The Confessions of Young Nero
Margaret George’s Confessions of Young Nero humanizes an oft-demonized ghost from distant ages past, he who “fiddled” while Rome burned. We follow Nero’s musings about his childhood and see how known and suspected events likely shaped the real Nero’s life. This is the first of a pair of books, unusual for George, who specializes in rich historic-fiction memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. It concludes with the burning of Rome.
George paints a picture of a Nero who is quite unlike the emperors before him. Where they enjoyed war, he enjoyed music. Where they enjoyed bloodshed in the gladiator arenas, he enjoyed the performing arts and feats of athletic prowess. These preferences made Nero a most atypical Roman ruler.
Effectively orphaned as a toddler, Nero grew up during Caligula’s reign. That alone would be enough to adversely affect the growth of a child. Following Caligula’s death, the new emperor, Claudius, recalled Nero’s mother from exile. In retrospect, perhaps it would have been better for the young Nero if his mother had remained in her enforced seclusion. As ruthless as the rest of her family, Agrippina’s machinations put her son at the head of the Roman empire. However, her plans of being de facto empress backfired when Nero asserted his rightful authority and eventually made one of the hardest decisions of his young life.
The Nero presented here is far from the idea of the “insane” man his name might at first conjure. He seems more introspective than his predecessors, a philosopher more than a warrior. Even with his love and appreciation of the performing arts and Greek athletics, Nero strikes me as an introvert. Without certain influences in his early life and the viciousness of his family, I think he would have been a gentle-tempered musician.
Progressive for the times, Nero was generous to a fault, with a bent toward protecting and aiding the common folk. A romantic at heart, he frequently overturned traditions, to the dismay and confusion of the nobility. George has done an astounding job of bringing the enigmatic, wrongly-vilified Nero to bright, vibrant life. I cannot wait til the second of this duology comes out!
Highly recommended if you love historical fiction and tales of ancient Rome.