|(detail from Death of Messalina by Georges Rochegrosse)|
Being married off to your ugly, fifty-year-old second cousin when you're fifteen is not fun. There were a few perks to marrying Claudius, mainly becoming Empress of the Roman Empire when I was twenty one, but really! It was ridiculous for everyone to expect me to stay with that stammering, cowardly, ancient idiot. Even though the senate offered me the title of Augusta, Claudius turned it down and Messalina Augusta has such a lovely ring to it! I've been so good to him, providing him with an heir, our son Britannicus, and yet he never did anything to quash the salacious rumours, although not entirely unfounded, that made me the subject public mockery.
Luckily for me though, I've always been able to sway him easily to exile or execute people who might pose a threat to the succession to the throne of our little Britannicus when Claudius finally packs it in. However, during last year's Secular Games, Agrippina decides to show up. Of course she just has to bring little Nero, who is very mean to my son, barging into his horse during the boys' Troy Game (I hate to think what he'll be like when he grows up) and they stole all of my – I, I mean Britannicus' spotlight. Although I do have an impressive line-up of Imperial ancestors, I am not descended directly from Augustus and although her pedigree is definitely not obvious (you should see her: crudely slurping mulsum like a common plebeian!) Agrippina is. This meant she could have been competition. Naturally, I did what any ambitious mother would do, I sent assassins to poison Nero, but that didn't work.
Whilst my situation with Agrippina was getting worse and worse something happened that forced all my problems out of my besotted mind. I met Silius (cue dreamy sigh). Good-looking, dignified, smart: he was perfect. Oh, apart from his wife, but I soon sorted that out (cue forced divorce). Desperate for his love, I showered him with every gift known to man or God. Slaves, canonizing him emotionally and officially, magnificent statues! I can see know that I bought his 'love' and that no one would ever love me, not even my mother, who is now trying to persuade me to kill myself. How nice.
Claudius had to go to Ostia for one boring function or another a few days ago and after comparing him, a feeble, slimy (quite literally; he has the disgusting habit of drooling) old fool, to Silius, a prestigious and highly attractive man, I had to escape. I got married. It was absolutely crazy, but I did. Just like that! Boom! Married! To Silius, which in effect meant I was divorcing Claudius, a dangerous move, I should have had the foresight to realise. I got too caught up. In the impassioned-red flammeum, Silius' crooked grin, in the rude songs sang jauntily by complete strangers who thankfully but unbelievably didn't recognise me as they walked beside us and in the desire I felt to get away from Claudius permanently. But the thrill was disastrously ephemeral.
I found out during my wedding that my own men, my friends and my assistants in the schemes to make Britannicus' accession smooth and simple, had betrayed me. They ran off to Claudius and told him everything. When I heard I panicked, realising the danger I had selfishly put my family in and, taking my children with me, I travelled to Ostia on the back of wagon. It was hardly fit for a slave, let alone an Empress and the young future Emperor and crowds gathered along the Via Ostiense to vulgarly jeer at us. I expected and wanted Silius to follow me, declaring that he'd protect me and that we could run away to a distant province. But he didn't...
I caught sight of Claudius' returning company. By the angry blaze in his usually dull, watery eyes I knew that all my efforts to persuade him that I was innocent in any apparent crimes were to be in vain, but I had to try. I reiterated over and over that I was the mother of his children, whom I knew he would never harm, and at first I thought I had succeeded in influencing him into forgiveness because instead of flying into a rage as I thought he would, he remained calm, sitting in his lectica. He should have been riding a horse like any dignified, powerful Emperor would instead of reclining in a gilded litter, being carried by slaves. He posed an unthreatening sight, if it wasn't for the fury in his eyes, the like of which I had never seen in the usually insipid, impervious man. He didn't bellow at me; he didn't order a guard to strike me down; he just ordered me, in a measure voice, to await a hearing with him at the Gardens of Lucullus.
He probably sent me here as a reminder of all the allegedly punishable things I've done in my all too short life. I couldn't resist these magical pleasure gardens -1 had to have them for my own. Silius helped me force t|ieir owner, Asiaticus, an ex-consul and friend of Claudius, to commit suicide. I suppose that may have been a little extreme, but this vast oasis of serenity was so appealing to me: a place of excitement, beauty and happiness in a life that was full of shameful scandals and empty of love and compassion. Flowers bloom with the thought of adoration and devotion, fountains pour hope and dazzling, brightly painted frescos were bursting with the buzz of wonder encircling the natural universe, full of so many creatures that my problems seemed insignificant.
Before, as I walked in the gardens, its beauty reflected onto all the surroundings and occupants, making them too angelically radiant. Today it is still a beautiful place, but in contrast everything looks dull and dismal, especially now that I know my audience with Claudius will never come. In the atrium I can hear my mother, who has returned to be with me after many years apart, meeting two officials sent from my husband. She warned me that executioners would come. I will die with dignity. I will not give Claudius the pleasure of hearing that I begged to for his mercy. My mother's advice was that I kill myself, but I can't... I can't bring myself to tear open my delicate porcelain skin and watch the issuing blood stain my life until there is none left.
The two men have come in now. The youngest, shortest one is shouting at me, screaming that when I die no one will remember or miss me and that I will be subjected to damnatio memoriae. He is throwing disgusting names at me, but there is no use in crying or retaliating. All I can do is stare blankly at him as a shrink slowly down the wall, hoping to fall into nothingness. The large officer grabs me and drags me to the centre of the atrium by my long obsidian hair so my head is hovering over the impluvium. In the reflection of the water I can see my dappled face, my beauty distorted with my fear, for my children and for Silius, although I know deep down that he won't care about my fate. My mother is quietly chanting a prayer in a choked voice whilst the man standing beside me draws his gladius. The smell of flowers permeates the room, but the sweet fragrance is masked by the cruel occasion. The stone floor is cold beneath my knees and my mouth is dry. I close my eyes and bow my head, in preparation, not in prayer, for no God could save me now. My mother's chanting stops. I hear the swing of a sword.