The release of a new novel by Margaret George is an event that occurs every six years or so. The author of such well-known works of historical fiction as The Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Autobiography of Henry VIII is well-known for her extraordinary detail in her magisterial works of historical fiction, in which she inhabits not just the mind but the very time of her subjects.
Imagine my delight, then, when release day at last dawned, and her new masterwork, The Confessions of Young Nero finally saw the light of day.
The novel, narrated in first person by the emperor himself, starts with a horrible moment of cruelty when he is tormented by his uncle Caligula, and moves through Nero’s childhood in the house of his aunt. Gradually, however, he is drawn into the poisonous atmosphere of the royal court, particularly after his mother Agrippina replaces the adulterous Messalina as the wife of the Emperor Claudius. Of course, he eventually comes to power as the emperor, all the while continuing to indulge in his true passion: the arts.
Nero as George depicts him is a man tormented by the demons of his childhood. Brought up in a nest of vipers in which the blood of royalty can be as good as a death sentence, he struggles to be a good person, even as a darker side of him gradually emerges, the side that will, we are led to believe, lead him down the road of madness and cruelty.
However, he is also a man who can see the beauty in the world. He is not the vain and awful faux artist as he normally appears in the popular media, but instead a man genuinely driven to create. He idolizes the Greek world and the beauty that it created, and he does everything in his power to create it. In this novel’s imagination, at least, he succeeds, several time entering into that beautiful and orgiastic state in which true art is produced. There is, though, a slight note of ambiguity, as we’re not quite sure whether those who flatter him are doing so because he’s the emperor or because they genuinely think he is good at what he does.
Just as he loves the world of beauty, so he often falls in love. His abiding love is the freedwoman Acte, who sees him for who he really is, for both good and ill. She, along with the famous poisoner Locusta, make infrequent appearances throughout the novel as a sort of Greek chorus, providing commentary on the events of his life and offering a counterpoint to his own perspective. Unlike Nero, whose perspectives on the world are more than slightly skewed by both his upbringing and by the art that is his solace, they are able to see what he refuses to.
Then there is Poppaea, the woman who gradually becomes the focus of all of Nero’s affections and attentions. At first she is married to his friend Otho, but she manipulates the emperor into coercing her husband to divorce her. She and Nero quickly marry one another. It’s rather difficult to determine how we should feel about her. Is she indeed the agent of her own destiny, or is she merely the screen upon which Nero seems determined to project his desires? Or is it some combination of the two? I suspect it’s a combination, and this allows her as a character to trouble the narrative that Nero tells and which he uses to try to make sense of the life that he has led.
Given that the majority of Nero’s reign was peaceful in terms of international politics, this gives George the opportunity to really dive into Nero’s psyche. In both its prose and its narrative, The Confessions shows a tortured and battered soul attempting to make its way in a milieu that is as dangerous and deadly as it is beautiful. Haunted by the spirit of his predecessors–including Augustus–and hectored by both his mother and his tutor and adviser Seneca, Nero tries to forge his own path. When the novel ends, right as the great fire has begun to consume his capital, Nero knows that this will be the greatest challenge that he has yet faced. Of course, we as readers know that this event will mark the beginning of the end for him.
While the novel seeks to explain Nero’s actions, some of which are quite terrible, it doesn’t excuse them. It doesn’t paper over the fact that Nero did indeed have his mother Agrippina killed, but she does go to pains to point out the lengths to which his mother is willing to do to solidify and maintain her hold on power, even if that means doing away with her own son. While Agrippina, perhaps unsurprisingly, emerges as the villain of the novel, one also gets the sense that she, like her son, like her brother Caligula, is the product of a poisonous and traumatic environment that leaves many scars. When we finish the novel, we’re left in no doubt that the shadow that has already fallen on Nero’s psyche is one that he will never entirely leave behind; some wounds are too deep to ever fully heal.
As always with George’s work, the book is saturated in period detail, bringing ancient Rome to piercing and vibrant life. There’s even a delicious little detail that I found particularly lovely: Nero ends up meeting the aged Alexander Helios, the son of Cleopatra and Marc Antony (and therefore Nero’s great grand uncle). As a result of George’s prose, we get a surprisingly strong sense of what it must have been like to live in the Rome of the first century of the Common Era.
All in all, The Confessions of Young Nero is a story of a broken and tortured young man thrust into a power he did not want who nevertheless does everything he can to be a good emperor to his people. I know that I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting the second installment, which will cover the last years of Nero’s reign.
I just hope I don’t have to wait too long!