Messalina commits adultery with Silius

They call it a marriage.

The affair is revealed to Claudius.

Messalina drags the kids into it.

Narcissus acts.

Messalina is helped to die.


Summary of the story

Messalina, the wife of the emperor Claudius, fell in love with Gaius Silius, the consul designate, and began an affair with him. Although she conducted the affair quite openly, Claudius at first remained ignorant. After several months, Silius persuaded Messalina that they should be married, and, during Claudius’ absence from Rome, they celebrated a marriage ceremony. Claudius’ freedman, Narcissus, arranged for Claudius to be told about the marriage, then urged him to act quickly to prevent Silius taking control of Rome. When Messalina heard that Claudius had found out about her marriage to Silius and was on his way back to the city she decided to go to meet him and beg for forgiveness, but Narcissus intervened to prevent Claudius being won over by her pleas. Claudius proceeded to the camp of the Praetorian Guard and briefly addressed the troops, who called for the deaths of Silius and Messalina. Silius was condemned to death. Meanwhile Messalina had fled to the gardens of Lucullus. Narcissus was afraid that Claudius would relent and forgive Messalina, so he sent soldiers and one of his freedmen to kill her. They found her with her mother, Lepida, who was urging her to commit suicide, as the only honourable course of action left. Finally, she took the sword, but did not succeed in killing herself; she was killed by one of the soldiers. The affair between Messalina and Silius began in 47 AD and was brought to an end in the following year; more precise dating is not possible.

Tacitus and history

Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus was born in about 56 AD, possibly in Gaul. Like many high-ranking provincials, he came to Rome to pursue a political career. He was a member of the senate, became consul, and in 112-3 AD was governor of Asia. He died after 117 AD. Tacitus wrote two major historical works, the Annals and the Histories, in which he gave an account of the history of Rome from the accession of the emperor Tiberius to the death of Domitian (14-96 AD). About half of these works has survived. Tacitus’ account of the Julio-Claudian emperors has been known as the Annals (Latin Annales) only since the sixteenth century. Its original title was ab excessu divi Augusti (After the death of the divine Augustus). The title Annales is derived from the way Tacitus organised his material, describing all the events of each year before moving on to the next. This was a traditional Roman way of organising and writing history. Tacitus claims that he is impartial (sine īrā et studiō, ‘without indignation and partisanship’, Annals 1.1.3). The facts he reports are generally accurate, but he tends to emphasise the oppressive aspects of the imperial system and concentrate on the faults of the emperors. The Romans regarded history as a branch of literature. An historian was expected to tell a good story in a highly descriptive, dramatic and emotional style. It was accepted that he would invent speeches and elaborate on circumstantial detail. Tacitus wrote his history of the events of 59 AD in about 114 AD, over fifty years later. Although he had access to contemporary accounts and records, he does not give much information about his sources, and from the level of detail it is clear that there is a large amount of speculation and imagination.


Tacitus, Messalina: student resources

Title Type Filesize (MB)
Explore the Story Interactive text N/A
Student workbook text, translation 0.1