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Empress, Adulteress, Libertine: The Story of the Most Notorious Woman of the Roman World

Published by Pegasus Books
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

The shocking and scandalous story of Messalina—the third wife of Emperor Claudius—one of the most controversial 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 to the test. She looks first at Messalina's life as it is recounted in the primary 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 memorialized 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 entirely rewrite 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.

About The Author

Honor Cargill-Martin is an author, classicist, and art historian from London. She read Classical Archeology and Ancient History at Oxford, winning a scholarship and graduating with a first-class degree in 2019. She has masters degrees in Greek and Roman history and Italian Renaissance Art. She is currently studying for a doctorate focusing on political sex scandals in Ancient Rome at Christ Church College Oxford. She has published a number of children’s fiction titles. Her biography of Messalina is her first non-fiction title. 


Product Details

  • Publisher: Pegasus Books (June 6, 2023)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781639363964

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Raves and Reviews

"Lively and sardonic. In Messalina, Honor Cargill-Martin looks at the limited evidence with empathy, arguing that a notorious empress was also a canny politician. Best of all, though lust and power will always be with us, Cargill-Martin doesn’t try to draw parallels with politics today."

New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice

“Honor Cargill-Martin’s book throws an academic bucket of cold water over steamy male fantasy. Cargill-Martin has attempted to rediscover Messalina, her endeavour part of a wider movement to give voice to the silent women of history and myth. I am all for this enterprise and this book is an erudite and entertaining example of the form. Splendid.”

The Times (London), "Book of the Week"

“As a doctoral student working on political sex scandals in ancient Rome, [Cargill-Martin] can handle the sources––and their endless problems––with sophistication, while keeping it palatable for the general reader. She guides us deftly through the warren of high politics and the famously confusing Julio-Claudian family tree. Her writing achieves a rare, old-fashioned, waspish elegance.”

The Sunday Telegraph

"Classicist Cargill-Martin reexamines the life of a notorious Roman empress in this vibrant tome. Cargill-Martin does an excellent job of bringing the tumult, intrigue, and danger of the Julio-Claudian dynasty to life, mining original sources to get to the heart of who this complicated woman was in the world in which she lived."

Booklist, starred review

“The book is a lesson in ancient Rome, but more interesting is what it says about misogyny, patriarchy, and how women get written in or out of history.”

New Statesman

"For all the tales of sexual jealousy, vicious retribution and (occasionally) genuine love, this is also a serious and substantial account of the political machinations of the Roman imperial court in the first half of the first century AD, from a very considerable scholar. It is full of personalities of whom few will have heard—Narcissus, Mnester, Silius—who play intriguing supporting roles in the story of Messalina, whose reputation as a nymphomaniac is rightly discounted, while her role as a serial murderer is persuasively underlined. It left me longing for the surely-inevitable Netflix series.”

Andrew Roberts, New York Times bestselling author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny and The Last King of America

"Brisk, fun and fascinating, this delicious debut is the perfect marriage of scholarship and wit."

Suzannah Lipscomb, host of Not Just the Tudors

“Written with poise, flair, and acute intelligence, brimming with passion and humor, Honor Cargill-Martin’s Messalina is more than just a corrective biography of a much-misunderstood woman. It is a tour de force, a captivating journey into the wild world of imperial Rome, and the most accomplished historical debut that I have read in years.”

Dan Jones, New York Times bestselling author

"Honor Cargill-Martin writes Messalina's story with a wonderful combination of passion and precision, in a book that reads like a thriller while delivering a nuanced examination of one woman and her many depictions. There was so much I enjoyed in this book - the sly humour, the burning sense of injustice, the colourful evocation of Pompeii's lupanar - but the most powerful element was the quiet devastation in H C-M's retelling of Messalina's end. This book will make you laugh and cry —and above all it will make you think."

Elodie Harper, author of The Wolf Den

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