Solimena here represents the murder of Messalina, third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who had a reputation for promiscuity. Though the emperor forgave Messalina’s adultery, others saw this as a weakness, and a Roman officer ordered her assassination. The dynamic composition illustrates the moment in which a soldier thrusts a sword toward the frightened empress, who grasps his arm in a helpless attempt to fend off the attack.
This may be the only painted representation of the death of Messalina, a story from the Annals of Tacitus. The subject provided Solimena with an opportunity to engage with a dramatic narrative, whose intensity he heightened by illuminating the figures in the darkness with stark, white light and painting them on a monumental scale. According to his eighteenth-century biographer, Bernardo de' Dominici (1683–1759), Solimena painted this subject for a series of five canvases of historical and mythological subjects for the Procurator Canale in Venice.