Published by Berkley Books
Publication date: March 7th 2017
Who hasn’t heard some version of the phrase “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”? It’s long been the standard epitaph for any ruler so decadent and foolish that they were more interested in entertaining and enriching themselves than running a country. Hhhhmmm. Current similarities aside, Margaret George decides to investigate the life of Emperor Nero to see what, if any, of this historical reference is true. Her novel The Confessions of Young Nero is an in-depth look at the Roman boy who, through the convoluted lines of family and his mother’s ambition became, at sixteen, the youngest emperor in Rome’s history.
Thanks to the constant infighting in Roman politics Nero’s early life was spent with his aunt’s family. His father was dead and his mother, Agrippina was banished from Rome by her brother, Caligula. Only after Caligula’s murder does his mother return and then things get spicy. First she married a much older, wealthy man and once he re-established them in Roman society she had him murdered because money was not goal, power was. She then married the new emperor, her uncle Claudius, and soon enough he was dead and her son was on the throne.
The bulk of The Confessions of Young Nero is spent from the years 41AD to 64AD, Nero’s formative years to just past the midpoint of his reign. During that time George carefully fleshes out a Nero who shifts from a gentle child with a love of the arts and an appreciation for beauty to a young adult who must deal with the weight of unfettered power. Slowly, she shows how corrupting power without guidance can be. Nero had no father or any male figure to model himself on and his mother’s influence was of power at any cost.
There are two ways to write about ancient history. One is a dry statement of facts—wars won, lost, dates and times. Boring and not something most people want to read. The other is solely for entertainment—focusing on the most outlandish aspects of the times. This is easy to do when writing about Rome because it was a society that played fast and loose with ethics and morals. Namely, a fondness for intermarrying and adoption to secure and enhance families’ power and wealth and the rampant use of poison to eliminate enemies. But while it is entertaining (because trashy reading is a fun break sometimes) it’s not satisfying. George strikes the perfect balance between education and entertainment in The Confessions of Young Nero by using the limited historical documents to ferret out the reality behind the tabloid news.
It would be easy to portray Nero as a vain aesthete who had no interest in running the empire, but the reality is that he was simply a different sort of politician. War and conquering were of less interest than peace and prosperity. Romans lived through dominance of the world around them but Nero was more inclined to the Greek view of society with a focus on the arts. He had no interest in watching humans or animals being torn to pieces in the Colosseum, he wanted festivals and chariot races instead. That George is able to build upon the facts with imagination and recreate a world long gone is what makes The Confessions of Young Nero such fascinating reading.