Karnac Books | 2015 | 417p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 68 and Nero has much more on his mind than simply ruling the Empire that is so lucky to have him. For one thing, Nero fancies himself in love with the perfect specimen of Roman womanhood, a new Poppaea (to replace the one that Nero kicked to death), who just happens to be a eunuch called Sporus. But Nero needn’t worry because while he spends his energy on love and the arts, his private secretary Epaphroditus can look after the dull business of rule, backed up by the two Praetorian Prefects (known as ‘the drunk one’ and ‘the sober one’). But the sober Prefect Sabinus has had enough of the degeneracy of Nero’s court and is keen to take advantage of the rumblings of rebellion coming from elsewhere in the empire, particularly Gaul. The powerful are beginning to shuffle for position, including Galba. It’s only a matter of time.
Palatine is the first in L.J. Trafford’s Four Emperors series, that period of civil war and short reigns that marked the fall of Nero and the ensuing troubled months. Nero is gold dust for authors and clearly L.J. Trafford enjoyed every minute of capturing Nero on paper. And here he is at his dissolute best or worst, depending on your point of view. There’s no end of maidens (senators’ daughters) to deflower and people to murder. At one point he looks for an assassin to do one of his jobs but specifies that he has to be able to speak Greek so that he can recite verse to his victim before killing him. This is Nero at his most deranged and he has turned madness into an artform.
What I enjoyed about Palatine, though, is that much of the events unfold through the eyes and experiences of slaves, servants and the most vulnerable, such as prostitutes. Even Sporus, the enthusiastic eunuch, is allowed his moments as a normal human being caught up in circumstances beyond his control, a young man with friends who love him. Then there is Philo, Epaphroditus’s secretary, who has recently been freed but still serves his master. But now he lives outside the Palace and has to cope with looking after himself without the Palace feeding him, clothing him and putting a roof over his head. Freedom is good but it comes at a cost. And it doesn’t free him from the savagery of those whose job it is to keep slaves in their place with brutality and sexual predation. We are given a fascinating portrait of servitude in Nero’s court in all its shapes and sizes. I really enjoyed this perspective.
Palatine is a tale of salacious goings on and there is a gossipy feel to its style that I found overpowering and too rich at times. There are some moments that made me laugh at loud, there is wit in abundance here, but for me this was overshadowed by the relish with which this decadent court is depicted. There are scenes of utter cruelty but they are lost among the rollicking. This, though, is a matter of personal taste and I can understand why many would find the style of Palatine so enjoyable and fun to read. This is a history and muddle of conspiracies that Suetonius would have revelled in and, if that’s your sort of thing, then you will love it.
For me, though, it’s the descriptions of life below stairs in the imperial court that stands out in Palatine. But we can be in no doubt of what drives everyone – while some must struggle just to stay alive and sane, for others it’s time for change. Nero has to go.