A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery
by Honor Cargill-Martin
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Pub Date 11 May 2023 | Archive Date 12 Jun 2023
Head of Zeus, Apollo
This is the story of Messalina – third wife of Emperor Claudius and one of the most notorious women to have inhabited the Roman world.
The scandalous image of the Empress Messalina as a ruthless and sexually insatiable schemer, derived from the work of Roman historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius, has taken deep root in the Western imagination. The stories they told about her included nightly visits to a brothel and a twenty-four-hour sex competition with a prostitute. Tales like these have defined the empress's legacy, but her real story is much more complex.
In her new life of Messalina, the classicist Honor Cargill-Martin reappraises one of the most slandered and underestimated female figures of ancient history. Looking beyond the salacious anecdotes, she finds a woman battling to assert her position in the overwhelmingly male world of imperial Roman politics – and succeeding. Intelligent, passionate, and ruthless when she needed to be, Messalina's story encapsulates the cut-throat political manoeuvring and unimaginable luxury of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in its heyday.
Cargill-Martin sets out not to 'salvage' Messalina's reputation, but to look at her life in the context of her time. Above all, she seeks to reclaim the humanity of a life story previously circumscribed by currents of high politics and patriarchy.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 30 members
Messalina. The "Whore Empress". Synonymous with sex; a nymphomaniac.
Unlike our women of myth - our Medusa's, Medea's and Ariadne's - Messalina was a real woman of Ancient Rome. The wife of the Emperor Claudius, she is an early example of a woman whose reputation was destroyed both by her [relative] contemporaries and later 'historians' who chose the most scandalous descriptions of her as a lesson in how desire and sex will corrupt a woman and those around her.
Messalina is no longer a person, but an object. A fable.
This book provides a reset. Honor looks at what evidence we *actually* have about Messalina, and considers this in the social, political and relational context of the time period. This is an intelligent, balanced take on Messalina; whilst some assumptions need to be made (on Messalina's death, the Senate implemented a damnatio memoriae - removing all traces of her existance - somewhat similar to what happened to Hatshepsut in Ancient Egypt), Honor looks in-depth at why she may or may not have done certain things.
This is not a feminist retelling - Messalina is not the hero of this story. She strove for political power and was not afraid to kill for it. Did she also kill her love rivals? Yes. It may sound simplistic, but Honor makes Messalina "human" again - someone can be smart AND emotional, driven AND reckless. We move away from the sensational stories, looking at the motives behind these both at the time and in the decades and centuries following her death. I found this book riveting; well-researched but not overly academic making it easy reading. An easy 5 stars for me.
3 .5 (rounded up)⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Thank you so much to Head of Zeus and NetGalley for an e-arc of this book.
I really enjoyed this book. I thought the tone the author chose and the language used was effective and engaging.
Like many books about women from the past I always find we end up granting about men more. But this isn’t a fault of the author-it’s that women’s lives just weren’t well recorded-even that of an empress. I will definitely be looking at some books from the bibliography to learn more.
It's incredibly hard to write modern biographies of ancient women. Not least because most ancient historians didn't care that much about women as individuals; they only mattered when they intersected with men (... not too different from many wikipedia entries today, actually), and also for Roman historians they were often used as literary devices - history writing being quite different in the first few centuries AD in Rome from what it is generally accepted to be in the West today. SO that leaves a serious paucity of information for the person who wants to write a serious biography of, say, Messalina. I have a fantastic biography of Agrippina the Younger on my shelf, which does a good job of trying to consider Agrippina as a person, rather than just a mother and/or power-mad; one of Theodora that is slightly less successful but made a valiant attempt. And now, at least, Messalina: a woman whose name has become a byword (and at one point medicalised) for the over-sexed and never-satisfied woman, whose sexual depravity was the source of her power, and whose only use of that power was evil.
I loved this biography a lot. Messalina was human! Who knew?
The author gives what I think is an excellent overview of the social and cultural and immediate historical situation in Rome in the early Julio-Claudian period, in particular looking at the ways in which expressions of and usage of power had been altered with the change (albeit begrudgingly accepted) from republic to empire. And the point is to situate Messalina within that. (Had I completely forgotten just how illustrious her lineage was? Oh yes. Perhaps I never really knew - descended from Mark Antony! And from Octavian/Augustus' sister! Very impressive.)
There's a good attempt at reconstructing just what sort of thing Messalina was doing after Claudius became emperor, as well as logical (rather than misogynistic) rationale for it: like she's shoring up her own power base, and that of Claudius, and that of her son. The arguments here are persuasive, although of course we'll never know. I particularly liked that Cargill-Martin never tries to completely purify Messalina: did she have affairs? Possibly; maybe even probably! Were other women doing so? yes. Could there actually be political as well as passionate reasons for doing so? Absolutely. Was it possible for Messalina to both want to have sex AND be a political actor? WHY YES, IT WAS.
Basically I think this is the sort of (properly) revisionist history that a nuanced understanding of women in history enables. Messalina can be treated as a human, as a worthy subject for serious history: she made mistakes, she made what we would think of today as some poor choices, she was constrained by her historical context, and she really didn't deserve the way that last 2000 years have treated her. Especially Juvenal's poetry; he can go jump.
Highly recommended particularly to anyone interested in early Roman empire history, or women's history.
Very well written, easy to read & page turner.
Thank you to the publishers and Netgalley for the ARC.
A feminist take on one of the most 'notorious' women in history who the author feels was painted as one-dimensional rather than given a fuller explanation. I've read both Tacitus and Suetonius and never felt that Messalina was given a bad rep. I understand that part of her historical punishment was because of her sexual liberation, and sadly this tends to happen a lot in historical accounts of women (Catherine of Medici, for example), but I don't believe it is because Mesallina lived during literal patriarchy, I think she was probably very difficult and made awful choices and conducted herself as the Roman equivalent of an 'It girl'. Living at a time where cancel culture could mean a sword to the wrist and your whole line wiped out. At least Medeci's political and personal decisions changed history and have longevity. Mesallina is best known for a 24-hour sex party.
Attempting to reinvent Messalina was cleverly done by the author and she clearly knows her Classical stuff! 4 stars and I certainly recommend this read if you enjoy historical books that entertain and inform (sans the stodge).
Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC.
I loved this exploration of Messelina! We all know the gossip thats been recorded a history but it was refreashing to get this take on her, a take of her.
The ancient myths, classics and historical people have made a huge impact in the last few years on book shelfs and i'm excited to see what this authors next project will be!
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an e-ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All view are my own.