Thursday, May 24, 2012
Messalina, by Jack Oleck
July, 1960 Dell Books
Published in hardcover in 1959 and continuously in print for the next several years, Jack Oleck's Messalina is now long out of print and barely remembered. Yet it is historical fiction of the best sort: trashy, exploitative, packed with violence and sex. No "detectives in togas," no poorly-written military fiction, no thinly-veiled Christian glurge -- this is a full-on romp in the salacious world of Imperial Rome, more Technicolor than Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra.
Messalina recounts the tale of the real-life woman who married Claudius, the fourth emperor of Rome. She's known to history as a backstabbing schemer with an insatiable lust for sex, so don't go into this novel expecting a G-rated story of ancient Rome. Oleck takes us from her youth to her end, barring no details of her cold-blooded and predator-like ways: for Messalina, sex was a means to power, and boy did she know how to use it.
Within the first 60 pages Messalina has already caused a slave to be facially mutilated, the death of two men, and a Roman senator to be disgraced and publically ruined -- and she's still only 15 years old. Within a few more pages she's pregnant -- still only 15. And they say kids today grow up too fast. This is the type of ride Oleck takes us on, the kicker being that it's all cut straight out of history. Oleck changes a few things here and there, but for the most part he gives us a thorough retelling of this malicious and cunning woman.
Those who know Messalina's story will know what's missing -- namely, the all-night sex competition that, according to Pliny the Elder, Messalina once took part in with a prostitute. It goes unmentioned here, though Oleck does at one point state that various rumors are circulating about Messalina -- the implication being that this competition might be one of those rumors. There's also no acknowledgement of the young Nero, whom the real-life Messalina wanted dead, as she realized that he could one day become emperor rather than her son Germanicus.
A warning: Messalina will perhaps be the most unlikeable protagonist you ever encounter in a novel. She has no redeeming qualities. With cold detachment she plots and counterplots throughout the narrative, ruining lives, ordering deaths, toying with emotions. Even the two children she bears Claudius go unloved. Here Oleck veers from the historical record. For it's often speculated that Messalina's plotting was the result of her fear for her children's lives; anyone who knows Roman history knows that the children of the aristocracy always lived near death.
Messalina's children Octavia and Germanicus would be next on the kill-list if their father Claudius was murdered. In real life it seems that, when Messalina orchestrated various deaths and banishments, it was only of people she believed to pose a threat to her children. In many cases it seems her hunches were correct; Poppaea Sabina the elder was one of those whom Messalina had killed, and Poppaea's same-named daughter actually did cause the death of Messalina's daughter, many years later.
But in this novel, Messalina is self-centered to the fullest extent; all of her plotting and manipulating is for her own gain and no one else's. This makes her into such a hateable and loathsome character that you soon find yourself rooting against her, and when her end comes on the very last page you nearly toss the book aside with a celebratory cheer.
Oleck's writing is mostly fine, though I found a few too many awkward and confusing sentences. And despite the abundance of sex, he's pretty conservative in the graphic department -- no doubt due to when the novel was published. Also, every character speaks like they are in a 1950s historical film, something that has always annoyed me about historical fiction. Oleck's superb however at setting up scenes and peering into the minds of his characters.
If only Oleck had made Messalina a bit more likeable, at least allowed us to sympathize with her. His greatest stroke is creating an archenemy of sorts for Messalina: a Jewish slave named Isaac whose life mirrors Messalina's like a negative reflection; the irony being that Messalina, empress of Rome, the most powerful woman in the world, is obsessed with ruining the life of an anonymous Jew.
And Oleck gets bonus points for never -- not even once -- mentioning Christianity. Finally, an author who realizes that the majority of Romans in the first few centuries CE had never even heard of the religion.
This is an old review, by the way, originally posted on Amazon back in 2008. I've always meant to post it here on the blog, as I have my other old toga porn reviews from Amazon. What made me finally get around to posting it is that I recently read Jack Mertes's psuedo-sequel Empress of Desire, all about Poppaea Sabina the younger and her hatred of Messalina; review coming soon.