Review: Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery by Honor Cargill-Martin

Posted April 10, 2023 by Stephanie in 5 Stars, biography, History, Nonfiction, Review / 16 Comments

Title: Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery
Author: Honor Cargill-Martin
Publication: 11 May 2023 by Head of Zeus
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Find it on: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Waterstones
Rating: 5/5★

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.


“Following her execution the empress suffered damnatio memoriae; her name was chiselled off monuments, her statues were destroyed and her reputation was rendered unprotected. Left to do their worst, male historians, poets, even scientists, had a field day, accusing Messalina of adultry, greed, prostitution, bigamy and murder and working through anxieties about women’s morality and power in the process.”

This book is a biography about Messalina, the third wife of Roman Emperor Claudius. Valeria Messalina was born into the infamous Julio-Claudian dynasty. She was a great-grandniece of Emperor Augustus, second cousin of Emperor Caligula and cousin of Emperor Nero. She was married to her husband for about two years before Caligula got murdered and Claudius got proclaimed Emperor by the Praetorian Guard. And that’s the setting where Messalina came to power in ancient Rome.

Thousands of years later the world has come to know Messalina with a nymphomaniacal reputation and is known as the “whore Empress”. Luckily these days books like this one are being written and published that digs into the slander that political rivals and Roman historians fabricated because powerful women scared the shit out of them. I’m not saying Messalina was an innocent person because we can’t actually know what rumours about her were actually true. And let’s be real, she was born as I said before, into the Julio-Claudian dynasty and lived through the turbulous (to say the least…) reign of Caligula only to, as the wife of Claudius, to become empress when she was barely 20 (maybe less, depending on her birth year). I can’t imagine how intense and crazy that must’ve been for her. She got rid of anyone who she perceived as her rival to ensure the continued to hold on to the power she had acquired.

“The feminine ideal in the ancient world was quiet, unassuming and private; in the Greek courts merely naming a woman in a public speech was tantamount to calling her a whore.”

I absolutely couldn’t put this book down. Like seriously. It was such a fascinated read and I was so hooked by how the author told Messalina’s story and in turn about this particular era in the Roman Empire. I knew about Messalina before, of course, but never had read a book about her or had any in-depth information about her like I did with this book. Which instantly makes Honor Cargill-Martin already an auto-buy author of mine that I hope to read more about in the future. I just really want more books about ancient women written by women.

Ancient Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius were definitely slanderous about Messalina which ruined her reputation for sure (even though it seems like she was pretty popular with the regular people of rome) but what surprised me the most about this book was how much early modern to modern literature, opera, film and other media also contributed to Messalina’s bad reputation. This was also highly interesting to read about, I must say, because I didn’t have any idea about all of that. This shouldn’t have been so surprised because we all know that history isn’t kind to authoriative women in power.

The image of Messalina as a slave to her passions is not rooted in the evidence; it is a projection, born of men’s fear of female power and fuelled by the rumours that would soon start to swirl about her sex life.

Would I recommend Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery? Hell yes! The writing was wonderful and not overly academic, which is very important to me. Obviously this was also very well-researched. Honor Cargill-Martin clearly knows what she is talking about as a classicist and she has already earned a spot on my auto-buy author list.



About the author:

A twenty-four year old from London, Honor read Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Oxford, where she won a scholarship before graduating with a first-class degree in 2019. She remained at Oxford to study for a masters degree in Greek and Roman History, graduating with a Distinction. Honor completed a second masters in the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute in London, where she was awarded a Distinction for work focusing on the art of the Italian – and especially the Venetian – Renaissance.

She is currently studying for a doctorate focusing on political sex scandals in Ancient Rome at Christ Church College Oxford.

Honor has published a number of fiction titles for children and teenagers.

Her first non-fiction book Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery tells the story of the 1st century AD Roman empress Messalina, and reflects Honor’s passion for bringing to light the untold lives of historical women and for unpicking how gender and sexuality shape how we understand history.


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16 responses to “Review: Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery by Honor Cargill-Martin

  1. Great review. The author seems very skilled in her subject and it is always a pleasure to read such historical non fiction. Furthermore, to know more about Messalina, which is a name that comes up from time to time, but you do not know so much about her. Will definitely go on my reading list.

  2. A fabulous review, Stephanie! I had heard of Messalina as the wicked wife to poor, misunderstood Claudius in Robert Graves’ highly readable duology about him. And then the good old BBC also continued in the wrecking of her reputation by televising the series in the 1970s – it’s a fabulous adaptation by the way… But I now would love to read this one – many thanks for having brought it to my attention:)).

  3. Oh, I heard about this book and was really interested in it, and your review just sold me completely that I just NEED to read this one! Fab review! Love that we are getting more books like this lately, not just stories about men in history, but also women!

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