I read this courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. It’s out in May 2023.
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.