Mmmmmmm, Margaret George. This is the fourth “biographical fiction” of hers that I’ve read. The others, The Memoirs of Cleopatra, The Autobiography of Henry VIII, and Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, I read while I was in high school (some years ago now…), and they definitely earned me some crazy looks from my friends. They’re such long books and how was I possibly reading that much?. But that is the magic of Margaret George. She takes the lives of incredible people, does boatloads of research on them/their contemporaries/the time period, and then turns all that dry information into a page turner that’s impossible to put down. They sure don’t seem that long when you are in the middle of them; and Nero was no exception.
“Other than his familiar name, and some vague idea that he was a bit crazy, I didn’t really know much about Nero before this. When I brought it home from the library, my husband was like Nero, wasn’t he the one that burned down Rome? So that’s the sum total of background knowledge I was bringing into this reading. Like I said, not much. But honestly, I think that was for the best. Since finishing, I read the “Afterward” and did a bit of my own research and the general outlook on Nero is pretty dim. The predominant written records are super negative, casting him as a profligate, a debaucher, the antichrist, and many other terrible things who was hated by the people and who set fire to Rome himself. However, by removing much of the bias imbued in official histories of the time (if you can believe it, ancient historians were worse then the media is today) and extra research “between the lines” by George herself, a different picture is painted. For example, the people believed he would someday return and there are records of at least three impersonators trying to instigate rebellion in his name. It is worth pointing out that, in general, if he was that hated by the people, they probably wouldn’t be hoping for his return (reference: similar feelings about beloved figures like Tupac and Elvis). So going in with no preconceptions allowed me to really experience the final Emperor in Caesar’s dynastic line the way the author wanted him to be experienced.
Margaret George shows us Nero’s youth: the many tragic circumstances, dramatic and sudden changes, and his early lessons that being born into the imperial family, a descendant of Caesar, is a dangerous business. We watch as he is crowned Emperor at only 16, thanks to the many (and violent) machinations of his mother. We see his transition from an innocent (or as innocent as possible) youth to a young adult realizing the reach of his power and embracing the darker aspects of his heritage. But we see all of this from his eyes. So sure, he murders family members (close family members), but it’s a situation of “it’s either them or me.” And we see him engage in super “improper pursuits,” like chariot racing, athletic training, writing poetry, playing and performing music and song. [Note: it’s partially those pursuits that got him so much negative press from historians, pursuits that are praised in later leaders…so perhaps Nero’s reputation suffered the way all those “ahead of their time” do. Plus, those pursuits are really not so bad from our present day point of view, so I appreciate seeing him displayed in the more positive light he receives here.] We experience his unhappy marriage, his first love, his second marriage/love, and his pain at the tragic loss of his only child. At the end, we watch as Nero learns of the fire spreading through Rome and rushes to help address the conflagration. And for the first time, George is writing a story in two parts, so that’s is where we are left at the end of this installation: Nero is watching his city burning.
As I have with each of her novels, I fell right into the atmosphere (and story) that George creates. It is so easy to settle into the descriptions, the traditions, and the historical figures’ lives. Although there are a few awkward spots throughout, the dialogue/inner thoughts are overall very smoothly written and are the part of her writing that both lead to the “historical fiction” classification but also create the most connection between reader and character. They are the piece that breathes life into history. The pacing is perfect, keeping me engaged while simultaneously fully describing and demonstrating what the time period was like and what [historic] events were happening. A long and educational, but still fast, enjoyable, and super fascinating read. If you’re looking for the right book to read that will just whisk you away on a rainy day, like a snuggly blanket and a warm cup of tea, this is it. And I, for one, cannot wait for the rest Nero’s story.”
One of my favorite sections, of Nero describing his feelings for Poppaea: “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 movements, moments that lose their power in the telling but pin themselves fast to our hearts.” (p.448)