Thursday, June 9, 2022

Jack Oleck’s Messalina

Jack Oleck’s 1959 novel Messalina belongs to a rather interesting sub-genre, a sub-genre we could perhaps call historical sleaze fiction. It’s historical fiction with the emphasis on sex, sin and scandal. Depending on how much trouble the author goes to to achieve a degree of historical accuracy it can be historical fiction with a large helping of sleaze or it can be sleaze fiction with a vague historical background. The most important thing is that the result should be trash of the very best sort, entertaining trash.

The obvious starting point for such a novel is to pick a notorious woman of history. If the author’s particular field of interest is Roman history that’s pretty easy. There were plenty of notorious Roman women. And the ancient historians who provide our main source of information about the period very often had a tase for sex and scandal. You can accuse the Romans of many things but you can’t accuse them of sugar-coating their own history. Roman historians tended to give us warts-and-all accounts of the great figures in their history.

The most notorious of all Roman women was possibly Messalina, the third wife of the Emperor Claudius. She married him in 38AD, three years before he became emperor. Accrdig to the accounts that have survived Messalina was was a ruthless schemer and was promiscuous to a degree that staggers the imagination. According to Pliny the Elder Messalina challenged Rome’s most famous prostitute of the time to a competition to see which of them could take on the most men in a single night. The Empress won easily, which led the exhausted Scylla to speculate that perhaps a certain intimate portion of the Empress’s anatomy was made of old army boots.

There is of course no such thing as an unbiased historian but in the modern era the idea took root that historians should at least make an attempt to be objective. The trouble with the Roman historians is that they made no attempt whatsoever to write unbiased history. And it’s a particular problem when it comes to the first of the imperial dynasties, the Julio-Claudian dynasty (from the time Augustus achieved supreme power after the battle of Actium in 30BC to the death of Nero in 68AD). The accounts of the reigns of these emperors are extraordinarily biased and Messalina’s evil reputation may have been mostly based on propaganda put about by her political enemies. So it’s quite possible that Messalina’s reputation as the “imperial harlot” is mostly, or even entirely, undeserved.

But the scandalous accounts of her life make a great story and one that is perfectly suited to the historical sleaze sub-genre.

At the beginning of Oleck’s book Messalina is fifteen. Her scheming mother Domitia Lepida has big plans for her but is worried about the awakening of Messalina’s sexuality. She worries that sooner or later Messalina will find a man with whom to explore her growing interest in sex which could lead her to become involved in an unsuitable relationship. Domitia Lepida comes up with a brilliant idea. She’ll get one of the household slaves, a seventeen-year-old Jewish lad named Isaac, to pleasure her daughter. After the slave has satisfied Messalina’s lusts he can be quietly disposed of. When Messalina requires further satisfaction for her sexual urges that will be no problem. The family owns plenty of slaves. Isaac duly carries out his part of the plan, and Messalina thoroughly enjoys herself. The second part of the plan, the disposal of Isaac, goes badly wrong.

Messalina’s family is related to the imperial family. One of the cronies of Messalina’s father Messala is Claudius. Claudius is widely regarded as a bit of a fool but he is the uncle of the emperor (Caligula). And when Claudius gets a glimpse of Messalina’s nude body he is clearly impressed.

Her night of passion with Isaac has momentous consequences. It puts her in a dangerous position and to extricate herself from that danger she has to marry Claudius. The marriage turns out reasonably well. Claudius is devoted to her and he is indulgent. He causes no real difficulties about her numerous lovers as long as she is discreet, and in her own way she is oddly fond of Claudius. And a couple of years later, against all the odds and in unexpected circumstances, Claudius becomes emperor. Being empress suits Messalina very well.

She is not always quite a discreet as she should be but she becomes adept at the game of imperial intrigue. Even before Claudius becomes emperor, during the reign of Caligula, she is able to dispose of a number of people who were possible threats, or possible obstacles, to her.

Oleck makes a genuine attempt to provide Messalina with fairly convincing motivations for her actions. Sometimes it’s lust, sometimes it’s revenge, sometimes it’s just a taste for the exercise of power. Sometimes it’s something else - a kind of emptiness inside her. No matter how many men share her bed she still feels vaguely dissatisfied emotionally. At times he doesn’t quite understand herself, or understand what it is that she craves. She may be monstrous at times but Oleck tries to make her a comprehensible monster. It’s also clear that she lives in a dangerous world. If you don’t learn to scheme you won’t survive.

Unfortunately there’s just a bit of a moralistic tone. Like most accounts of Messalina’s life this is a hatchet job and in the novel she sometimes comes across as too wicked to be convincing. Oleck tries to explain the reasons for her outlook on life but sometimes it just doesn’t provide a believable motivation for her actions. At times she’s just being wicked because she’s a wicked woman and wicked women do wicked things. Especially towards the end we’re expected to believer that she’s a self-centred crafty schemer and yet she’s doing things that are clearly against her own best interests.

The book takes a generally positive view of Claudius. For all his good nature he can be pretty sharp. Sometimes he seems unaware of things, but that’s usually because he has decided that it would be wisest to remain unaware of them. There are things about his wife that he needs to know, and there are other things about her that he needs not to know.

Historical fiction is always largely speculation and given how little we truly know about the ancient world an historical novel about Rome is bound to almost entirely speculation. The entire sub-plot involving Isaac, crucial to the novel, is pure invention. The author’s characterisations of Messalina and Claudius are largely speculative.

Of course the main objective is to provide us with a sex and sin extravaganza but while there’s plenty of sex it’s described in an extremely coy manner. It was 1959 after all. Given that the Roman historians weren’t the least bit coy about sex that’s a slight problem. The book needed a bit more spice.

Overall however it’s a reasonable amount of fun, an enjoyable enough Bad Girl story with a leavening of Roman decadence. Recommended because who doesn’t love Roman salaciousness and decadence?

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