Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wednesday, February 8, 2017: Maximum Shelf: The Confessions of Young Nero

Berkley Books: The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

Berkley Books: The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

Berkley Books: The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

Berkley Books: The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

The Confessions of Young Nero

by Margaret George

Margaret George's specialty is biographical novels, taking legendary historical figures and unearthing the human being buried beneath centuries of myth and propaganda. In books such as Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles and Helen of Troy, George sympathetically reconstructed the inner lives of men and women often ill-served by history. The Confessions of Young Nero represents one of George's most ambitious rehabilitations to date as the first of two novels dedicated to the brief but eventful life of the titular Roman Emperor Nero.

Nero was the last of a dynasty, and succeeding emperors and the historians they patronized would have been incentivized to delegitimize his rule by casting him as a tyrant and a libertine. The Confessions of Young Nero, told from Nero's perspective, is a corrective, offering up an alternative portrait of a sensitive, creative young man forced to navigate Rome's brutal power games.

The novel opens with Caligula throwing a very young Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, later Nero, in the water to drown, an early introduction to the dangers of absolute power. Growing up in exile, Lucius might never have become Nero were it not for the murder of Caligula and his family, along with the ruthless machinations of his mother, Agrippina. Agrippina climbs the rungs of power quickly through marriage and political gamesmanship. Seen through young Nero's eyes, Agrippina's brutal ways inspire mixed emotions from her son, as well as harsh lessons: "Let them call me cruel. Better that than dead."

As Agrippina engineers her son's rise, he finds his true calling in music, scholarship, chariot racing and the Hellenistic sports of wrestling and running. Agrippina describes him as a "dreamy boy" who "doesn't notice much of what goes on in the real world." This depiction of an oblivious, if not overtly callous Nero is one that has persisted through the ages. George sets it right, however, showing Nero's growing aptitude for courtly intrigue, and the widening gulf between him and his mother. After being adopted by the Emperor Claudius thanks to Agrippina's influence, Nero earns his new name, as well as the attention of famous historical figures such as the philosopher Seneca, who serves as his tutor.

However much Nero might wish to live a simple life as a poet or a musician, his hopes are frustrated by Agrippina's ambitions. In one fell swoop, she poisons Claudius and has Nero installed as emperor. His priorities are forced to shift drastically as he's simultaneously imbued with enormous power and increasingly threatened by Agrippina's attempts to usurp his authority. Still, Nero is gifted with a peaceful, wealthy empire that practically runs itself. He freely indulges in evenings of "theater, dance, and composing poetry and music" as well as raucous parties. In place of his loveless marriage, Nero soon falls for a freed slave named Acte. As the dangers at court increase, Nero's passions and indulgences follow suit.

George never faults Nero for his interests in the arts or pursuit of pleasure. In her forgiving, humanistic vision, rigid ideologues such as Seneca are painted as hypocrites rather than heroes. In one memorable passage, Nero dismisses Seneca's seminal "On Mercy" as a "long-winded essay" intended only to soothe the philosopher's conscience.

Instead of victories in battle, George gives Nero credit for his diplomatic triumphs and ambitious architectural projects. Thanks to his lavish games and support for the arts, Nero earned the love of the common people while irritating the aristocratic Senate. Nero's personal values didn't align with traditional upper-class Roman values of martial courage and discipline. Readers get the sense of Nero as a man out of time, someone who might have prospered in ancient Athens, for example. Even notorious events that helped earn Nero's unenviable place in history, such as Nero's murder of his own mother, are rendered as acts of self-protection that nonetheless torture his conscience. George suggests that the "tyrant" perceived by later generations was not born, but made, his sense of morality shaped by his upbringing and the demands of survival.

The Confessions of Young Nero asks what responsibilities a leader has to his people, especially if the demands of leadership interfere with personal happiness. Is it selfish to engage in supposedly frivolous pursuits that give your life meaning? Nero's philosophy is simple: "...I want the maximum of happy moments...." In retrospect, Nero's major folly seems to be in thinking of himself as a person, rather than the living embodiment of the state.

George's novel may not prove to be the definitive historical interpretation of Nero, but her thoughtful, humane treatment of the man will inspire readers to question his status in the popular imagination as a depraved pleasure-seeker. --Hank Stephenson

Berkley, $28, hardcover, 528p., 9780451473387, March 7, 2017

Berkley Books: The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

Margaret George: Nero Was Calling Out to Me

photo: Alison Kaufman

Margaret George is the author of six biographical novels, including The Memoirs of Cleopatra, Mary Called Magdalene, and Elizabeth I: A Novel. Her latest work of epic historical fiction is The Confessions of Young Nero (Berkley), the first part of a duology taking a more sympathetic look at the trials and tribulations of the infamous Roman Emperor. The new novel seeks to resurrect Nero as a complicated man caught between ruling a vast empire and indulging in his passions for art, Hellenistic games and the women he loved.

You've written fictional biographies of historical figures from Cleopatra to Henry VIII. Roman history is filled with fascinating, controversial characters. Why pick Nero?

Nero was calling out to me! He was trapped beneath the rubble of history, in spite of his name being a household one. Between Hollywood's portrayals and the catchphrase "Nero fiddled while Rome burned" (the butt of numerous modern political cartoons), the real Nero had vanished. I felt I had a mission to restore him to his rightful place in history.

Nero's historical reputation is at least partly composed of rumor and outright fiction. To paraphrase your novel, sometimes the stories that survive are the most memorable rather than the truest. How did you sort through these biased accounts and decide what to keep, discard or reinterpret?

It helps to have professional academic historians who are doing the same thing, and who showed me how to do likewise. I used to read historical accounts as if they were all true but slowly came to realize how flawed they are--they fail "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" test rather badly (as do our modern news reports). Imagine if all you knew 2,000 years from now about Obama's presidency was what was reported on Fox News, or Bush's from MSNBC. This is what you are dealing with with Nero!

So I had to be a skeptic, an analyst, and try to access the source from which these facts were coming, taking into account the known biases of the writer or the lapse of time between the event and the recording of the event. That said, we really have only a very few sources (in Nero's case, three main ones: Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius) and, in the end, we have to rely on them, but using detachment and reservations about the contents.

You've written about many powerful, potentially dangerous women, but Nero's mother Agrippina might qualify as the most ruthless of them all. Ambitious women often fare poorly in historical accounts thanks to biased ancient authors. When writing ths novel, did you consider that, much like Nero, Agrippina might not have been as bad as she was made out to be?

I agree completely that, like her son, Agrippina has gotten a bad rap. And the modern historians who are revisiting Nero's reputation are doing just the same with her. It has been pointed out that the negative character traits reported about her have been applied to other powerful women in the Roman political world, and some descriptions of her seem canned. A powerful woman was seen as a threat, an aberration of nature who had to be constrained. That was one of the propaganda tools Octavian mustered against Cleopatra, stating, "We must allow no woman to make herself equal to a man."

Certainly Agrippina had a hard life, and needed to be hard to survive. From a little boy's point of view, however, she must have seemed frightening. And from a teenage boy's point of view, irritating, meddling and controlling. So I portrayed her as Nero saw her.

But she did what she had to do to make him emperor, even (if you believe the prophecy--like much else, who knows?) sacrificing her own life to do so. I rather admire her steely, fatalistic resolve.

It's telling that the Romans did not allow any other woman after her to have such power. That speaks volumes as to her importance and also their fear of strong women.

Nero has at least two significant romantic interests. What's it like to write a love story between ancient historical figures? Are there ways to figure out the tenor of these relationships without resorting to guesswork?

I was lucky that Nero was what we would now call a romantic, and romantic love has not changed between his time and ours, so to re-create the feeling was not difficult. It's a mental state, close to an obsession. We know that Nero felt this way because of his actions: as a teenager, he was so determined to marry Acte, a freed slave (and utterly taboo for a patrician, let alone an emperor), that he concocted a bogus royal pedigree to make her suitable.

Watch the trailer for The Confessions of Young Nero here.

In the case of Poppaea, he was smitten with her when she was still the mistress (or wife, depending on the source) of his friend Otho. Being emperor, Nero could solve the problem by making Otho governor of Portugal and sending him away so he could marry Poppaea. He had eyes for no one else and was faithful to her until her death. Then his grief was so intense he refused to have her cremated and her beauty reduced to ashes; instead, he had her embalmed and declared a goddess, and burned "a year's worth of spices from Arabia" at her funeral. This is romantic love at its highest expression.

Nero has often functioned in popular culture as a symbol of the worst excesses of the Roman Empire. Placed in historical context, however, his moral status seems more complicated. How do you feel about moral relativism or the general idea of judging ancient men by modern standards?

Although Nero was no angel, popular culture seems to have created a Nero made up of every over-the-top emperor rolled into one, and laid every excess at his door. But the question of moral relativism is a really pressing one today, and even George Washington has been hauled into the court of public opinion to answer for being a slave-owner. It is hard for us to believe, truly believe, that people in past ages did not see the things that seem so glaring to us today. But it is telling, I think, that no lofty ancient philosopher questioned slavery. Seneca said that you should treat the slaves humanely, but that was as far as he got. It takes a real effort for us to forgive past characters for what we see as their blindness to certain things, but unless we can, we can't really understand them or even judge them fairly. We have to enter into their world imaginatively and put on their mindset as a temporary garment.

As the first of your books to center on a Roman, Nero is in some ways a curious choice, given his rather un-Roman personality and preoccupations. Do you think of your Nero as someone born at the wrong time and place? Or do you think Nero did possess some distinctly Roman characteristics?

Nero probably imagined that he would have flourished happily in ancient Athens, and did his best to re-create it in his own life. But he surely would have missed the opulence and power of Rome.

He was more Roman than he wanted to admit. He had a natural affinity for power games (playing them better than his rivals), enjoyed the vast resources the empire brought to his door, and the engineering genius that invented the vault and concrete, changing architecture forever and making his revolutionary Golden House possible. Although he was judged short on the Roman virtues of dignity, gravitas and military valor, he possessed the other valued traits--honesty, courtesy, mercy, generosity, hospitality and élan--in abundance. And his family was so deeply embedded in the history of Rome that he could never really separate himself from it. The Ara Pacis monument erected by Augustus, celebrating his era of peace and his family, has Nero's grandmother and grandfather carved on it, with Nero's father as a little boy tugging on a grownup's toga. Nero was very much a Roman, however much he wanted to think otherwise. --Hank Stephenson

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