Prolific writer Margaret George tells the story of the misunderstood Roman emperor Nero in this biographical historical fiction novel, The Confessions of Young Nero.
For anyone who appreciates a detailed and accurate historical account, this one is for you. I find Roman history absolutely intriguing, and George delivers ancient history in the most interesting manner. Emperor Nero is well-known as a crazy and extravagant ruler who famously “fiddled while Rome burned.” However, George decides to challenge that popular motion, making this a truly eye-opening read.
As can be gathered from the title, this novel chronicles Nero’s childhood to him becoming the Emperor of Rome and his first years of ruling. To say that Nero had a crazy upbringing would be a huge understatement; with a childhood surrounded by murderous intentions and betrayal and a mother who can best be described as a woman without a conscious, it would be hard for anyone to reach adulthood unscathed.
The plot really picks up once Nero is crowned Emperor. Though the section focusing on his early years is by no means dull, it does feel slower-paced in comparison to the rest of the novel. Once Nero begins his reign as perhaps the most powerful man in the world at this time, the reader is able to really see the decadent world of Rome from the point of view of the Emperor. He builds luxurious villas and gardens up to his exact specifications, throws epic celebrations for both his personal friends and the common people, and attempts to bring Greek ideals to Rome.
After reading this novel, I do think that history has judged Nero too harshly. His upbringing alone would be enough to mess up anyone psychologically, so you have to give him some leeway there. He was actually a very lenient ruler who genuinely wished to make the common people content. He also does seem to have at least a loose set of morals he tries to abide by. However, I do think the words extravagant, selfish, and pretentious could easily describe him. I couldn’t fully like Nero because of these traits, which showed themselves so obnoxiously throughout the book. However, these personality characteristics do not make someone evil – just unlikable. After awhile, his ridiculous behavior is even a bit amusing. I do have to give George credit with keeping Nero’s voice distinct and consistent throughout this rather long novel.
The attention to detail is just astonishing. I truly felt like I was there, wandering Palatine Hill with Nero and escaping to his villas along the sea right there with him. I could see the bustling streets of Rome and the air of awe that surrounded the games taking place at Circus Maximus. You could taste the rich food coating Nero’s lavish tables, and hear the intellectual chatter of Nero and his literary buddies. This book could not have been any better researched. I learned so much about Nero and Rome in general, but it never felt like information overload. It never seemed boring or tedious. It was a truly dazzling account that made it difficult to stop turning the pages.
If you have even an inkling of interest in ancient Rome, pick up this book immediately. You will quickly become obsessed as you descend into Nero’s Rome. I’m already looking forward to George releasing the second part of this epic saga about the misunderstood, powerful, and artistic Emperor Nero.