The Old Republic

Messalina’s Revenge

What a nasty lot of female would-be Masters of the Universe imperial America is turning out in these latter days!

Messalina was the wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, and she was not only notoriously lewd but an active, behind-the-scenes power manipulator.  She ended badly—executed by order of the senate.  Historians still debate how many of the charges against her were true and how many were fabrications of political enemies.  For the ancients, who already had the example of Cleopatra betraying Mark Antony at the worst possible moment, the lesson was clear: Women in power are a curse to good governance.  Such was pretty conventional wisdom right down to the dawn of the 20th century.  Of course, the horridness of the 20th century had nothing to do with an increased participation of women in politics.  But the onetime hope that women voters would make for kinder and gentler governments has proved a sad illusion.

Certainly, there were always counterexamples, despite Delilah, Jezebel, and Lucrezia Borgia.  Good Queen Bess was not always good, but she won the affection of many of her subjects and sought to serve the interests of her country.  Likewise, Queen Isabella—who, after all, bankrolled Columbus and helped to drive Islam out of her part of Europe.  But these were not behind-the-scenes powerbrokers but legitimate rulers.  So was Margaret Thatcher, a lawfully...

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