Messalina was the third wife of the Emperor Claudius and one of the most notorious women of the Roman world. Historians Tacitus and Suetonius wrote that the Empress Messalina was ‘a ruthless and sexually insatiable schemer.’ 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 is her story more complex?
In June 2023 classicist Honor Cargill-Martin came to Intelligence Squared to reveal the truth about arguably one of the most slandered and underestimated female figures of ancient history. She described 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, Cargill-Martin argued that Messalina’s story encapsulates the cut-throat political maneuvering and excessive lifestyle of the Roman elite in their heyday.