raised to the possession of so high a degree of consideration and influence, it was natural that he should look still higher, and begin to wish for actual and official power. And then, on the other hand, his uneasiness at the dangers that he was exposed to by remaining as he was, increased every day. At length a plan occurred to him which both these considerations urged him to adopt. The plan was to murder Claudius, and then to marry Messalina, and make himself emperor in Claudius's place. By the accomplishment of this design he would effect, he thought, a double object. He would at once raise himself to a post of real and substantial power, and also, at the same time place himself in a position of security. He resolved to propose this scheme to Messalina.
Accordingly, on the first favorable opportunity, he addressed the empress on the subject, and cautiously made known his design. "I wish to have you wholly mine," said he, "and although the emperor is growing old, we can not safely wait for his death. We are, in fact, continually exposed to danger. We have gone quite too far to be safe where we are, and by taking the remaining steps necessary to accomplish fully our ends we shall only be completing what we have begun, and by so doing, far from incurring any new penalties, we shall be taking the only effectual method to protect ourselves from the dangers which impend over us and threaten us now. Let us, therefore, devise some means to remove the emperor out of our way. I will then be proclaimed emperor in his place, and be married to you. The power which you now enjoy will then come back to you again, undiminished, and under such circumstances as will render it permanently secure to you. To accomplish this will be very easy; for the emperor, superannuated, infirm, and stupid as he is, can not protect himself against any well-planned and vigorous attempt which we may make to remove him; though, if we remain as we are, and any accidental cause should arouse him from his lethargy, we may expect to find him vindictive and furious against us to the last degree."
Messalina listened to this proposal with great attention and interest, but so far as related to the proposed assassination of the emperor she did not seem inclined to assent to it. Her historian says that she was not influenced in this decision by any remaining sentiments of conjugal affection, or by conscientious principle of any kind, but by her distrust of Silius, and her unwillingness to commit herself so entirely into his power. She preferred to keep him dependent upon her, rather than to make herself dependent upon him. She liked the plan, however, of being married to him, she said, and would consent to that, even while the emperor remained alive. And so if Silius would agree to it, she was ready, she added, the next time that the emperor went to Ostia, to have the ceremony performed.
That a wife and a mother, however unprincipled and corrupt, should make, under such circumstances, a proposal like this of Messalina's, is certainly very extraordinary; and to those who do not know to what extremes of recklessness and infatuation, the irresponsible despots that have arisen from time to time to rule mankind, have often pushed their wickedness and crime, it must seem wholly incredible. The Roman historian who has recorded this narrative, assures us, that it was the very audacity of this guilt that constituted its charm in Messalina's eyes. She had become weary of, and satiated with, all the ordinary forms of criminal indulgence and pleasure. The work of deceiving and imposing upon her husband, in order to secure for herself the gratifications which she sought, was for a time sufficient to give zest and piquancy to her pleasures. But he was so easily deceived, and she had been accustomed to deceive him so long, that it now no longer afforded to her mind any stimulus or excitement to do it in any common way. But the idea of being actually married to another man while he was absent at a short distance from the city, would be something striking and new, which would vary, she thought, the dull monotony of the common course of sin.
The proposed marriage was finally determined upon, and the mock ceremony, for such a ceremony could, of course, have no legal force, was duly performed at a time when Claudius was absent at Ostia, inspecting the works which were in progress there. How far the pretended marriage was open and public in the actual celebration of it, is not very certain; but the historians say that it was conducted with all the usual ceremonies, and was attended by the usual witnesses. The service was performed by the augur, a sort of sacerdotal officer, on whom the duty of conducting such solemnities properly devolved. Messalina and Silius, each in their turn, repeated the words pertaining respectively to the bridegroom and the bride. The usual sacrifice to the gods was then made, and a nuptial banquet followed, at which there passed between the new married pair the caresses and endearments usual on such occasions. All things in a word were conducted, from the beginning to the end, as in a real and honest wedding, and whether the scene thus enacted was performed in public as a serious transaction, or at some private entertainment as a species of sport, it created a strong sensation among all who witnessed it, and the news of it soon spread abroad and became very generally known.
The more immediate friends of Claudius were very indignant at such a proceeding. They conferred together, uttering to each other many murmurings and complaints, and anticipating the worst results and consequences from what had occurred. Silius, they said, was an ambitious and dangerous man, and the audacious deed which he had performed was the prelude, they believed, to some deep ulterior design. They feared for the safety of Claudius; and as they knew very well that the downfall of the emperor would involve them too in ruin, they were naturally much alarmed. It was, however, very difficult for them to decide what to do.
If they were to inform the emperor of Messalina's proceedings, they considered it wholly uncertain what effect the communication would have upon him. Like almost all weak-minded men, he was impulsive and capricious in the extreme; and whether, on a communication being made to him, he would receive it with indifference and unconcern, or, in case his anger should be aroused, whether it would expend itself upon Messalina or upon those who informed him against her, it was wholly impossible to foresee.
At length, after various consultations and debates, a small number of the courtiers who were most determined in their detestation of Messalina and her practices, leagued themselves together, and resolved upon a course of procedure by which they hoped, if possible, to effect her destruction. The leader of this company was Callistus, one of the officers of Claudius's household. He was one of the men who had been engaged with Chærea in the assassination of Caligula. Narcissus was another. This was the same Narcissus that is mentioned in the last chapter, as the artful contriver, with Messalina, of the death of Silanus. Pallas was the name of a third conspirator. He was a confidential friend and favorite of Claudius, and was very jealous, like the rest, of the influence which Silius, through Messalina, exercised over his master. These were the principal confederates, though there were some others joined with them.
The great object of the hostility of these men, seems to have been Silius, rather than Messalina. This, in fact, would naturally be supposed to be the case, since it was Silius rather than Messalina who was their rival. Some of them appear to have hated Messalina on her own account, but with the others there was apparently no wish to harm the empress, if any other way could be found of reaching Silius. In fact, in the consultations which were held, one plan which was proposed was to go to Messalina, and without evincing any feelings of unkindness or hostility toward her, to endeavor to persuade her to break off her connection with her favorite. This plan was, however, soon overruled. The plotters thought that it would be extremely improbable that Messalina would listen to any such proposition, and in case of her rejection of it, if it were made, her anger would be aroused strongly against them for making it: and then, even if she should not attempt to take vengeance upon them for their presumption, she would at any rate put herself effectually upon her guard against any thing else which they should attempt to do. The plan of separating Messalina and Silius was, therefore, abandoned, and the determination resolved upon to take measures for destroying them both together.
The course which the confederates decided to pursue in order to effect their object, was to proceed to Ostia, where Claudius still remained, and there make known to him what Messalina and Silius had done, and endeavor to convince him that this audacious conduct on their part was only the prelude to open violence against the life of the emperor. It would seem, however, that no one of them was quite willing to take upon himself the office of making such a communication as this, in the first instance, to such a man. They did not know how he would receive it,—or against whom the first weight of his resentment and rage would fall. Finally, after much hesitation and debate, they concluded to employ a certain female for the purpose,—a courtesan named Calpurnia. Calpurnia was a favorite and companion of Claudius, and as such they thought she might perhaps have an opportunity to approach him with the subject under such circumstances as to diminish the danger. At any rate, Calpurnia was easily led by such inducements as the conspirators laid before her, to undertake the commission. They not only promised her suitable rewards, but they appealed also to the jealousy and hatred which such a woman would naturally feel toward Messalina, who, being a wife, while Calpurnia was only a companion and favorite, would of course be regarded as a rival and enemy. They represented to Calpurnia how entirely changed for the better her situation would be, if Messalina could once be put out of the way. There would then, they said, be none to interfere with her; but her influence and ascendency over the emperor's mind would be established on a permanent and lasting footing.
Calpurnia was very easily led by these inducements to undertake the commission. There was another courtesan named Cleopatra, who, it was arranged, should be at hand when Calpurnia made her communication, to confirm the truth of it, should any confirmation seem to be required. The other conspirators, also, were to be near, ready to be called in and to act as occasion might require, in case Calpurnia and Cleopatra should find that their statement was making the right impression. Things being all thus arranged the party proceeded to Ostia to carry their plans into execution.
In the mean time Messalina and Silius, wholly unconscious of the danger, gave themselves up with greater and greater boldness and unconcern to their guilty pleasures. On the day when Callistus and his party went to Ostia she was celebrating a festival at her palace with great gayety and splendor. It was in the autumn of the year, and the festival was in honor of the season. In the countries on the Mediterranean the gathering of grapes and the pressing of the juice for wine, is the great subject of autumnal rejoicings; and Messalina had arranged a festival in accordance with the usual customs, in the gardens of the palace. A wine-press had been erected, and grapes were gathered and brought to it. The guests whom Messalina had invited were assembled around; some were dancing about the wine-press, some were walking in the alleys, and some were seated in the neighboring bowers. They were dressed in fancy costumes, and their heads were adorned with garlands of flowers. There was a group of dancing girls who were engaged as performers on the occasion, to dance for the amusement of the company, in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine. These girls were dressed, so far as they were clothed at all, in robes made of the skins of tigers, and their heads were crowned with flowers. Messalina herself, however, was the most conspicuous object among the gay throng. She was robed in a manner to display most fully the graces of her person; her long hair waving loosely in the wind. She had in her hand a symbol, or badge, called the thyrsus, which was an ornamented staff, or pole, surmounted with a carved representation of a bunch of grapes, and with other ornaments and emblems. The thyrsus was always used in the rites and festivities celebrated in honor of Bacchus. Silius himself, dressed like the rest in a fantastic and theatrical costume, danced by the side of Messalina, in the center of a ring of dancing girls which was formed around them.
In the mean time, while this gay party were thus enjoying themselves in the palace gardens at Rome, a very different scene was enacting at Ostia. Calpurnia, in her secret interview with Claudius, seizing upon a moment which seemed to her favorable for her purpose, kneeled down before him and made the communication with which she had been charged. She told him of Messalina's conduct, and informed him particularly how she had at last crowned the dishonor of her husband by openly marrying Silius, or at least pretending to do so. "Your friends believe," she added, "that she and Silius entertain still more criminal designs, and that your life will be sacrificed unless you immediately adopt vigorous and decided measures to avert the danger."
Claudius was very much amazed, and was also exceedingly terrified at this communication. He trembled and turned pale, then looked wild and excited, and began to make inquiries in an incoherent and distracted manner. Calpurnia called in Cleopatra to confirm her story. Cleopatra did confirm it, of course, in the fullest and most unqualified manner. The effect which was produced upon the mind of the emperor seemed to be exactly what the conspirators had desired. He evinced no disposition to justify or to defend Messalina, or to be angry with Calpurnia and Cleopatra for making such charges against her. His mind seemed to be wholly absorbed with a sense of the dangers of his situation, and Narcissus was accordingly sent for to come in.
Narcissus, when appealed to, acknowledged, though with well-feigned reluctance and hesitation, the truth of what Calpurnia had declared, and he immediately began to apologize for his own remissness in not having before made the case known. He spoke with great moderation of Messalina, and also of Silius, as if his object were to appease rather than to inflame the anger of the emperor. He however admitted, he said, that it was absolutely necessary that something decisive should be done. "Your wife is taken from you," said he, "and Silius is master of her. The next thing will be that he will be master of the republic. He may even already have gained the Prætorian guards over to his side, in which case all is lost. It is absolutely necessary that some immediate and decisive action should be taken."
Claudius, in great trepidation, immediately called together such of his prominent councillors and friends as were at hand at Ostia, to consult on what was to be done. Of course, it was principally the conspirators themselves that appeared at this council. They crowded around the emperor and urged him immediately to take the most decisive measures to save himself from the impending danger, and they succeeded so well in working upon his fears that he stood before them in stupid amazement, wholly incapable of deciding what to say or do. The conspirators urged upon the emperor the necessity of first securing the guard. This body was commanded by an officer named Geta, on whom Narcissus said no reliance could be placed, and he begged that Claudius would immediately authorize him, Narcissus, to take the command. The object of the confederates in thus wishing to get command of the guard was, perhaps, to make sure of the prompt and immediate execution of any sentence which they might succeed in inducing the emperor to pronounce upon Silius or Messalina, before he should have the opportunity of changing his mind. The emperor turned from one adviser to another, listening to their various suggestions and plans, but he seemed bewildered and undecided, as if he knew not what to do. It was, however, at length, determined to proceed immediately to Rome. The whole party accordingly mounted into their carriages, Narcissus taking his seat by the side of the emperor in the imperial chariot, in order that he might keep up the excitement and agitation in his master's mind by his conversation on the way.
In the mean time there were among those who witnessed these proceedings at Ostia, some who were disposed to take sides with Messalina and Silius, in the approaching struggle; and they immediately dispatched a special messenger to Rome to warn the empress of the impending danger. This messenger rode up along the banks of the Tiber with all speed, and in advance of the emperor's party. On his arrival in the city he immediately repaired to the palace gardens and communicated his errand to Messalina and her company in the midst of their festivities. Claudius had been informed, he said, against her and Silius, and was almost beside himself with resentment and anger. He was already on his way to Rome, the messenger added, coming to wreak vengeance upon them, and he warned them to escape for their lives. This communication was made, of course, in the first instance, somewhat privately to the parties principally concerned. It, however, put a sudden stop to all the hilarity and joy, and the tidings were rapidly circulated around the gardens. One man climbed into a tree and looked off in the direction of Ostia. The others asked him what he saw. "I see a great storm arising from the sea at Ostia," said he, "and coming hither, and it is time for us to save ourselves." In a word the bacchanalian games and sports were all soon broken up in confusion, and the company made their escape from the scene, each by a different way.
Silius immediately resumed his ordinary dress, and went forth into the city, where, under an assumed appearance of indifference and unconcern, he walked about in the forum, as if nothing unusual had occurred. Messalina herself fled to the house of a friend, named Lucullus, and, passing immediately through the house, sought a hiding-place in the gardens. Here her mind began to be overwhelmed with anguish, remorse, and terror. Her sins, now that a terrible retribution for them seemed to be impending, rose before her in all their enormity, and she knew not what to do. She soon reflected that there could be no permanent safety for her where she was, for the advanced guards of Claudius, which were even then entering the city and commencing their arrests, would be sure soon to discover the place of her retreat, and bring her before her exasperated husband. She concluded that, rather than wait for this, it would be better for her to go before him herself voluntarily; and, by throwing herself upon his mercy, endeavor to soften and appease him. She accordingly, in her distraction, determined to pursue this course. She came forth from her hiding-place in Lucullus's gardens, and went to seek her children, intending to take them with her, that the sight of them might help to move the heart of their father. Her children were two in number. Octavia, who has already been mentioned, was the eldest, being now about ten or twelve years of age. The other was a boy several years younger; his name was Britannicus.
In the mean time, the city was thrown quite into a state of commotion, by the approach of Claudius, and by the tidings which had spread rapidly through the streets, of what had occurred. The soldiers whom Claudius had sent forward, were making arrests in the streets, and searching the houses. In the midst of this excitement, Messalina, with her children, attended by one of the vestal virgins, named Vibidia, whom she had prevailed upon to accompany her and plead her cause, came forth from her palace on foot, and proceeded through the streets, her hair disheveled, her dress in disorder, and her whole appearance marked by every characteristic of humiliation, abasement, and woe. When she reached the gate of the city, she mounted into a common cart which she found there, and in that manner proceeded to meet her angry husband, leaving her children with Vibidia, the vestal, to follow behind.
She had not proceeded very far, before she met the emperor's train approaching. As soon as she came near enough to the carriage of Claudius to be heard, she began to utter loud entreaties and lamentations, begging her husband to hear before he condemned her. "Hear your unhappy wife," said she, "hear the mother of Britannicus and Octavia." Narcissus and the others who were near, interposed to prevent her from being heard. They talked continually to the emperor, and produced a written memorial and other papers for him to read, which contained, they said, a full account of the whole transaction. Claudius, taking very little notice of his wife, pursued his way toward the city. She followed in his train. When they drew near to the gates, they met Vibidia and the children. Vibidia attempted to speak, but Claudius would not listen. She complained, in a mournful tone, that for him to condemn his wife unheard, would be unjust and cruel; but Claudius was unmoved. He told Vibidia that Messalina would in due time have a suitable opportunity to make her defense, and that, in the mean time, the proper duty of a vestal virgin was to confine herself to the functions of her sacred office. Thus he sent both her and the children away.
As soon as the party arrived in the city Narcissus conducted the emperor to the house of Silius, and entering it he showed to the emperor there a great number of proofs of the guilty favoritism which the owner of it had enjoyed with Messalina. The house was filled with valuable presents, the tokens of Messalina's love, consisting, many of them, of costly household treasures which had descended to Claudius in the imperial line, and which were of such a character that the alienation of them by Messalina, in such a way, was calculated to fill the heart of Claudius with indignation and anger. The emperor then proceeded to the camp. Silius and several of his leading friends were arrested and brought together before a sort of military tribunal summoned on the spot to try them. The trial was of course very brief and very summary. They were all condemned to death and were led out to instant execution.
This being done the emperor returned with his friends to the city and repaired to his palace. His mind seemed greatly relieved. He felt that the crisis of danger was past. He ordered supper to be prepared, and when it was ready he seated himself at table. He congratulated himself and his friends on the escape from the perils that had surrounded them, which they had so happily accomplished. Narcissus and the others began to tremble lest after all Messalina should be spared; and they knew full well that if she should be allowed to live, she would soon, by her artful management, regain her ascendency over the emperor's mind, and that in that case she would give herself no rest until she had destroyed all those who had taken any part in effecting the destruction of Silius. They began to be greatly alarmed therefore for their own safety. In the mean time messages came in from Messalina, who, when the emperor entered the city, had returned to her former place of refuge in the gardens of Lucullus. At length a letter, or memorial, came. On reading what was written it was found that Messalina was assuming a bolder tone. Her letter was a remonstrance rather than a petition, as if she were designing to try the effect of bravery and assurance, and to see if she could not openly reassume the ascendency and control which she had long exercised over the mind of her husband. Claudius seemed inclined to hesitate and waver. His anger appeared to be subsiding with his fears, and the wine which he drank freely at the table seemed to conspire with the other influences of the occasion to restore his wonted good-humor. He ordered that in reply to Messalina's letter a messenger should go and inform her that she should be admitted the next day to see him and to make her defense.
Narcissus and his confederates were greatly alarmed, and determined immediately that this must not be. Narcissus had been placed, it would seem, according to the wish of the conspirators at the outset, in command of the guard; and he accordingly had power to prevent the emperor's determination from being carried into effect, provided that he should dare to take the responsibility of acting. It was a moment of great anxiety and suspense. He soon, however, came strongly to the conclusion that though it would be very dangerous for him to act, yet that not to act would be certain destruction; since if Messalina were allowed to live it would be absolutely certain that they all must die. Accordingly, summoning all his resolution he hurried out of the banqueting room, and gave orders to the officers on duty there, in the emperor's name, to proceed to the gardens of Lucullus and execute sentence of death on Messalina without any delay.
Messalina was with her mother Lepida, in the gardens, awaiting her answer from the emperor, when the band of soldiers came. Messalina and her mother had never been agreed, and now for a long time had had no intercourse with each other. The daughter's danger had, however, reawakened the instinct of maternal love in the mother's heart, and Lepida had come to see her child in this the hour of her extremity. She came, however, not to console or comfort her child, or to aid her in her efforts to save her life, but to provide her with the means of putting an end to her own existence as the only way now left to her, of escape from the greater disgrace of public execution.
She accordingly offered a poniard to Messalina in the gardens, and urged her to take it. "Death by your own hand," said she, "is now your only refuge. You must die; it is impossible that this tragedy can have any other termination; and to wait quietly here for the stroke of the executioner is base and ignoble. You must die;—and all that now remains to you is the power to close the scene with dignity and with becoming spirit."
Messalina manifested the greatest agitation and distress, but she could not summon resolution to receive the poniard. In the midst of this scene the band of soldiers appeared, entering the garden. The mother pressed the poniard upon her daughter, saying, "Now is the time." Messalina took the weapon, and pointed it toward her breast, but had not firmness enough to strike it home. The officer approached her at the head of his men, with his sword drawn in his hand. Messalina, still irresolute, made a feeble and ineffectual effort to give herself a wound, but failed of inflicting it; and then the officer, who had by this time advanced to the spot where she was standing, put an end to her dreadful mental struggles by cutting her down and killing her at a single blow.
When tidings were brought back to Narcissus that his commands had been obeyed, he went again to the presence of Claudius, and reported to him simply that Messalina was no more. He made no explanations, and the emperor asked for none; but went on with his supper as if nothing had occurred, and never afterward expressed any curiosity or interest in respect to Messalina's fate.
As soon as the excitement produced by these transactions had in some degree subsided, various plans and intrigues were commenced for providing the emperor with another wife. There were many competitors for the station, all of whom were eager to occupy it; for, though Claudius was old, imbecile, and ugly, still he was the emperor; and all those ladies of his court who thought that they had any prospect of success, aspired to the possession of his hand, as the summit of earthly ambition. Among the rest, Agrippina appeared. She was Claudius's niece. This relationship was in one respect a bar to her success, since the laws prohibited marriage within that degree of consanguinity. In another respect, however, the relationship was greatly in Agrippina's favor, for under the plea of it she had constant access to the emperor, and was extremely assiduous in her attentions to him. She succeeded, at length, in inspiring him with some sentiment of love, and he determined to make her his wife. The Senate were easily induced to alter the laws in order to enable him to do this, and Claudius and Agrippina were married.
Claudius not only thus made the mother of our hero his wife, but he adopted her son as his son and heir—changing, at the same time, the name of the boy. In place of his former plebeian appellation of Ahenobarbus, he gave him now the imposing title of Nero Claudius Cæsar Drusus Germanicus. He has since generally been known in history, however, by the simple prenomen, Nero.