Ancient History & Civilisation


The Fall of Messalina


[The manuscript breaks off at the death of Tiberius, and Tacitus’ description of the four years’ reign of the unbalanced Gaius (Caligula) is lost. So is his account of the first six years of Gaius’ successor and uncle Claudius. Claudius has married his own cousin Messalina (his third wife). Their children are Octavia and Britannicus, who are about six and five respectively when Tacitus’ surviving narrative is resumed. Poppaea Sabina is a wealthy and fashionable beauty of whom Messalina is jealous.]

MESSALINA believed that Decimus Valerius Asiaticus, twice consul, had been Poppaea Sabina’s lover. Messalina also coveted the park which had been begun by Lucius Licinius Lucullus, and which Asiaticus was beautifying with exceptional lavishness. So she directed Publius Suillius Rufus to prosecute both of them. He was to be associated in this with Britannicus’ tutor, Sosibius. The task of the ostensibly well-meaning tutor was to.warn Claudius to beware of another’s power – of resources too formidable for an emperor’s comfort. ‘Asiaticus’, declared Sosibius, ‘was the principal instigator of the murder of Gaius! At an Assembly meeting he fearlessly admitted the crime, and claimed glory for it. So he is famous at Rome. Moreover, rumours throughout the provinces tell of a projected visit to the armies of Germany. For his birth at Vienna in Gaul, and his powerful connections in that country, make it easy for him to rouse his own people’s tribes.’1

Without further inquiry Claudius sent the commander of the Guard, Rufrius Crispinus, with enough troops to suppress a rebellion. Proceeding at full speed, Crispinus found Asiaticus at Baiae and took him to Rome in chains. Refused access to the senate, Asiaticus was examined in a bedroom, with Messalina present. Publius Suillius Rufus accused him of corrupting the army and using bribes and sexual entanglements to commit the soldiers to unbounded atrocities. Adultery with Poppaea Sabina was a supplementary charge. Another was effeminacy. At this accusation the prisoner found his voice. ‘Ask your sons, Suillius,’ he said. ‘They will confirm my masculinity.’

Then Asiaticus began his defence. It greatly moved Claudius – and even extracted tears from Messalina. She left the room to dry them, warning Lucius Vitellius (I) not to let the defendant elude her. Then she rapidly organized Poppaea Sabina’s destruction. Agents were suborned to threaten Poppaea with imprisonment, and thus terrorize her into suicide. Claudius knew nothing of this. When Poppaea’s husband Publius Cornelius Lentulus Scipio (I) was dining with him a few days later, the emperor asked him why he had come without his wife. The answer was that she was dead.

Lucius Vitellius, asked by Claudius whether he thought Asiaticus should be acquitted, first tearfully recalled their long friendship and partnership in devotion to the emperor’s mother, Antonia (II). Then, reviewing Asiaticus’ public services – including recent military activity against the British – and every other mitigating consideration, Vitellius urged that he should be allowed to choose his own death. Claudius’ decision was to the same merciful effect. Asiaticus’ friends recommended to him the unforcible method of self-starvation, but he proposed to dispense with that favour. After gymnastic exercises as usual, he bathed and dined cheerfully. Then, remarking that it would have been more honourable to the by the wiles of Tiberius or the violence of Gaius than by a woman’s intrigues and Vitellius’ obscene tongue, he opened his veins. First, however, he inspected his pyre and ordered it to be moved so that the flames should not damage the foliage of the trees. For he remained calm to the end.

The senate was then summoned, and Publius Suillius Rufus proceeded to add to the list of accused personages two distinguished knights of the name of Petra. The real reason for their deaths was the supposition that they had lent their house as a meeting-place for the ballet-dancer Mnester (I)1 and Poppaea Sabina. But the ostensible charge against one of the two men was a dream in which he had seen Claudius wearing a wheaten wreath with inverted ears.1 This Petra had interpreted as portending a corn shortage. The wreath was otherwise described as of whitening vine leaves, predicting the emperor’s death in the autumn. In any case, it was certainly some dream which destroyed him and his brother.

One and a half million sesterces, and an honorary praetorship, were voted to Rufrius Crispinus. Lucius Vitellius proposed the award of a further million to Sosibius for helping Britannicus with his instruction and Claudius with his advice. Publius Cornelius Lentulus Scipio (I), asked for his opinion, answered: ‘Since I share the general view about Poppaea Sabina’s misdeeds, take it that I say what everyone says’ – a graceful compromise between husbandly love and senatorial compulsion.

Now Suillius continued his prosecutions with unremitting ferocity. Moreover, his unscrupulousness had many imitators. For the emperor’s absorption of all judicial and magisterial functions had opened up extensive opportunities for illicit gain. The most readily purchasable commodity on the market was an advocate’s treachery. One distinguished knight named Samius fell on his sword at Suillius’ house after paying him four hundred thousand sesterces and then finding Suillius was in collusion with the other side.

After this the senators, led by the consul-designate Gaius Silius (II) (whose power and downfall I shall describe in the appropriate place), rose and demanded enforcement of the ancient Cincian law2 forbidding the acceptance of money or gifts for legal services. Those affected by the measure protested. Silius, however, violently assailed Suillius – whom he hated. Silius recalled the ancient orators who had wanted no rewards for their eloquence except present and future fame. ‘What would otherwise be the first and finest of talents’, he said, ‘is defiled by mercenary hire – an eye on profits means double-dealing. If no one paid a fee for lawsuits, there would be less of them! As it is, feuds, charges, malevolence, and slander are encouraged. For just as physical illness brings revenue to doctors, so a diseased legal system enriches advocates. Remember that the great orators reached the top of their profession without degrading themselves or their eloquence.’ And he cited Gaius Asinius Pollio (I) and Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (I), and among later figures Lucius Arruntius and Marcus Claudius Marcellus Aeserninus.

This speech by the consul-designate was applauded, and a motion was prepared inculpating offenders under the extortion law. Suillius and Cossutianus Capito, and others like them, saw that this meant not just trial – they were obviously guilty – but punishment. So they flocked round Claudius urging forgiveness of the past. Allowed to plead their case, they argued that advocates, like anyone else, cannot just hope for eternal fame: they have to work to meet people’s practical needs, and ensure that nobody succumbs to a powerful litigant through lack of an advocate.

‘But eloquence’, they added, ‘is not acquired for nothing. To attend to other people’s affairs means neglecting one’s own. Other senators often earn their living by military service, or agriculture. No calling attracts candidates unless they can reckon its emoluments beforehand. It was easy for men like Gaius Asinius Pollio (I) and Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (I), gorged with the spoils of Augustus’ war with Antony, or for men such as Marcus Claudius Marcellus Aeserninus and Lucius Arruntius, the heirs of wealthy families, to appear high-minded. Besides, one can equally point to former orators like Publius Clodius and Gaius Scribonius Curio1 who received huge fees for speeches. We, however, are senators of moderate means who, in a peaceful state, only seek peace-time incomes. Besides, think of the humble people who win distinction by pleading. Remove a profession’s incentives, and the profession perishes.’ Less idealistic though these arguments were, Claudius saw some point in them. He decided to establish a maximum fee often thousand sesterces: those who accepted more were to be guilty of extortion.

At this period Mithridates, whose accession to the Armenian throne and imprisonment by Gaius2 I have mentioned, returned to his kingdom with Claudius’ encouragement, backed by the resources of his brother Pharasmanes, king of Iberia. The latter had reported that, since Parthia was again plunged in civil war, all lesser matters there were neglected in the fight for supremacy. For the king of Parthia Gotarzes II, among many other atrocities, had had one of his own brothers, Artabanus by name, murdered, together with his wife and son. So the other Parthians, alarmed, called in a further brother, Vardanes. Vardanes, always ready for adventures, covered 350 miles in two days,1 routed the unsuspecting and panic-stricken Gotarzes, and speedily occupied the adjacent provinces. Only Seleucia on the Tigris refused homage. Less for immediate advantage than from irritation (it had deserted his father Artabanus III too), Vardanes involved himself in a siege of this powerful and well-provisioned city, with its protections of river and walls. Meanwhile Gotarzes, mobilizing reinforcements among the Dahae and Hyrcanians, renewed the struggle. Vardanes was forced to raise the siege, and withdrew to Bactria.

This major disunion in the east, and its uncertain outcome, gave Mithridates his chance of seizing Armenia. While Roman troops actively reduced mountain fortresses, Iberian forces overran the plains. The Armenians unsuccessfully risked an engagement under Demonax, and then laid down arms. Some delay was caused by Cotys, the king of Lesser Armenia, to whom certain Armenian leaders had turned. However, a letter from Claudius restrained him, and Mithridates established himself. But his severity was inadvisable for a new monarch.

The rival Parthian leaders were preparing for battle when Gotarzes II discovered a conspiracy among their followers – and revealed it to Vardanes. Thereupon the two brothers abruptly concluded a truce. Their first meeting was hesitant. But then they clasped hands and swore, over the altars of the gods, to punish the treachery of their enemies and achieve a compromise with each other. Vardanes was thought the more suitable to be king. Gotarzes, to avoid rivalry, with-drew into remote Hyrcania. Vardanes returned to Seleucia, which surrendered. Its revolt had lasted seven years. This prolonged defiance by one city had humiliated the Parthians.

Vardanes then toured the principal provinces. He was also enthusiastic to visit Armenia, but was checked by a threat of war from the imperial governor of Syria, Gaius Vibius Marsus. Meanwhile Gotarzes had regretted giving up the throne. Invited back by the nobles – who find subordination particularly intolerable in peacetime – he collected an army. Vardanes marched against him and won a hard-fought battle at a crossing of the river Barferush. Then, by a series of further successes, he reduced one tribe after another up to the river Tedzhen, the frontier between the Dahae and Arii.

Finally, however, his conquests ended because the Parthians, though victorious, disliked distant service. So, after erecting monuments glorifying his power and the subjection of peoples never before under Parthian monarchs, Vardanes returned home. But his triumphs had made him more overbearing and autocratic. So, while unsuspectingly out hunting, he was assassinated. He was still very young; yet in renown he would have had few equals, however long-lived, if only he had sought to inspire as much affection in his people as terror in his enemies.

The murder of Vardanes created anarchy among the Parthians, who were divided concerning his successor. Many wanted Gotarzes II, others a descendant of King Phraates IV called Meherdates who was in our hands as a hostage. Gotarzes prevailed, and occupied the palace. But his cruelty and dissipation impelled the Parthians to dispatch a secret appeal to the Roman emperor, urging that Meherdates should be released to assume the crown of his forefathers.

This year being the eight hundredth since Rome’s foundation, Secular Games were celebrated, sixty-four years after those of Augustus. The calculations undertaken by the two emperors I omit, since they have been sufficiently described in my account of Domitian’s reign.1 For he too celebrated Secular Games, with which I was closely concerned as a member of the Board of Fifteen for Religious Ceremonies and praetor for the year. I mention this not from vanity but because these celebrations have since ancient times been administered by the Board, special responsibility for the ceremonies falling to those of its members who are officials.

The Games held by Claudius included performances in the Circus, where in the emperor’s presence youthful horsemen of noble birth performed the Troy Pageant.2 Among them were the emperor’s son Britannicus and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, soon to be adopted heir to the throne with the name of Nero. The greater applause received by the latter was regarded as prophetic. A further story, that in his infancy serpents had watched over him, was a fable adapted from foreign miracle-tales. Nero himself – who was not over-modest – used to say that just one snake had been seen in his bedroom.

His popularity was an inheritance from Germanicus, of whom he was the only surviving male descendant. Moreover, pity was increasingly felt for his mother Agrippina (II), owing to her persecution by Messalina. The latter, always Agrippina’s enemy and now particularly virulent, was only distracted from launching prosecutions and prosecutors by a new and almost maniacal love affair. She was infatuated with the best-looking young man in Rome, Gaius Silius (II). Forced by Messalina to divorce his aristocratic wife Junia Silana – so that her own adulterer should be disengaged – Silius realized the scandal and the peril. But refusal meant certain death. Besides, there was some hope of avoiding detection. And the affair was lucrative. So, banishing thoughts of the future, he took comfort and enjoyment from the present. Messalina, spurning secrecy, repeatedly visited his house with numerous attendants, clung to him when he went out, showered wealth and distinction upon him. Finally, as though the empire had changed hands, there were to be seen in her lover’s home imperial slaves and ex-slaves and furniture.

Claudius, unaware of his matrimonial complications, was busy with the functions of censor. A former consul and playwright Publius Pomponius Secundus, and high-ranking ladies, had been insulted in the theatre: the emperor issued edicts sternly rebuking audiences for their unruliness. He also passeda law against harsh treatment of debtors, forbidding loans to minors for repayment after their fathers’ deaths. Claudius next ordered the construction of an aqueduct to convey streams from the Simbruine hills into Rome. Then, influenced by the discovery that even the Greek alphabet was a gradual creation, he introduced and popularized new Latin characters.

The first people to represent thoughts graphically were the Egyptians with their animal-pictures. These earliest records of humanity are still to be seen, engraved on stone. They also claim to have discovered the alphabet and taught it to the Phoenicians, who, controlling the seas, introduced it to Greece and were credited with inventing what they had really borrowed. The story is that Cadmus, arriving with a Phoenician fleet, taught the still uncivilized Greeks how to write. According to other accounts, Cecrops of Athens, or Linus of Thebes, or Palamedes of Argos in the Trojan war, invented sixteen letters, the rest being introduced later, notably by Simonides.1 In Italy, the Etruscans learnt writing from Demaratus the Corinthian,2 the Aborigines from Evander the Arcadian.3 The Latin characters resemble those of the earliest Greeks. Their letters, like ours, were originally few, and subsequently increased – thus affording Claudius a precedent. However, after employment in his reign the three letters that he invented became obsolete. But they can still be seen on bronze inscriptions in public squares and temples.

Claudius then proposed to the senate the establishment of a Board of Soothsayers. ‘This oldest Italian art’, he said, ‘ought not to die out through neglect. The advice of soothsayers, consulted in time of disaster, has often caused the revival and more correct subsequent observance of religious ceremonies. Moreover leading Etruscans, on their own initiative – or the Roman senate’s – have kept up the art and handed it down from father to son. Now, however, public indifference to praiseworthy accomplishments has caused its neglect; and the advance of foreign superstitions has contributed to this. At present all is well. But gratitude for divine favour must be shown by ensuring that rites observed in bad times are not forgotten in prosperity.’ So the senate decreed that the priests should consider which institutions of the soothsayers required upkeep or support.

In the same year the tribe of the Cherusci asked Rome for a king. Civil wars having annihilated their nobility, the only surviving royal prince was Italicus, son of Flavus (Arminius’ brother) and of a daughter of Actumerus, chief of the Chatti. Italicus was kept at Rome – a handsome man, trained to fight and ride in both German and Roman style. Claudius subsidized him, provided an escort, and encouraged him to enter upon his heritage, adding that Italicus was the first man born at Rome as a citizen – not a hostage – to proceed to a foreign throne.

At first the Germans welcomed him. Free of partisanships, he favoured all equally, and gained prestige and respect – sometimes by the generally popular qualities of affability and moderation, more often by the drunkenness and lustfulness which natives admire. His reputation reached neighbouring states, and beyond. But men who had found disunion profitable envied his power. ‘Rome is encroaching,’ they said to the adjacent communities which they sought out. ‘Germany’s ancient freedom is being destroyed. Is there really no home-born person eligible for the kingship? Do we have to give first place to the son of Flavus, a mere Roman military policeman? It is no good talking of Arminius. Even if his own son had returned to reign after growing up in enemy country, there would be reason to fear the contagion of foreign upbringing, slave-labour, dress, and everything else. Besides, if Italicus takes after his father, no one ever fought against his own country and its god more violently than Flavus did!’

Such arguments attracted numerous supporters. Italicus’ following, however, was just as large. He reminded them that he had not intruded against their will, but had been invited because his birth made him pre-eminent. A test of his courage, he added, would find him worthy of his uncle and grandfather – and he was not ashamed of his father, who had steadfastly maintained obligations to Rome which he had entered with German approval: the word ‘freedom’ was hypocritically put foward by low characters whose politics were a menace and whose only hope was national disunion.

These assertions were enthusiastically applauded. There followed a battle – important by native standards – which Italicus won. But success made him arrogant, and he was ejected. Subsequently, with the backing of the Langobardi, he was restored. But in good and bad fortune alike he proved disastrous to the Cherusci.

At this period the Chauci, free from internal dissension, took advantage of the death of the imperial governor of Lower Germany, Quintus Sanquinius Maximus, to raid that province before his successor Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo (II) arrived. Their commander was Gannascus of the tribe of the Canninefates, an auxiliary deserter and now a pirate with small ships plundering, in particular, the Gallic coast, which he knew to be both wealthy and unwarlike. On arrival in the province Corbulo’s careful methods soon won him the fame that dates from this campaign. Bringing up warships by the main channel of the Rhine, and other craft (according to their build) by creeks and canals, he sank the enemy’s boats and ejected Gannascus.1

His Roman soldiers were enthusiastic looters but slack and reluctant workers. So, when the immediate situation was remedied, Corbulo revived traditional standards of discipline. Falling out on the march, and fighting without orders, were prohibited. Picket and sentry duty – all tasks day and night – were performed under arms. One soldier is said to have been executed for digging at the earthwork without side-arms, another for wearing his dagger only. These stories are exaggerated, and perhaps invented. But Corbulo’s strictness inspired them; and a man credited with such severity over details must have been vigilant and, for serious offences, inexorable.

The terror he caused had opposite effects on our men and the Germans. It made the Romans better soldiers, and weakened the morale of the natives. The Frisians, hostile or disloyal since the revolt they had launched by defeating Lucius Apronius, gave hostages and settled on lands delimited by Corbulo. He also allocated to them a senate, officials, and laws – and constructed a fort to ensure obedience.

Then Corbulo sent agents to induce the Greater Chauci (the eastern branch) to surrender, and to trap and kill Gannascus. The trap was successful. Being directed against a deserter who had broken faith, it was not dishonourable. Yet it upset the Chauci, and provoked them to rebellion. Some Romans welcomed this policy, others deplored it ‘Why provoke the enemy?’ they said. ‘If he fails, Rome will be the loser. If he wins, such a distinguished soldier will offend the inactive emperor – and so endanger peace.’

And indeed Claudius forbade further aggression against the Germans, and even ordered the withdrawal of our garrisons to the west bank of the Rhine. These instructions took Corbulo by surprise. He received them when he was already building a camp in enemy country. Many consequences crowded into his mind – peril from the emperor, scorn from the natives, ridicule from provincials. However, his only comment was: ‘Earlier Roman commanders were fortunate!’ Then he sounded the retreat. But to keep the troops occupied he made them dig a twenty-three-mile Meuse–Rhine canal, to bypass the hazards of the North Sea.

Though he had forbidden the war, Claudius awarded Corbulo an honorary Triumph. Soon afterwards the same honour was awarded in Upper Germany to Curtius Rufus. He had sunk a mine in the territory of the Mattiaci to find silver. Its products were scanty and shortlived, though the troops suffered and toiled, digging channels and doing underground work which would have been laborious enough in the open. This forced labour covered several provinces. Worn out by it, the men secretly appealed to the emperor, in the name of all the armies, begging him to grant honorary Triumphs to commanders before giving them their armies.

Some said Curtius Rufus was a gladiator’s son. I do not want to lie about his origin but would be embarrassed to tell the truth. When he grew up he had been employed by the assistant to the governor of Africa. At Hadrumetum, while he was strolling alone at midday in a deserted colonnade, a female figure of superhuman stature appeared to him and said: ‘Rufus, you will come to this province as governor.’ Encouraged by the omen he left for Rome, where his energetic personality, aided by subsidies from friends, won him the quaestorship. Then, defeating noble competitors, he became praetor. Tiberius backed him, palliating his inglorious birth with the remark ‘Curtius Rufus’ achievements are paternity enough.’ Surly though cringing to his superiors, bullying to his inferiors, ill at ease with his equals, Curtius lived to an advanced age, gained the consulship, an honorary Triumph, and finally the governorship of Africa – where, his destiny fulfilled, he died.

Meanwhile at Rome a knight called Cnaeus Nonius was found wearing a sword at the emperor’s morning reception. No motive became evident, then or later. Under torture, he did not deny his guilt. But he revealed no accomplices; whether he had any to hide is unknown.

In the same year Publius Cornelius Dolabella (II) proposed that an annual gladiatorial display should be defrayed by the quaestors. Offices had traditionally been the reward of merit, and every respectable citizen, however young, could stand for them. There had been no lower age-limit for consulships or dictatorships. The quaestorship had been founded in the regal period, as is shown by Lucius Junius Brutus’ restatement of the Assembly’s original law.1 Selection remained with the consuls until this and other offices passed to popular vote. The first quaestors to be appointed by the new method – sixty-three years after the expulsion of the Tarquins – were Valerius Potitus and Aemilius Mamercus (to supervise the war-chest). Then, as business increased, two more quaestors were added for duties at Rome. Soon, with taxes coming in from Italy and the provinces, the number was again doubled. Next, twenty more were appointed by Sulla – to enlarge the senate, which he had invested with criminal jurisdiction. Later these judicial functions were recovered by the order of knights. Yet, even after that, quaestorships still depended not on payment but on merit and popularity. But Dolabella’s proposal virtually put them up for auction.

In the following year the consuls were Aulus Vitellius and Lucius Vipstanus Poplicola. During debates that were now held about enlarging the senate, the chief men of long-haired’ (northern and central) Gaul2 – belonging to tribes with long-standing treaties with Rome, of which they themselves were citizens – claimed the right to hold office in the capital. The question aroused much discussion, and the opposing arguments were put to the emperor.

‘Italy is not so decayed’, said some, ‘that she cannot provide her own capital with a senate. In former times even peoples akin to us were content with a Roman senate of native Romans only; and the government of those days is a glorious memory. To this day, people cite the ancient Roman character for their models of courage and renown.

‘Is it not enough that Venetian and Insubrian Gauls3 have forced their way into the senate? Do we have to import foreigners in hordes, like gangs of prisoners, and leave no careers for our own surviving aristocracy, or for impoverished senators from Latium? Every post will be absorbed by the rich men whose grandfathers and greatgrandfathers commanded hostile tribes, assailed our armies in battle, besieged the divine Julius Caesar at Alesia.1 Those are recent memories. But are we to forget our men who, beside Rome’s Capitoline citadel, were killed by the ancestors of these very Gauls?2 Let them, by all means, have the title of Roman citizens. But the senate’s insignia, the glory of office, they must not cheapen.’

These and similar arguments did not impress Claudius. He contradicted them on the spot, and then summoned the senate and made this speech:3

‘The experience of my own ancestors, notably of my family’s Sabine founder Clausus who was simultaneously made a Roman citizen and a patrician, encourage me to adopt the same national policy, by bringing excellence to Rome from whatever source. For I do not forget that the Julii came from Alba Longa, the Coruncanii from Camerium, the Porcii from Tusculum; and, leaving antiquity aside, that men from Etruria, Lucania, and all Italy have been admitted into the senate; and that finally Italy herself has been extended to the Alps, uniting not merely individuals but whole territories and peoples under the name of Rome.

‘Moreover, after the enfranchisement of Italy across the Po, our next step was to make citizens of the finest provincials too: we added them to our ex-soldiers in settlements throughout the world, and by their means reinvigorated the exhausted empire. This helped to stabilize peace within the frontiers and successful relations with foreign powers. Is it regretted that the Cornelii Balbi immigrated from Spain, and other equally distinguished men from southern Gaul? Their descendants are with us; and they love Rome as much as we do. What proved fatal to Sparta and Athens, for all their military strength, was their segregation of conquered subjects as aliens. Our founder Romulus, on the other hand, had the wisdom – more than once – to transform whole enemy peoples into Roman citizens within the course of a single day. Even some of our kings were foreign. Similarly, the admission to former office of the sons of slaves is not the novelty it is alleged to be. In early times it happened frequently.

‘“The Senonian Gauls fought against us,” it is objected. But did not Italians, Vulsci and Aequi, as well? “The Gauls captured Rome” you say. But we also lost battles to our neighbours – we gave hostages to the Etruscans, we went beneath the Samnites’ yoke.1Actually, a review of all these wars shows that the Gallic war took the shortest time of all – since then, peace and loyalty have reigned unbroken. Now that they have assimilated our customs and culture and married into our families, let them bring in their gold and wealth rather than keep it to themselves. Senators, however ancient any institution seems, once upon a time it was new! First, plebeians joined patricians in office. Next, the Latins were added. Then came men from other Italian peoples. The innovation now proposed will, in its turn, one day be old: what we seek to justify by precedents today will itself become a precedent.’

The senate approved the emperor’s speech. The first Gauls who thereby obtained the right to become Roman senators were the Aedui. They owed this privilege to their ancient treaty with Rome and their position as the only Gallic community entitled ‘Brothers of the Roman People’. At this period Claudius also elevated senators of particularly long standing and illustrious birth to patrician rank, which few surviving families possessed. They comprised what Romulus had called ‘the Greater’ and Lucius Junius Brutus ‘the Lesser’ Houses. Even the families which the dictator Caesar and Augustus promoted in their place, under the Cassian and Saenian laws respectively, had died out.2 The action of Claudius was welcomed as beneficial, and the imperial censor enjoyed performing it.

But Claudius was worried about how to expel notorious bad characters from the senate. Rejecting old-fashioned severity in favour of a lenient modern method, he advised individuals concerned to consider their own cases and apply for permission to renounce senatorial rank – which would readily be granted. He would then publish expulsions by the censors and resignations in a single list – so that the humiliation of those expelled should be mitigated by association with those who had modestly volunteered to withdraw. For this one of the consuls, Lucius Vipstanus Poplicola, proposed that Claudius should be called Father of the Senate – since others too were called Father of the Country, whereas new services to the country deserved new titles. But the emperor vetoed the proposal as too flattering. Then he concluded the ritual of the census, which showed a citizen body of 5,984,072 persons.1

And now ended Claudius’ ignorance of his own domestic affairs. Now he had, ineluctably, to discover and punish his wife’s excesses (as a preliminary to coveting an incestuous substitute). Messalina’s adultery was going so smoothly that she was drifting, through boredom, into unfamiliar vices. But now fate seemed to have unhinged Gaius Silius; or perhaps he felt that impending perils could only be met by perilous action. He urged that concealment should be dropped. ‘We do not have to wait until the emperor dies of old age!’ he told her. ‘Besides, only innocent people can afford long-term plans. Flagrant guilt requires audacity. And we have accomplices who share our danger. I am without wife or child. I am ready to marry, and to adopt Britannicus. Your power will remain undiminished. Peace of mind will only be yours if we can forestall Claudius. He is slow to discover deception – but quick to anger.’

Messalina was unenthusiastic. It was not that she loved her husband. But she feared that Silius, once supreme, might despise his mistress, and see the crime prompted by an emergency in its true colours. However, the idea of being called his wife appealed to her owing to its sheer outrageousness – a sensualist’s ultimate satisfaction. So, waiting only until Claudius had left to sacrifice at Ostia, she celebrated a formal marriage with Silius.

It will seem fantastic, I know, that in a city where nothing escapes notice or comment, any human beings could have felt themselves so secure. Much more so that, on an appointed day and before invited signatories, a consul designate and the emperor’s wife should have been joined together in formal marriage – ‘for the purpose of rearing children’; that she should have listened to the diviners’ words, assumed the wedding-veil, sacrificed to the gods; that the pair should have taken their places at a banquet, embraced, and finally spent the night as man and wife. But I am not inventing marvels. What I have told, and shall tell, is the truth. Older men heard and recorded it.

The imperial household shuddered – especially those in power, with everything to fear from a new emperor. There were secret conferences. Then indignation was unconcealed. ‘While a ballet-dancing actor violated the emperor’s bedroom’, they said, ‘it was humiliating enough. Yet it did not threaten Claudius’ life. Here, on the other hand, is a young, handsome, intelligent nobleman, consul-to-be – but with a loftier destiny in mind. For where such a marriage will lead is clear enough.’ When they thought of Claudius’ sluggish uxorious-ness, and the many assassinations ordered by Messalina, they were terrified. Yet the emperor’s very pliability gave diem hope. If they could convince him of the enormity of the outrage, Messalina might be condemned and eliminated without trial. But everything, they felt, turned on this – would Claudius give her a hearing? Could they actually shut his ears against her confession?

Callistus, who has already been mentioned in connection with Gaius’ murder, Narcissus, who had contrived the death of Gaius Appius Junius Silanus,1 and Pallas, who was now basking in the warmest favour, conferred together.2 They discussed whether, pretending ignorance of everything else, they could secretly frighten Messalina out of her affair with Silius. But this scheme was abandoned by Pallas and Callistus as too dangerous for themselves. Pallas’ motive was cowardice. Callistus had learnt from his experience dating from the previous reign that power was better safeguarded by diplomatic than by vigorous methods. Narcissus, however, persevered in taking action – with this new feature: she was to be denounced without forewarning of charge or accuser. Narcissus watched for an opening. Then, as Claudius prolonged his stay at Ostia, he induced the emperor’s two favourite mistresses to act as informers. They were persuaded by gifts, promises, and assurances of the increased influence that Messalina’s downfall would bring them.

One of the women, Calpurnia (I), secured a private interview with Claudius. Throwing herself at his feet, she cried that Messalina had married Silius – in the same breath asking the other girl, Cleopatra (who was standing by ready), for corroboration: which she provided. Then Calpurnia urged that Narcissus should be summoned. ‘I must excuse my earlier silences’, said Narcissus, ‘about Vettius Valens, Plautius Lateranus, and the like – and now, too, I do not propose to complain of her adulteries, much less impel you to demand back from Silius your mansion, slaves, and other imperial perquisites. But are you aware you are divorced? Nation, senate, and army have witnessed her wedding to Silius. Act promptly, or her new husband controls Rome!’

Claudius summoned his closest friends. First he interrogated Gaius Turranius, controller of the corn supply, then Lusius Geta, commander of the Guard. They confirmed the story. The rest of the emperor’s entourage loudly insisted that he must visit the camp and secure the Guard – safety must come before vengeance. Claudius, it is said, was panic-stricken. ‘Am I still emperor?’ he kept on asking. ‘Is Silius still a private citizen?’

Meanwhile, Messalina was indulging in unprecedented extravagances. It was full autumn; and she was performing in her grounds a mimic grape-harvest. Presses were working, vats overflowing, surrounded by women capering in skins like sacrificing or frenzied Maenads. She herself, hair streaming, brandished a Bacchic wand. Beside her stood Silius in ivy-wreath and buskins, rolling his head, while the disreputable chorus yelled round him. Vettius Valens, the story goes, gaily climbed a great tree. Asked what he saw, his answer was: ‘A fearful storm over Ostia!’ There may have been a storm. Or it could have been a casual phrase. But later it seemed prophetic.

Rumours and messengers now came pouring in. They revealed that Claudius knew all, and was on his way, determined for revenge. So the couple separated, Messalina to the Gardens of Lucullus, Silius – to disguise his alarm – to business in the Forum. The others too melted away in every direction. But they were pounced on and arrested separately by staff-officers of the Guard, in the streets or in hiding-places. Messalina was too shaken by the catastrophe to make any plans. But she instantly decided on the course that had often saved her – to meet her husband and let him see her.

She also sent word that Britannicus and Octavia should go and seek their father’s embraces. She herself begged the senior priestess of Vesta, Vibidia, to obtain the ear of the emperor as Chief Priest and urge pardon. Meanwhile, with only three companions – so rapidly was she deserted – she walked from end to end of the city. Then she started along the Ostia road – in a cart used for removing garden refuse. People did not pity her, for they were horrified by her appalling crimes.

On Claudius’ side there was just as much agitation. Lusius Geta, the Guard commander, followed his own caprices, regardless of right and wrong. No one trusted him. So Narcissus, supported by others as afraid as he was, asserted that there was only one hope of saving the emperor’s life: the transference of the Guard, for that one day, to the command of a freed slave – himself; for he offered himself as commander. Then, afraid that Claudius, during the return journey to Rome, might have his mind changed by his companions Lucius Vitellius and Gaius Caecina Largus, Narcissus asked for a place in the same carriage, and sat with them.

Claudius, it was widely said afterwards, contradicted himself incessantly, veering from invective against Messalina’s misconduct to reminiscences of their marriage and their children’s infancy. Lucius Vitellius would only moan ‘How wicked, how sinful!’ When Narcissus pressed that he should reveal his mind honestly and unambiguously, Vitellius, undeterred, still responded with, cryptic exclamations which could be taken in two ways. Caecina Largus did the same.

Now Messalina came into view. She cried and cried that Claudius must listen to the mother of Octavia and Britannicus. Narcissus shouted her down with the story of Silius and the wedding, simultaneously distracting the emperor’s gaze with a document listing her immoralities. Soon afterwards, at a point near the city, the two children were brought forward. Narcissus ordered their removal. But he could not remove Vibidia, who demanded most indignantly that a wife should not be executed unheard. Narcissus replied that the emperor would hear Messalina – she would have a chance to clear herself – and that meanwhile Vibidia had better go and attend to her own religions duties.

Claudius remained strangely silent. Lucius Vitellius looked as if he did not know what was happening. The former slave, Narcissus, took charge. He ordered the adulterer’s home to be opened and the emperor to be taken there. First, in the forecourt, Narcissus pointed out a statue of Silius’ condemned father, placed there in defiance of senatorial decree. Then he pointed to the heirlooms of Neros and Drususes that had come to the house among the wages of sin. This angered the emperor; he became threatening. Narcissus conducted him to the camp and delivered a preliminary statement. Then Claudius addressed the assembled Guard – but only briefly, because, just though his indignation was, he could hardly express it for shame.

The Guardsmen shouted repeatedly for the offenders to be named and punished. Silius was brought on to the platform. Without attempting defence or postponement, he asked for a quick death. Certain distinguished knights showed equal courage. They too desired a speedy end. The execution of accomplices was ordered: Titius Proculus – appointed Messalina’s ‘guardian’ by Silius – Vettius Valens, who confessed, and two further members of the order of knights, Pompeius Urbicus and Saufeius Trogus. The same penalty was visited on the commander of the watch, Decrius Calpurnianus, the superintendent of a gladiator’s school, Sulpicius Rufus, and a junior senator, Juncus Vergilianus.

Only Mnester (I) caused hesitation. Tearing his clothes, he entreated Claudius to look at his whip-marks and remember the words with which the emperor had placed him under Messalina’s orders. Others, he urged, had sinned for money or ambition, he from compulsion – and if Silius had become emperor he, Mnester, would have been the first to the. Claudius had an indulgent nature and this moved him. But the ex-slaves prevailed upon the emperor not, after executing so many distinguished men, to spare a ballet-dancer – when crimes were so grave it was irrelevant whether they were voluntary or enforced.

Rejection, too, awaited the defence of an unpretentious but good-looking young knight, Sextus Traulus Montanus, whom within a single night Messalina, as capricious in her dislikes as in her desires, had sent for and sent away. Plautius Lateranus escaped the death sentence owing to an uncle’s distinguished record. So did Suillius Caesoninus, because of his own vices – at that repulsive gathering his had been merely a female part.

Meanwhile at the Gardens of Lucullus Messalina was fighting for her life. She composed an appeal. Its terms were hopeful and even at times indignant, so shameless was her insolence to the very end. Indeed, if Narcissus had not speedily caused her death, the fatal blow would have rebounded on her accuser. For Claudius, home again, soothed and a little fuddled after an early dinner, ordered ‘the poor woman’ (that is said to have been his phrase) to appear on the next day to defend herself. This was noted. His anger was clearly cooling, his love returning. Further delay risked that the approaching night would revive memories of conjugal pleasures.

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. While her daughter was in power they had quarrelled. But in her extremity, Lepida was overcome by pity. She urged Messalina to await the executioner. ‘Your life is finished,’ she said. ‘All that remains is to make a decent end.’ But in that lust-ridden heart decency did not exist. Messalina was still uselessly weeping and moaning when the men violently broke down the door. The officer stood there, silently. The ex-slave, with a slave’s foulness of tongue, insulted her. Then, for the first time, it dawned on Messalina what her position really was. Terrified, she took a dagger and put it to her throat and then her breast – but could not do it. And so the officer ran her through. The body was left with her mother. Claudius was still at table when news came that Messalina had died; whether by her own hand or another’s was unspecified. Claudius did not inquire. He called for more wine, and went on with his party as usual.

On the days that followed, the emperor gave no sign of hatred, satisfaction, anger, distress, or any other human feeling – even when he saw the accusers exulting, and his children mourning. His forget-fulness was helped by the senate, which decreed that Messalina’s name and statues should be removed from all public and private sites. It also awarded Narcissus an honorary quaestorship. But this was the least reason for conceit to a man who exceeded even Pallas or Callistus in power.

The vengeance on Messalina was just. But its consequences were grim.

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