Reading History: “The Splendor Before the Dark” (by Margaret George)

Ever since I finished Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, the first part of her two-book exploration of Rome’s most notorious emperor, I’ve been eagerly waiting for the second half. Thankfully, the wait is finally over!

The Splendor Before the Dark picks up where Confessions left off, with Nero racing back to the city Rome, now engulfed in flames. Though he does his best to help with the fire, much of Rome is destroyed. In the aftermath, he attempts to rebuild parts of the city to provide green space, but his efforts are misunderstood by the senatorial elite. Surrounded by those who would see him brought down, he eventually resorts to acts of brutality, cementing his reputation and ultimately bringing about his downfall.

George makes the convincing case that Nero never wanted to be emperor; he had the heart and soul of a poet, not a ruler. Just as importantly, she also ably demonstrates the extent to which Nero’s psyche was (mis)shaped by his family, particularly his ambitious mother Agrippina, but also by all of those other branches of the tangled Julio-Claudian tree that yearned so desperately for the ultimate position of power. Growing up in such a viper’s nest, is it any wonder that he turned at times into a monster? 

As George aptly paints it, Nero himself recognizes that darkness that lives inside him. In her telling, he sees himself as comprised of three Neros: the Nero who wants to be an artist, the Nero who recognizes his responsibilities as an emperor and leader of his people; and the ruthless shadow Nero, the one responsible for protecting the other two. It is this last that leads him to lash out at those he suspects–often rightly–of conspiring against his life, as when he strikes down the schemer Piso and his confederates, including the philosopher Seneca.

With her usual incisive eye, George peers behind the invective and myth that has shrouded Nero since at least the time of Tacitus and Seutonius. As she rightly points out, our understandings and perceptions of Nero have been so clouded by hostile Roman historians and by almost hysterical Christian narratives that it is hardly surprising that characterizations like that of Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis (1951) have become so dominant. George helps us to see Nero as a fundamentally flawed person, but one who genuinely sought to make good on his promises to the people of Rome, who saw himself as an artist, yes, but also as a champion of the people and the subjects over whom he was appointed to rule.

At the same time, she allows us to see the extent to which Nero’s naiveté is his own undoing. He cannot, or will not, understand that his artistic aspirations are fundamentally at odds with what those in power believe a ruler should be. Thus, his decision to go to Greece and compete in the Games is in many ways pivotal to his undoing, as it allows those who despise him to drum up support for their own plots. 

Of course, Nero’s life is full of other tragedies besides his death at his own hand. He loves Poppaea with a passion bordering on madness, but a drunken accident results at her death at his hands, a death preceded by their unborn child. His beloved Acte refuses to return his affection, believing (probably rightly) that an open romance between them would endanger him even more. No matter how hard he tries, Nero cannot seem to find the romantic fulfillment that he desires, a tragedy that persists until the very end. 

In terms of style, George (as always) has a keen eye for period detail, and we are treated to lush descriptions of food, sights, and sounds. This is Rome at the height of its glory, when the world seems bathed in the golden light of the emperor and all of the grandeur he enjoys. Small wonder that the people of Rome were said to love him, for he was one of those figures who was truly larger-than-life. Small wonder that so many of the men (and some of the women) who surrounded him sought to cut him down to size in the eyes of those that followed.

It seems to me that The Splendor Before the Dark is fundamentally a melancholic text, in keeping with so many other recent depictions of antiquity. Nero represents something of a utopian vision of how the world might be–full of beauty, sexual freedom, and a surrender to the senses. Of course, such a world can never be fully realized, for the demands of pragmatism and of history always intercede. No matter how much we may enjoy the world of plenty and joy that Nero creates for us, we also know that it is doomed to be temporary, that it will be consigned to the ashes of history.

As important as Nero’s perspective is, George also provides us two other important viewpoints that act as something of a Greek chorus: Locusta the poisoner and Acte the freedwoman. Locusta has a keen eye and sees aspects of Nero that remain invisible even to him. Her status as someone outside of the respectable parts of society ensures that she can feel the political pulse of the world around her even if, ultimately, she doesn’t survive Nero’s fall for very long.

It is really Acte, however, who is the novel’s heart and soul. She loves Nero completely and unequivocally, and this is both her greatest joy and her greatest tragedy. It is she who remains steadfastly loyal to him, in life and in death. The novel gives her the final word, as she visits Nero’s tomb and promises him that she will join him soon. As she always does, George imbues the novel’s final words with a profound sadness mingled with a little bit of joy, a yearning that lovers separated by death might once again be reunited. 

It is this, finally, that gives The Splendor Before the Dark it’s raw emotional power. George proves once again that she truly is the grand dame of historical fiction.

Advertisements