Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery by Honor Cargill-Martin - review by Bijan Omrani

Bijan Omrani

More Defamed Than Debauched

Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery


Head of Zeus 402pp £27.99

I can well remember my first encounter with Empress Messalina as a schoolboy classicist. One moment we were innocently learning about the finer points of Latin grammar; the next we were reading goggle-eyed about the antics of Messalina, third wife of the hapless Emperor Claudius, disguising herself with a blonde wig to indulge in all-night contests of sexual stamina with prostitutes in a seamy Roman brothel. As a reward for the slog of getting through Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer, these were riches indeed.

Her appeal, however, has not been limited to schoolboy classicists. Roman historians portrayed her as an archetype of unrestrained sensuality. She was the meretrix augusta, the ‘whore empress’: a prisoner to unbounded lust, so ruled by her immediate passions that she was incapable of decent or rational behaviour.

Juvenal depicts her reeling home from the sex contests, worn out but still unsatisfied, returning with ‘her brothel odour’ to the ‘bed of the god-emperor’. Tacitus and Suetonius compiled lists of her adulteries, jealousies and killings, often of senators or members of the imperial family. She arranged the execution of one distinguished consul on trumped-up charges so she could acquire his opulent gardens. Her lovers ranged from blue-blooded aristocrats to actors and other dregs of Roman society. She even seemingly celebrated a bigamous wedding (accompanied, naturally, with a Dionysiac orgy) with a rival to the throne while Claudius was out of Rome – a piece of recklessness that led to her execution.

With such a life story, it is little wonder that she has long been a favourite of writers, artists and dyspeptic moralists. The 12th-century cleric Honorius of Autun complained that the nuns of his day were behaving more like Messalina than the Virgin Mary. Her insatiability fascinated Baudelaire. She

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