I've been watching a fascinating series about Roman Women on BBC TV called 'Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome.' Of course the sources of information are male, particularly the historians Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius. But the picture that emerges is definitely one of 'sexual power behind the throne.'
Pre-eminent amongst Roman upper class women who used sexual power to their own advantage was Messalina, third wife of the Emperor Claudius. Scandalous stories were spread about her. It was said that as soon as her husband was asleep she crept from the palace hidden in a cloak and with her black hair concealed by a blonde wig. She reputedly went to the local brothel and, with gilded nipples, played the role of the 'wolf girl' and slaked her sexual appetite all night in exchange for cash. She was also believed to have taken part in an all-night sex contest with a prostitute.
Her downfall came when she plotted with her lover, Silius, to kill her imperial husband. Bizarrely, she actually married Silius in a public ceremony whilst still married to Claudius! While she and her mother were preparing a plea for clemency in her favourite retreat, the gardens of Lucullus (today forming part of the Villa Borghese gardens) an officer and a freed slave arrived. They offered her a chance of suicide or summary execution: she chose the latter and was beheaded.
Her disgrace continued after her death as all references to her were removed and her statues taken down. All those who had been loyal to Messalina were dismissed from Claudius' court by his fourth wife, Agrippina.
Despite - or perhaps because of - Messalina's shocking reputation she has inspired many artists and writers. Of course it is impossible to know the truth about her character, especially as accusations of sexual misbehaviour were used to besmirch women for political reasons.
The sexual power of women in Ancient Rome is a theme I have explored in my own novel, Roman Discipline.