Discovery of Claudius.Discovery of Claudius.
The Poisoning of Claudius.The Poisoning of Claudius.

The Accession of Claudius

A.D. 41-47

Ultimate design of the conspirators.

I n  the assassination of Caligula, the conspirators who combined to perpetrate the deed, had a much deeper design than that of merely gratifying their personal resentment and rage against an individual tyrant. They wished to effect a permanent change in the government, by putting down the army from the position of supreme and despotic authority which it had assumed, and restoring the dominion to the Roman Senate, and to the other civil authorities of the city, as it had been exercised by them in former years. Of course, the death of Caligula was the commencement, not the end, of the great struggle. The whole country was immediately divided into two parties. There was the party of the Senate, and the party of the army; and a long and bitter conflict ensued. It was for some time doubtful which would win the day.

Effect produced by the tidings of Caligula's death.

In fact, immediately after Caligula was killed, and the tidings of his death began to spread about the palace and into the streets of the city, a considerable tumult arose, the precursor and earnest of the dissensions that were to follow. Upon the first alarm, a body of the emperor's guards that had been accustomed to attend upon his person, and whom he had strongly attached to himself by his lavish generosity in bestowing presents and rewards upon them, rushed forward to defend him, or if it should prove too late to defend him, to avenge his death. These soldiers ran toward the palace, and when they found that the emperor had been killed, they were furious with rage, and fell upon all whom they met, and actually slew several men. Tidings came to the theater, and the word was spread from rank to rank among the people that the emperor was slain. The people did not, however, at first, believe the story. They supposed that the report was a cunning contrivance of the emperor himself, intended to entrap them into some expression of pleasure and gratification, on their part, at his death, in order to give him an excuse for inflicting some cruel punishment upon them. The noise and tumult in the streets soon convinced them, however, that something extraordinary had occurred; they learned that the news of the emperor's death was really true, and almost immediately afterward they found, to their consternation, that the furious guards were thundering at the gates of the theater, and endeavoring to force their way in, in order to wreak their vengeance on the assembly, as if the spectators at the show were accomplices of the crime.

Chærea and the conspirators secrete themselves.
The senate is convened.
Two parties formed.

In the mean time Chærea and the other chief conspirators had fled to a secret place of retreat, where they now lay concealed. As soon as they had found that the object of their vengeance was really dead, and when they had satisfied themselves with the pleasure of cutting and stabbing the lifeless body, they stole away to the house of one of their friends in the neighborhood, where they could lie for a time secreted in safety. The life-guards sought for them everywhere, but could not find them. The streets were filled with tumult and confusion. Rumors of every kind, false and true, spread in all directions, and increased the excitement. At length, however, the consuls, who were the chief magistrates of the republic, succeeded in organizing a force and in restoring order. They took possession of the forum and of the capitol and posted sentinels and guards along the streets. They compelled the emperor's guards to desist from their violence, and retire. They sent a herald clothed in mourning into the theater, to announce officially to the people the event which had occurred, and to direct them to repair quietly to their homes. Having taken these preliminary measures they immediately called the Senate together, to deliberate on the emergency which had occurred, and to decide what should next be done. In the mean time the emperor's guards, having withdrawn from the streets of the city, retired to their camp and joined their comrades. Thus there were two vast powers organized—that of the army in the camp, and that of the Senate in the city—each jealous of the other, and resolute in its determination not to yield, in the approaching conflict.

In times of sudden and violent revolution like that which attended the death of Caligula, the course which public affairs are to take, and the question who is to rise and who is to fall, seem often to be decided by utter accident. It was strikingly so in this instance, inrespect to the selection, on the part of the army, of the man who was to take the post of supreme command in the place of the murdered emperor. The choice fell on Claudius, Agrippina's uncle. It fell upon him, too, as it would seem, by the merest chance, in the following very extraordinary manner.

Account of Claudius.
His apparent imbecility.
Every one against him.
Mode of teasing him.

Claudius, as has already been said, was Caligula's uncle; and as Caligula and Agrippina were brother and sister, he was, of course, Agrippina's uncle too. He was at this time about fifty years of age, and he was universally ridiculed and contemned on account of his great mental and personal inferiority. He was weak and ill-formed at his birth, so that even his mother despised him. She called him "an unfinished little monster," and whenever she wished to express her contempt for any one in respect to his understanding, she used to say, "You are as stupid as my son Claudius." In a word, Claudius was extremely unfortunate in every respect, so far as natural endowments are concerned. His countenance was very repulsive, his figure was ungainly, his manners were awkward, his voice was disagreeable, and he had an impediment in his speech. In fact, he was considered in his youth as almost an idiot. He was not allowed to associate with the other Roman boys of his age, but was kept apart, in some secluded portion of the palace, with women and slaves, where he was treated with so much cruelty and neglect that what little spirit nature had given him was crushed and destroyed. In fact, by common consent all seemed to take pleasure in teasing and tormenting him. Sometimes, when he was coming to the table at an entertainment, the other guests would combine to exclude him from the seats, in order to enjoy his distress as he ran about from one part of the table to another, endeavoring to find a place. If they found him asleep they would pelt him with olives and dates, or awaken him with the blow of a rod or a whip; and sometimes they would stealthily put his sandals upon his hands while he was asleep, in order that when he awoke suddenly they might amuse themselves with seeing him rub his face and eyes with them.

His situation and position at court.
The wives of Claudius.
His son strangled by a pear.

After all, however, the inferiority of Claudius was not really so great as it seemed. He was awkward and ungainly, no doubt, to the last degree; but he possessed some considerable capacity for intellectual pursuits and attainments, and as he was pretty effectually driven away from society by the jests and ridicule to which he was subjected, he devoted a great deal of time in his retirement to study, and to other useful pursuits. He made considerable progress in the efforts which he thus made to cultivate his mind. He, however, failed to acquire the respect of those around him; and as he grew up he seemed to be considered utterly incapable of performing any useful function; and during the time when his nephew Caligula was emperor, he remained at court, among the other nobles, but still neglected and despised by all of them. It is said that he probably owed the preservation of his life to his insignificance, as Caligula would probably have found some pretext for destroying him, if he had not thought him too spiritless and imbecile to form any ambitious plans. In fact, Claudius said himself afterward, when he became emperor, that a great part of his apparent simplicity was feigned, as a measure of prudence, to protect himself from injury. When Claudius grew up he was married several times. The wife who was living with him at the time of Caligula's death was his third wife; her name was Valeria Messalina. She was his cousin. Claudius and Messalina had one child—a daughter, named Octavia. Claudius had been extremely unhappy in his connection with the wives preceding Messalina. He had quarreled with them and been divorced from them both. He had had a daughter by one of these wives and a son by the other. The son was suddenly killed by getting choked with a small pear. He had been throwing it into the air and attempting to catch it in his mouth as it came down, when at last it slipped down into his throat and strangled him. As for the daughter, Claudius was so exasperated with her mother at the time of his divorce from her, that he determined to disown and reject the child; so he ordered the terrified girl to be stripped naked, and to be sent and laid down in that condition at her wretched mother's door.

Claudius terrified.
His hiding place.

Claudius, as has already been stated, was present with Caligula at the theater, on the last day of the spectacle, and followed him into the palace when he went to look at the Asiatic captives; so that he was present, or at least very near, at the time of his nephew's assassination. As might have been expected from what has been said of his character, he was overwhelmed with consternation and terror at the scene, and was utterly incapacitated from taking any part, either for or against the conspirators. He stole away in great fright and hid himself behind the hangings in a dark recess in the palace. Here he remained for some time, listening in an agony of anxiety and suspense to the sounds which he heard around him. He could hear the cries and the tumult in the streets, and in the passages of the palace. Parties of the guards, in going to and fro, passed by the place of his retreat from time to time, alarming him with the clangor of their weapons, and their furious exclamations and outcries. At one time peeping stealthily out, he saw a group of soldiers hurrying along with a bleeding head on the point of a pike. It was the head of a prominent citizen of Rome whom the guards had intercepted and killed, supposing him to be one of the conspirators. This spectacle greatly increased Claudius's terror. He was wholly in the dark in respect to the motives and the designs of the men who had thus revolted against his nephew, and it was of course impossible for him to know how he himself would be regarded by either party. He did not dare, therefore, to surrender himself to either, but remained in his concealment, suffering great anxiety, and utterly unable to decide what to do.

Discovery of Claudius.Discovery of Claudius.
He is discovered by a soldier.
Claudius proclaimed emperor.
His surprise.

At length, while he was in this situation of uncertainty and terror, a common soldier of the guards, named Epirius, who happened to pass that way, accidentally saw his feet beneath the hangings, and immediately, pulling the hangings aside, dragged him out to view. Claudius supposed now, of course, that his hour was come. He fell on his knees in an agony of terror, and begged the soldier to spare his life. The soldier, when he found that his prisoner was Claudius, the uncle of Caligula, raised him from the ground and saluted him emperor. As Caligula left no son, Epirius considered Claudius as his nearest relative, and consequently as the heir. Epirius immediately summoned others of the guard to the place, saying that he had found the new emperor, and calling upon them to assist in conveying him to the camp. The soldiers thus summoned procured a chair, and having placed the astonished Claudius in it, they raised the chair upon their shoulders, and began to convey it away. As they bore him thus along the streets, the people who saw them supposed that they were taking him to execution, and they lamented his unhappy fate. Claudius himself knew not what to believe. He could not but hope that his life was to be saved, but then he could not wholly dispel his fears.

He is borne to the camp and proclaimed emperor.

In the mean time, the soldiers went steadily forward with their burden. When one set of bearers became fatigued, they set down the chair, and others relieved them. No one molested them, or attempted to intercept them in their progress, and at length they reached the camp. Claudius was well received by the whole body of the army. The officers held a consultation that night, and determined to make him emperor. At first he was extremely unwilling to accept the proffered honor, but they urged it upon him, and he was at length induced to accept it. Thus the army was once more provided with a head, and prepared to engage anew in its conflict with the civil authorities of the city.

The particulars of the conflict that ensued we can not here describe. It is sufficient to say that the army prevailed, and that Claudius soon found himself in full possession of the power from which his nephew had been so suddenly deposed.

Agrippina recalled.

One of the first measures which the new emperor adopted, was to recall Agrippina from her banishment at Pontia, where Caligula had confined her, and restore her to her former position in Rome. Her husband, Brazenbeard, died about this time, and young Brazenbeard, her son, afterward called Nero, the subject of this history, was three years old. Octavia, the daughter of Claudius and Messalina, was a little younger.


Messalina, the wife of Claudius, hated Agrippina, considering her, as she did, her rival and enemy. The favor which Claudius showed to Agrippina, in recalling her from her banishment, and treating her with consideration and favor at Rome, only inflamed still more Messalina's hatred. She could not, however, succeed in inducing Claudius to withdraw his protection from his niece; for Claudius, though almost entirely subject to the influence and control of his wife in most things, seemed fully determined not to yield to her wishes in this. Agrippina continued, therefore, to live at Rome, in high favor with the court, for several years,—her little son advancing all the time in age and in maturity, until at length he became twelve years old. At this time, another great change took place in his own and his mother's condition. Messalina became herself, by her wickedness and infatuation, the means of raising her rival into her own place as wife of the emperor. The result was accomplished in the following manner.

Messalina's intrigues.
Her hatred of Silanus.

Messalina had long been a very dissolute and wicked woman, having been accustomed to give herself up to criminal indulgences and pleasures of every kind, in company with favorites whom she selected from time to time among the courtiers around her. For a time she managed these intrigues with some degree of caution and secrecy, in order to conceal her conduct from her husband. She gradually, however, became more and more open and bold. She possessed a great ascendency over the mind of her husband, and could easily deceive him, or induce him to do whatever she pleased. She persuaded him to confer honors and rewards in a very liberal manner upon those whom she favored, and to degrade, and sometimes even to destroy, those who displeased her. She would occasionally resort to very cunning artifices to accomplish her ends. For example, she conceived at one time a violent hatred against the husband of her mother. His name was Silanus. He was not the father of Messalina, but a second husband of Messalina's mother; and, being young and attractive in person, Messalina at first loved him, and intended to make him one of her favorites and companions. Silanus, however, would not accede to her wishes, and her love for him was then changed into hatred and thirst for revenge. She accordingly determined on his destruction; but as she knew that it would be difficult to induce Claudius to proceed to extremities against him, on account of his intimate relationship to the family, she contrived a very artful plot to accomplish her ends. It was this:

Plan for destroying Silanus.

She sent word to Silanus, on a certain evening, that the emperor wished him to come to the palace, to his private apartment, the next morning, at a very early hour. The emperor wished to see him, the messenger said, on business of importance.

Narcissus's pretended dream.
Messalina's confirmation of it.

Just before the time which had been appointed for Silanus to appear, a certain officer of the household, named Narcissus, whom Messalina had engaged to assist her in her plot, came into the emperor's apartment, with an anxious countenance, and in a very hurried manner, and said to Claudius, whom he waked out of sleep by his coming, that he had had a very frightful dream—one which he deemed it his duty to make known to his master without any delay. He dreamed, he said, that a plot had been formed for assassinating the emperor; that Silanus was the contriver of it, and that he was coming early that morning to carry his design into effect. Messalina, who was present with her husband at the time, listened to this story with well-feigned anxiety and agitation, and then declared, with a countenance of great mysteriousness and solemnity, that she had had precisely the same dream for two or three nights in succession, but that, not being willing to do Silanus an injury, or to raise any unjust suspicions against him, she had thus far forborne to speak of the subject to her husband. She was, however, now convinced, she said, that Silanus was really entertaining some treasonable designs, and that the dreams were tokens sent from heaven to warn the emperor of his danger.

Claudius alarmed.
Silanus is executed.

Claudius, who was of an extremely timid and nervous temperament, was very much alarmed by these communications; and his terrors were greatly increased by the appearance of a servant who announced to him at that moment that Silanus was then coming in. The coming of Silanus to the palace at that unseasonable hour was considered by the emperor as full confirmation of the dreams which had been related to him, and as proof of the guilt of the accused; and under the impulse of the sudden passion and fear which this conviction awakened in his mind, he ordered Silanus to be seized and led away to immediate execution. These commands were obeyed. Silanus was hurried away and dispatched by the swords of the soldiers, without ever knowing what the accusation was that had been made against him.

Unbounded influence of Messalina.

Thus Messalina succeeded by artifice and cunning in accomplishing her ends, in cases where she could not rely on her direct influence upon the mind of the emperor. In one way or the other she almost always effected whatever she undertook, and gradually came to exercise almost supreme control. Whom she would she raised up, and whom she would she put down. In the mean time she lived herself, a life of the most guilty indulgence and pleasure. For a long time she concealed her wickedness from the emperor. He was very easily deceived, and though Messalina's character was perfectly well known to others, he himself continued blind to her guilt. At length, however, she began to grow more and more bold. She became satiated, as one of her historians says of her, with the common and ordinary forms of vice, and wished for something new and unusual to give piquancy and life to her sensations. At length, however, she went one step too far, and brought upon herself in consequence of it a terrible destruction.

Caius Silius.
Messalina's attachment to him.
Hesitation of Silius.
His decision.

It was about seven years after the accession of Claudius that the event occurred. The favorite of Messalina at this time was a young Roman senator named Caius Silius. Silius was a very distinguished young nobleman, and a man of handsome person and of very graceful and accomplished manners and address. He was in fact a very general favorite, and Messalina, when she first saw him, conceived a very strong affection for him. He was, however, already married to a beautiful Roman lady named Junia Silana. Silana had been, and was still at this time, an intimate friend of Agrippina, Nero's mother; though in subsequent times they became bitter enemies. Messalina made no secret of her love for Silius. She visited him freely at his house, and received his visits in return; she accompanied him to public places, evincing everywhere her strong regard for him in the most undisguised and open manner. At length she proposed to him to divorce his wife, in order that she herself might enjoy his society without any limitation or restraint. Silius hesitated for a time about complying with these proposals. He was well aware that he must necessarily incur great danger, either by complying or by refusing to comply with them. To accede to the empress's proposals, would be of course to place himself in a position of extreme peril; and the fate of Silanus was a warning to him of what he had to fear from her wrath, in case of a refusal. He concluded that the former danger was on the whole the least to be apprehended, and he accordingly divorced his wife, and gave himself up wholly to Messalina's will.

Public works at Ostia.
The obelisk.
Immense ship.

This arrangement being made, all things for a time went on smoothly and well. Claudius himself lived a very secluded life, and paid very little attention to his wife's pursuits or pleasures. He lived sometimes in retirement in his palace, devoting his time to his studies, or to the plans and measures of government. He seems to have honestly desired to promote the welfare and prosperity of the republic, and he made many useful regulations and laws which promised to be conducive to this end. Sometimes he was absent for a season from the city,—visiting fortresses and encampments, or inspecting the public works, such as aqueducts and canals, which were in progress of construction. He was particularly interested in certain operations which he planned and conducted at the mouths of the Tiber for forming a harbor there. The place was called Ostia, that word in the Latin tongue denoting mouths. To form a port there he built two long piers, extending them in a curvilinear form into the sea, so as to inclose a large area of water between them, where ships could lie at anchor in safety. Light-houses were built at the extremities of these piers. It is a curious circumstance that in forming the foundation of one of these piers, the engineers whom Claudius employed sunk an immense ship which Caligula had formerly caused to be built for the purpose of transporting an obelisk from Egypt to Rome,—the obelisk which now stands in front of St. Peter's Church, and is the admiration and wonder of all visitors to Rome. As the obelisk was formed of a single stone, a vessel of a very large size and of an unusual construction was necessary for the conveyance of it; and when this ship had once delivered its monstrous burden, it had no longer any useful function to perform on the surface of the sea, and the engineers accordingly filled it with stones and gravel, and sunk it at the mouth of the Tiber, to form part of the foundation of one of Claudius's piers. As it is found that there is no perceptible decay, even for centuries, in timber that is kept constantly submerged in the water of the sea, it is not impossible that the vast hulk, unless marine insects have devoured it and carried it away, lies imbedded where Claudius placed it, still.

Messalina continues her wicked career.
Silius intoxicated with his elevation.

While the emperor was engaged in these and similar pursuits and occupations, Messalina went on in her career of dissipation and indulgence from bad to worse, growing more and more bold and open every day. She lived in a constant round of entertainments and of gayety—sometimes receiving companies of guests at her own palace, and sometimes making visits with a large retinue of attendants and friends, at the house of Silius. Of course, every one paid court to Silius, and assumed, in their intercourse with him, every appearance that they entertained for him the most friendly regard. It is always so with the favorites of the great. While in heart they are hated and despised, in form and appearance they are caressed and applauded. Silius was intoxicated with the emotions that the giddy elevation to which he had arrived so naturally inspired. He was not, however, wholly at his ease. He could not but be aware that lofty as his position was, it was the brink of a precipice that he stood upon. Still he shut his eyes in a great measure to his danger and went blindly on. The catastrophe, which came very suddenly at last, will form the subject of the next chapter.

The Fate of Messalina

A.D. 48

Silius forms a scheme for making himself emperor.

A s  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.

He proposes his plan 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's reply.
Her motives.
Her proposal.

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.

Audacity of Messalina in this proposal.

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 false marriage is celebrated.

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.

Indignation of the emperor's friends.

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.

Plot formed for Messalina's destruction.

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.

Plans and arrangements of the conspirators.

The great object of the hostility of these men, seems to have been Silius, rather than Messalina. This, in fact, would naturally besupposed 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.

Their hesitation.
Motives addressed to her.

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 and Cleopatra undertake their task.

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.

Messalina's festival in the palace gardens.

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.

Messalina in the Garden.Messalina in the Garden.
Calpurnia's interview with Claudius at Ostia.

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 is exceedingly terrified.

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.

The statement of Narcissus.

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."

Council called.
Measures adopted by Claudius and the conspirators.

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 stupidamazement, 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.

Messalina receives warning.
Scene in the garden.

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 withdraws.
Messalina's anxiety.
Messalina's course of action.
Her two children.

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.

She proceeds to meet the emperor.

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.

Her entreaties.
Claudius will not hear her.
Vibidia repulsed.

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.

Claudius at supper.
Messalina's letter.
Claudius relents.

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.

Alarm of Narcissus.
Narcissus orders Messalina to be slain.

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.

Interview between Messalina and her mother in the garden.

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 officerwho 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.

Indifference of Claudius in respect to Messalina's fate.

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.

Claudius marries Agrippina.

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.

Adoption of her son.

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.