“To be an emperor, then, was to drink even your simplest refreshments from weighty gold goblets. It was to see the chariot races whenever you pleased from the privacy of your dwelling. It was to have fleets of servants waiting to hear your bidding, then sliding away silently to fulfill it.”
Unless you are a scholar of ancient history, I imagine your insight into the life of Emperor Nero is limited to a few cliched moments featuring insanity, cruelty and, perhaps, a fiddle. Margaret George, an established virtuoso at bringing historical and, often, misunderstood characters to life has done brilliant work to remedy that. Benefiting from remarkable depths of research, “The Confessions of Young Nero” is appropriately epic and laden with gravitas as it narrates the tumultuous life of Nero.
As a young child, Nero is passed from relative to relative, never meeting his father, rarely seeing his mother, and cruelly prevented from developing a sense of home and family. At the mercy of his conniving, diabolical mother, however, Nero is propelled closer and closer to power until, at the age of sixteen, he is crowned emperor.
“For most people, life changes slowly and imperceptibly from one day to the next; their life is on a continuum that reveals its turning points only in retrospect. But as I stepped across the threshold of the palace, not as a guest but as an inhabitant, I understood just how momentous the change was.”
Ambition for fame and fortune are his mother’s alone; Nero himself is a pawn to her wicked game, a gentler soul drawn to music and poetry. He dreams of an artful life, preferring to perform his compositions rather than wage war. Despite all he has seen, raised in a world where coupling is strictly calculated to increase and consolidate power, Nero believes in love.
“Happy. An insipid, pallid word to describe the joy I felt every day with her. Other, stronger words – ecstasy, delight, bliss, rapture – carried within themselves the sense of being momentary, passing. Sturdy ‘happy’ was a condition that could endure day after day. Yet it felt inadequate. And it is almost impossible to describe happiness because it is the absence of pain, of loneliness, of despair, yet it is infinitely more than just an absence of anything. It resides in small moments, moments that lose their power in the telling but pin themselves fast to our hearts.”
But even this blessed boy cannot remain pure in the face of his mother’s machinations
and in the climate of his powerful empire. The Rome of Nero’s time is Bacchanalian, full of excess and violence. It is also the seat of a generation’s long feud, an ongoing scrabble for power full of incest and intrigue. Even Nero becomes calculating and cold, his eccentricities and hedonism developing alongside his lust for power and renown.
“[M]ake it so that your descendants brag of your blood that flows in their veins. Look forward, not backward.”
Margaret George’s “The Confessions of Young Nero” is dauntingly hefty and could easily be overlooked, its subject assumed too somber and drab. But to skip this treasure would be a mistake. George breathes new life into ancient history. Her story is bewitching, her characters decidedly modern but never anachronistic. “The Confessions of Young Nero” is no grim tome, no dry textbook; it is historical fiction at its absolute finest.
Click here for a short video of Margaret George discussing Nero and the defining moments of his life.
Thank you to Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, for the complimentary advanced copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The Confessions of Young Nero” was released on March 7, 2017 in the United States.