The First Ladies of Rome, By Annelise Freisenbruch

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The Independent Culture

Despite the authorial sketch ("She now lives in Dorset, where she teaches Latin"), anyone expecting a genteel account of "the women behind the Caesars" will be in for a shock. It includes a contemporary account of how Messalina (Mrs Claudius), passed her leisure hours: "She stood there naked and for sale, with her nipples gilded, under the trade-name of She-Wolf."

This wonderfully researched work displays wit and cultural reach. Julia, daughter of Augustus, is compared to Dorothy Parker for her crack about restricting errant sex to times of pregnancy: "Passengers are never allowed on board until the hold is full." Sex may sell the book, but there is much else, such as Livia's "indoor illusion" of a garden in Rome.