In this stunning historical novel, Margaret George tells the story of the infamous Roman emperor Nero in a completely new way. This Nero is not the mad tyrant who fiddled while Rome burned, as seen in so many Hollywood films. Instead, he is a young man, an artist and athlete, trying to survive in the treacherous world of dynastic politics in imperial Rome. The novel, which is told almost entirely from Nero’s point of view, with a few brief chapters told by the poisoner Locusta and by Nero’s first love, the freedwoman Acte, begins when Nero’s uncle, the emperor Caligula, tries to drown him at the age of three. After a soldier saves his life, Nero is taken away from the imperial court and raised in obscurity in the countryside by his aunt Lepida. But everything changes when his cruel, power-mad mother, Agrippina, returns from exile to claim him. Not long after his return to the court, the emperor Claudius’s wife Messalina tries to have Nero killed because he represents a threat to her own son Britannicus’s claim to the throne. After another relatively peaceful time in the countryside, during which Nero learns to love Greek culture, music, poetry, and athletics, Agrippina has Nero’s beloved stepfather poisoned and marries Claudius. She forces Claudius to adopt Nero as his heir and disinherit Britannicus, and she arranged a marriage between Nero and Claudius’s daughter Octavia, even though he dislikes her. Stopping at nothing to make sure her son becomes emperor, Agrippina then has Claudius poisoned, ensuring that Nero will be the next emperor before Britannicus comes of age.
But Nero at first refuses to play his mother’s game. He won’t share power with her, and he wishes to divorce Octavia and marry his love Acte, who sees the good in him without realizing that he has a darker side. In a desperate attempt to hold on to power, Agrippina plots with Britannicus and Octavia to murder her own son and replace him with Britannicus as emperor. But Nero discovers the plot in time, and pays the poisoner Locusta to kill Britannicus instead. He is haunted by guilt over this action. When his mother continues to plot against him, Nero thinks there is no other way to escape other than to have her killed. But the attempt to drown her in a collapsible boat fails, and his fellow plotters kill her at her villa near Pompeii. Even more than for the death of Britannicus, Nero is haunted all his life by guilt over the death of his mother, although he thinks it was the only way he could have survived. Meanwhile, Nero falls under the spell of the ruthless Poppea, and Acte leaves him when she discovers his darker side, but she never stops loving him. The novel, which is the first of two books, ends with the burning of Rome. In Margaret George’s interpretation, Nero did not set the fire. It was entirely an accident, and Nero was not even in Rome at the time.
George presents a largely sympathetic Nero, emphasizing his love of athletics and music. Contrary to legend, he is actually a good musician in this novel, even though it may be that people are flattering him and he doesn’t realize it. Even his worst actions, such as the murder of his mother and Britannicus, are seen as acts of self-preservation. Of course, some of the most sensational events of his reign have yet to be seen. George immerses the reader in the decadent world of imperial Rome, bringing to life not only Nero, but also such figures as the poets Petronius and Lucan, and the philosopher Seneca. I can’t wait to read the second book.
The Confessions of Young Nero can be borrowed from the Browsing Collection in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.