'The Confessions of Young Nero' skillfully reshapes the image of Nero

In a historical novel that makes for delightful reading, best-selling writer Margaret George gives her readers a more sensitive, introspective version of teen-heartthrob Nero.

The Confessions of Young Nero By Margaret George Berkley 528 pp.

Best-selling historical novelist Margaret George has written formidable tomes on a variety of historical and quasi-historical characters, from England's King Henry VIII to Cleopatra to Helen of Troy, and in her latest, she dramatizes the life of a figure who's always seemed to be lodged half-way between history and myth: the Roman emperor Nero. The Confessions of Young Nero, gorgeously produced by Berkley, tells the story of Nero's life right up until its frightful zenith, four years before his death (a second volume will follow), from his birth in AD 37 to AD 64 and the Great Fire of Rome later infamously linked to his name by following generations of historians.

Those later historians – mainly Suetonius and Tacitus – had a field day with the figure of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who took up the imperial name Nero when he was adopted by the emperor Claudius. According to those ancient historians, this young man who came to power at age 17 was the epitome of evil, even worse than his uncle Caligula because he wasn't capricious in his evil but rather went at it consistently and energetically throughout the length of his career.

A generation ago, every school child knew the outlines of that evil career: killing his mother, Agrippina the Younger, his first wife, Octavia, and his second wife, Poppaea; plucking at his lyre while all of Rome burned; and using scapegoated Christians as fuel-dowsed living torches to light his bacchanals, among a swarm of lesser crimes. When the Julio-Claudian line of which Nero was the last was finally overturned, later dynasties wasted no time retailing the freakish villainies of their deposed predecessors. As Nero's best modern biographer puts it, “Our image of Nero was reworked for eternity by hostile sources and by the popular imagination.”

Margaret George can't do anything about those hostile sources, but in "The Confessions of Young Nero," she takes aim squarely at the popular imagination, in much the same way Robert Graves did in his now-iconic 1934 novel "I, Claudius," in which he tried to renovate the reputation of stammering, limping hapless emperor Claudius. In these pages, George attempts to give her readers a more sensitive, introspective version of teen-heartthrob Nero, whom she likens to his ancestor Marc Antony in being generous, impulsive, dramatic, emotional, athletic, and passionate for the stage. “Like the later emperor Hadrian,” she tells us, “was to embrace many of the same things – Hellenism, extensive building projects, dabbling in the arts, wearing his hair long – and be admired. But Nero paid the full price for being ahead of his time.”

Most of the chapters are narrated by Nero himself, and it's through his eyes that we meet the well-known cast of characters from Suetonius and Tacitus: the prim and proper first wife Octavia, with whom our hero has no spiritual connection (“So Octavia and I soldiered on, smiling in public, dreaming separate dreams in separate beds by night”), his tutors Tigellinus and Seneca, his comrade in pleasure (and future emperor) Otho, and of course his infamous mother, who, we're told, “had never balked at what was unnatural.”

The book is one long Saturnalia of wild parties and dilettante artistic performances, with Nero drifting through it all serenely and almost weightlessly, driven neither by an excess of dedication to public service nor by a hunger for fame like that which had eaten at Julius Caesar. At 22 our Nero can contentedly think, “I was not like Caesar, comparing myself to Alexander at his age. There was no other ruler like me, no one I could measure myself against. None who was an artist as well as a sovereign.”

It's a simple, often one-dimensional portrait of a gently licentious young thinker, somebody far more like to ask “Why not?” than “Should I?” – and it's a testament to George's practiced skill at her craft that we can read 500 pages of narration from the viewpoint of this toga-wearing version of "Twilight''s Edward Cullen without tiring of his company. “The more I indulged,” Nero sighs, “the higher I heaped this plate of human pleasures, the less sated I felt,”  – and the most the reader wants to do is chide, “Oh get over yourself.” That sympathy will no doubt become harder to dole out in the sequel, when Nero loses an empire through moronic diffidence and military incompetence.

That incompetence was very likely not always the defining character trait of this particular emperor, who, after all, embarked on several ambitious urban building projects that didn't involve burning the city to the ground. For centuries, Roman history preserved a story that Trajan – widely regarded as the greatest emperor of them all – ranked very highly the “quinquennium,” or five years, of Nero, surprising his listeners by claiming there was something admirable about the old monster. "The Confessions of Young Nero" does its best to give us that admirable young Nero.

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