Messalina and the Overthrow Hypothesis

Nov 2016
1,606
Germany
When she married Silius without being formally divorced from Claudius, had Messalina actually planned a coup d'état, as some sources suggest? Had it at all been a real wedding ceremony or just a lavish engagement party?

Tacitus describes the events during the ceremony in Annals XI, section 31. As is well known, Messalina had been dotty about "most beautiful man of Rome", the designated consul Caius Silius, and celebrated the said feast with him in late autumn of the year 48, which she survived by only a few hours, as she was executed in the gardens of Lucullus at the instigation of Narcissus and on the orders of Emperor Claudius.

Historians such as Tacitus, Sueton and Cassius Dio take as her motive a conspiracy with the aim of pushing Claudius from the throne and establishing Silius as the new ruler. In his Claudius novel, Ranke-Graves even speculates that Messalina was aiming for a return to the Republic.

Tacitus lets the imperial 'minister' Narcissus speak like this to Claudius in section 30:

"Do you know," he said "of your divorce? The people, the army, the Senate saw the marriage of Silius. Act at once, or the new husband is master of Rome."

In Cassius Dio, in 60, 31, 5:

And by frightening him (= Claudius) with the idea that Messalina was going to kill him and set up Silius as ruler in his stead, he (= Narcissus) persuaded him to arrest and torture a number of persons.

The basic idea is that Britannicus, Messalina's son, who was 8 years old at that time (with Claudius as father), could have been adopted by Silius and set up as the legitimate successor of Claudius, with Silius and Messalina representing him as regent until he came of age.

However, modern historians do not seem to be completely convinced of Messalina's coup ambitions. In the Messalina article of German Wikipedia it says (translated from German):

Moreover, although the couple apparently could not keep their adventurous wedding secret, they had not taken any precautions for the necessary consequences resulting from it. So it seems that they had not planned any actual conspiracy to eliminate Claudius, or at least taken measures to protect themselves from the expected revenge of the emperor, but had married without much thought for the future.

In Jacques Robichon's biography of Nero one reads that "some historians claim that the shameful wedding (...) was organized and instigated in all parts by the imperial freedmen" (translated from German).

This refers to Claudius' closest advisors Narcissus and Pallas. Their motives could have been the fear of being eliminated by Messalina, who was already responsible for a considerable death list, in case Claudius lost power in any way, so that they wanted to preempt the presumed danger and dig a pit into which Messalina was to fall.

The hypothetical overthrow could be imagined in such a way that the powerful Praetorian Guard, who had already proclaimed Claudius emperor, could have taken Silius' side, which would have meant the end for Claudius. Their leader at that time was Lucius Geta, actually an intimate of Claudius, but he was considered by the freedmen as unpredictable and a potential supporter of Silius and Messalina. He was obligated and loyal to Messalina (she was the reason why he had come into office) and could have effectively supported a change of government.

So how do we assess all this? Did the ancient historians Tacitus and Dio exaggerate when they imputed a plan of rebellion to Messalina?


(Messalina & Britannicus, 1st century CE, Louvre)
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Last edited:
Oct 2018
2,092
Sydney
It's an interesting topic, and unfortunately the surviving testimony on Messalina is laden with caricature - Roman senators, those who wrote the histories, did not have a good opinion of women exercising real power, and Claudius' reign was characterized by the power wielded by Messalina and Agrippina (as well as his freedmen).

Looking at the event itself, I agree that if it was a coup it was poorly executed. Perhaps they believed that Geta and his men would rush to their support, but they had evidently not secured their support prior to the feast. I'd be interested to read more about this idea that Narcissus and Pallas instigated the wedding. While I agree that they had motive, to play any hand in setting up her union with Silius would have been an incredibly risky move, one that Messalina could have used against them when she met Claudius on the road with her children and Vestal Virgin in tow.

I think it's Richard Alston who suggested that Messalina may have felt driven to act against Claudius because of the growing influence of Agrippina the Younger, who around this time became an ally of Pallas. Although she was Claudius' niece, Agrippina was a very desirable wife by virtue of her pedigree. She was the daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, the granddaughter of Agrippa, and the great-granddaughter of Augustus. Messalina was the great-granddaughter of Marc Antony and Octavia. She couldn't provide the dynastic legitimacy that Agrippina could (Claudius was a Claudian, but he wasn't a Julian). It is likely for this reason that Claudius honoured his new wife Agrippina as Augusta, the third woman to receive this honour (after Livia and Antonia the Younger). Agrippina thus endangered Messalina's standing as wife of the emperor, and she also endangered the succession of her son Britannicus, since Agrippina had a son in Nero. Indeed, as time would have it, Nero was propped up as heir apparent alongside Britannicus and then succeeded Claudius in place of Britannicus, killing him soon afterwards. So perhaps Messalina, like many other queens and empresses, was driven to protect the future of her progeny.

Nevertheless, it's worth bearing in mind that, whether Messalina intended a coup or not, the marriage/engagement effectively amounted to one in the eyes of the Romans. To marry the wife of the emperor was a challenge against Claudius, since it lent dynastic legitimacy to the husband. The fact that Messalina gave Silius Julio-Claudian heirlooms as wedding gifts only strengthened this impression.
 
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