The story of Messalina – third wife of Emperor Claudius and one of the most notorious women to have inhabited the Roman world.
The lubricious image of the Empress Messalina as a ruthless, predatory and sexually insatiable schemer, derived from the work of male historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius, has taken deep root in the Western imagination. Here, the classicist Honor Cargill-Martin puts this traditional narrative of Messalina on trial. She looks first at Messalina's life as it is recounted in the sources, before using material and circumstantial evidence to reconstruct each aspect of Messalina's character: politician, wife, adulteress and prostitute. Finally, she explores how posterity has memorialised Messalina, whether as artist's muse, epitome of depraved pagan womanhood, or as libertine icon portrayed in literature and film.
Cargill-Martin sets out not to rewrite entirely Messalina's history, or to salvage her reputation, but to look at her life in the context of her time and to reclaim the humanity of a life story previously defined by currents of high politics and patriarchy.