Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse’s “The Death of Messalina” (1916) is one of those paintings you really need to see in person to appreciate. Your eyes need to be able to focus on the various components separately — the anger of the soldier as he grips her hair, the patrician’s douchebro smirk as he grips the execution order, the way the soldiers stand like an audience at an outdoor theater, how the only other woman (also the largest figure, dressed in black in contrast to the patrician’s white toga) is also the only one not watching.
Messalina (c. 17/20–48), third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, whom she married at 15, is infamous in history for her insatiable promiscuity, ruthless persecution of rivals — particularly other women in her family — and for her ability to manipulate her husband.
If the historical sources are to be believed, Messalina had Senator Appius Silanus killed simply because he spurned her advances, choosing instead to remain faithful to his wife. Messalina conspired with a freedman, Narcissus, where both separately reported to Emperor Claudius that they’d had a dream about Silanus in which he tried to kill the emperor. Seeing this as evidence of portent, Claudius had the man arrested when he innocently showed up later that day, presumably summoned by the Empress.
Messalina reportedly had one of her husband’s secretaries poisoned after she became bored with him as a lover and wouldn’t suffer the risk that he might reveal their dalliance in the future. She had another lover, Publius Suillius Rufus, prosecute a fellow senator on charges of “failing to maintain discipline amongst his soldiers, adultery, and engaging in homosexual acts,” supposedly because he offended her.
(Contemporary propaganda sometimes suggests homosexuality was practiced openly and freely in the pre-Christian world. The truth is significantly more complicated.)
But Messalina seems to have reserved her deepest animosity for her niece by marriage, Agrippina the Younger, whom she persecuted for years because Agrippina’s son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (later the emperor Nero), received more applause at the public games than her own son, Britannicus.
The persecutions only ended when Messalina became distracted by a new lover, which was to be her downfall. Messalina became so infatuated with the man, Gaius Silius, a famously attractive consul-designate, that she married him when Claudius was away.
Her reasons are not well understood. The freedman Narcissus, with whom Messalina had conspired before, told the Emperor that this was the beginning of a plot to replace him.
The painting above depicts Messalina’s execution for the crime, although of course it did not happen this way. In fact, according to our sources, Claudius was not at first inclined to kill his wife. It was Narcissus, pretending to carry orders from the Emperor, who ordered the Praetorians to execute her. In that way, she may simply have been outwitted to her death as she’d done to so many others before.
Upon hearing the news that his wife had been killed, the Emperor apparently showed no reaction, but simply ordered another glass of wine.
In subsequent generations, Messalina became the archetype of the wanton and destructive woman. However, we have reason to doubt almost all of what comes down to us.
Two of our biggest sources, Tacitus and Suetonius, wrote 70 years after the events in an age generally hostile to that entire imperial line, in much the same way that the Tudors did everything they could to smear Richard III — posthumously awarding him a physical deformity (a hunchback) and telling everyone that he killed his own nephews, the rightful heirs, none of which was true.
(I’ve mentioned before, Richard was actually G.R.R. Martin’s inspiration for Ned Stark, the man who is noble to a fault.)
We can similarly doubt Pliny the Elder, who reports in Book X of his Natural History that Messalina once engaged in a 24-hour sex competition with a famous prostitute and that she won by bringing a total of 25 men to climax.
Ridiculousness aside, it is highly unlikely that Messalina was virtuous or an innocent victim of history. She almost certainly took lovers outside her marriage and almost certainly had people murdered for no good reason. In that way, she was no different than the rest of her entire family, which is why there was so much hostility toward them in the later empire.
Messalina’s cousin was the famously perverse Caligula, for example, and although it’s unlikely that her nephew Nero actually played the fiddle while Rome burned, that such a story comes down to us tells us much about what people thought of him.
It’s hard to say Messalina has suffered any worse at the hands of history than her male peers, almost all of whom are remembered as weak or vile. Yet, there’s certainly no question that for Europeans of the Christian era, Messalina’s purported sexual perversions, however much they actually existed, are relished as an abomination.
“To call a woman ‘a Messalina’ indicates a devious and sexually voracious personality. The historical figure and her fate were often used in the arts to make a moral point, but there was often as well a prurient fascination with her sexually-liberated behavior. In modern times, that has led to exaggerated works which have been described as romps” [Wikipedia] where viewers are invited to shake their heads while secretly enjoying graphical depictions of her lascivious and immoral acts.
This painting is not one of those romps, but knowing now the background, note the peculiar savagery and satisfaction with which the men punish her. It’s almost pornographic.
And that’s really the point. It’s nothing Roman at all. It’s a reminder to women of the era in which this was painted, “This is what happens to you if you act as we do.”
And here you thought old art was all boring and shit.