A God In Colchester
Themes of sex and murder stalk each other throughout I, Claudius — so, while Zeus, by Jove! features the goriest death of the series (Drusilla) in an intimate bedroom setting, A God in Colchester rewards the orchestrator of its most gratuitous sex scenes, Messalina, with a dramatic beheading.
Once part of Caligula’s performing circle of hedonism-loving hangers-on, Messalina lucked into a perfectly timed random whim of the previous emperor. So, even if her marriage to the much-older Claudius was an unavoidable farce for both, one can easily argue that Claudius should have known not to put deep trust in someone from his mad nephew’s good times crew. But trust her Claudius does, and thus, Messalina becomes the second-most-interesting female character in the whole series, after Livia. In fact, the scrapped 1937 film version of I, Claudius slimmed down its story to make Merle Oberon’s Messalina the would-be marketing centerpiece for the film in America — with Oberon’s car accident injuries triggering the film’s demise, do to an inability to replace her with another Messalina possessing equivalent popularity among filmgoers.
25 year-old Sheila White does an admirable job with the teenage role of Messalina. A teenager herself when she scored a speaking/singing supporting role in 1968 film, Oliver!, White was already seasoned enough to shift effortlessly between Messalina’s multiple faces — from gentle blameless wife for Claudius, to bitchslap-dispensing blackmailer, to measured backroom temptress, to uninhibited bedroom athlete. It’s in bed with her actor lover, Mnester that Messalina describes what drives her dangerous sexual dalliances:
Messalina: “When I make love, I reach for something that men never dream of.”
Mnester: “Oh? What’s that?”
Messalina: “I don’t know. But it’s there. Always just out of reach. Sometimes I feel as if I could take on the whole of Rome in a night, and be no worse for it in the morning.”
After avoiding blame for her lust-driven blackmailing of Silanus that led to his attempt on Claudius’ life, Messalina is emboldened to press her luck much, much further while her emperor husband is away for six months, battling King Caractacus to secure a difficult reconquest of Britain. Messalina decides to break up her boredom from the monotony of a succession of individual affairs by challenging the President of the Guild of Prostitutes, Scylla (“They say she boards a ship at Ostia, works the whole crew, and then walks off steadier than any one of them”) to a tournament of sex (dubbing it, “The Interminable versus The Inexhaustible”) to see which woman can “wear out the most men,” before they exhaust themselves. Messalina wins handily, and then sets her sights on seducing the handsome consul-elect, Gaius Silius. The two fall in love, and soon begin to plot the overthrow of Claudius.
When Claudius returns to Rome, he continues to be ignorant of Messalina’s numerous adulteries — due, in part, to the distraction of a deeply upsetting situation unfolding in the eastern empire. Claudius receives word that his last surviving trusted friend, Herod Agrippa, has made a move to seize Roman provinces. Claudius also learns that Herod has built an armed coalition around the belief that he is the Jewish messiah (with Claudius informed in a report of Jesus’ candidacy for that title) — moving the Roman emperor to finally declare that he is ready to act.
There is no doubt in my mind. My friend, Herod believes himself to be this messiah — and worse, many others believe him to be this messiah. His intentions are clear. Born on this great wave of religious fanaticism, he intends to free the east from the dominion of Rome. He intends to make war on us. Narcissus is right, if we don’t move quickly, Herod will seize the eastern empire, and we shall lose Egypt. My friend has become my enemy.
However, just as quickly as the crisis arises, it soon abates — with news that Herod has succumbed to a mysterious and painful death. Accompanying that news, Claudius receives a final written message from his dying traitorous friend:
My body is full of maggots. Forgive me. Forgive your old friend who loved you dearly, but who secretly plotted to take the East away from you. I have failed. I played too dangerous a game. Little marmoset, you are a fool, but I envy you your folly. Do not weep for me. My punishment is just. I have offended against the only living god. Farewell my friend, whom I love more truly than you suppose. Farewell little marmoset, my schoolfellow. And trust no one — No one.
True to that warning, Messalina secretly marries Silius — their raucous wedding party a public signal of confidence that Claudius has been isolated enough from power for them to seize it (or as Narcissus puts it, “a public declaration that the emperor’s wife has abandoned him as being too old, too corrupt, and too stupid any longer to govern Rome”). At the last moment, though, Claudius’ two bickering advisors Narcissus and Pallas (the latter, the “most grateful freedman” Herod foretold not to trust) enlist the help of the emperor’s prostitute confidant, Calpurnia to convince him of Messalina’s would-be coup. Convinced, Claudius sends soldiers to arrest the conspirators. However, fearing Messalina’s power over Claudius (and her want for deadly revenge, should she manipulate a pardon), Narcissus and Pallas manipulate their very drunk and upset emperor into signing his wife’s death warrant just before he passes out.
In her final scene, Messalina is urged by her mother to commit suicide by dagger, rather than suffer beheading by sword. When the empress fails to summon the nerve to stab herself, a Praetorian grabs her by the hair (as she shrieks, vainly, “Not my head! Not my head!”), while another soldier decapitates her (signaled by a spinning camera move that settles back on a hungover Claudius). When the emperor is told of his wife’s death (by his order), the camera holds on his face as it breaks into tears — Cassius Chaerea’s final warning about imperial death sentences likely echoing in his head.