**Warning: minor spoilers ahead unless you’re familiar with Roman history.**
Margaret George has done it again and produced yet another triumph of historical fiction. This one follows the much maligned Nero from his humble beginnings in a lower branch of the imperial family tree to the prize itself, Roman emperor. Then, it ends on an epic cliff hanger, but I forgive her because it is so awesome. If you can’t handle that kind of wait, you may want to hold off on reading this until the next installment is out.
All I knew about Nero (before this book) was that he “fiddled while Rome burned.” George combines the research of a scientist with the storytelling ability of a master writer to bring this man’s story to life. I have to admit- I actually felt sorry for the guy. Yes, despite the orgies, outlandish expenditures, palatial living, and god-like status, poor Nero, like all of us, just wanted to be loved. At least, so says Margaret George.
“It was hard to keep the family… straight. There was so much intermarrying that everyone seemed related to everyone else.” loc 219. Like British aristocracy, the upper echelons of Roman society were actually quite small and so everyone actually knew each other very well. Their children married, they frequently divorced and remarried each other, and excuses were made for the very close marriages. Nero’s mother, for instance, marries her uncle. Abhorrent to modern eyes, perhaps, but like royalty from many different ages, somehow the rules were bent and it was allowed.
From his very earliest days, Nero watches others scheme, poison, and claw their way towards power. It really messes him up. “It was my first, and most brutal, lesson in what lengths to which evil people will go, and for what flimsy reasons. I have never forgotten it, nor let down my guard since. Let them call me cruel. Better that than dead.” loc 544, ebook. Just to put it into perspective, Nero’s uncle, the Emperor Caligula, once declared war on the god, Poseidon, and had his soldiers run into the ocean and stab the waves with their swords- totally bonkers. George suggests throughout the story that Nero is not only trying to outshine his relatives because of natural ambition, but also because he believes there is a curse in his blood. With an extended family like that, I can see his point.
George also does a good job bringing Rome and her curious attitudes about everyone not Roman to life. Nero is fond of the Greeks- their music, poetry, and athleticism. But, to the Romans, that sort of cultural appreciation is unmanly and unnatural. I think it was just an extension of the very human attitude of “us vs them” but Romans took it very badly when Nero wanted to perform music in public (gasp), wear a tunic rather than a toga (double gasp), and race a chariot in the Coliseum (passes out on the floor). These things were not done but Nero insisted on doing them. Compared to the things that celebrities get away with today, those behavioral peculiarities seem so tame.
“I learned to live with the knowledge I had; people can get used to anything, even horror, and it begins to feel normal. And the thought that I had inherited the blood of murderers seemed less threatening than that my mother… might kill me. Thus we make peace with ourselves and our weaknesses, for there is always someone worse to focus on.” loc 1732, ebook. Poor, poor Nero. Can you imagine being afraid that you’d die at the hand of your mother? It really makes one feel like her anxieties are rather trivial. Stressed about a dirty house? Yeah, Nero’s mom might kill him today or tomorrow or the next time he’s not paying attention. Get over it!
Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction, ancient Rome, or people who want to get lost in a story. Margaret George is amazing. I own four of her books and, when this is published, I just may have to pick it up too. Coming from a (former) librarian, this is really one of the highest compliments I can give to an author. Do yourself a favor, if you like this genre and haven’t tried her yet, pick up Margaret George.
Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing for a free advance reader copy of this book.