Macmillan | 2017 (9 March) | 514p | Review copy | Buy the book
Young Nero’s destiny wasn’t always golden. As a child he wasn’t even called Nero. Instead, he knew himself as Lucius Domitius, the only son of nobleman Ahenobarbus and Agrippina, sister to the emperor Caligula. And one of Lucius’s earliest memories was of being on a ship and of being thrown overboard by Caligula himself. If he hadn’t have been plucked out of the water by a soldier, Lucius would have been drowned with no more regard than one might have for any sacrificial gift to the gods.
Lucius didn’t live with his mother then but with an aunt. But all that was to change once Agrippina had worked her way into the favours of another emperor – Claudius. It made sense for Agrippina to have a son to work her ambition on and so she reclaimed him. And that ambition had no limits whatsoever. Nobody could better Agrippina, not even Messalina, Claudius’s beloved, wicked empress, who had her own son to watch over. There was a time when Lucius was an innocent. His mother put paid to that.
Many of us have our own ideas about Nero, some of which may have been informed by Hollywood – I will never forget the sight of Peter Ustinov’s Nero fiddling as Rome burns in Quo Vadis. Margaret George cleans the slate and builds up her portrait of Nero from scratch, focusing on Nero the boy and young man, to show how he became a madman to history. Much of The Confessions of Young Nero is narrated by Nero himself, drawing us even closer into the machinations of his mind as the years pass and the shadows descend.
It is brilliantly done. We see the innocence in Nero and many of the qualities that made him such a popular figure among the ordinary men and women of Rome – his love of horses and racing, his need to play music and perform, his youthful athleticism. This is a young man who wanted the past glories of Greece to live again in Rome. Nero never wanted to be a soldier, or even wear a toga – he wanted to be a poet and musician. He wanted to be good. His ideals shine out of the pages in abundance and we warm to him, even more so when we consider the behaviour of the closest members of his family. But, from a very early age, Nero began to understand that survival was not guaranteed and if he wanted to live, let alone become emperor, he was going to have to work at it.
The Confessions of Young Nero is not just a beautifully written portrait of the painful corruption of a young man, it also depicts power at its most cynical and evil. At times it is embodied – in Messalina and Agrippina and later in Nero himself. But at other times it exists as a general shadow over Rome and the imperial family that darkens and darkens as the novel goes on, reflecting the gradual shadowing of Nero’s own character. He is self-aware. He does question himself but it gets easier for him to provide the answers.
All of this is set within a vividly realised Rome, full of palaces, gardens, country retreats, lakes and ships. This is a world full of glamorous sin-filled men and women, many of whom are brought to life here, but there are also other types of people – Nero’s tutors and advisors who whisper good things in one ear while Agrippina pours poison in the other. The character of Nero is wonderfully drawn but Agrippina is astonishing.
I loved all the details: the luxury of the feasting, the ritual of the chariot race, the meticulous work of the skilled poisoner. It’s very visual. There is so much to enjoy on every page. Margaret George has done this before, with her stunningly perceptive and insightful ‘autobiographies’ of such figures as Cleopatra, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Mary Magdalene. I’ve loved all of these and I was so excited to learn that Margaret George, one of my very favourite authors, would be turning her attention to Nero, one of the most charismatic and intriguing figures in history. I knew that she could make me look at him (and Agrippina) with fresh eyes and she most certainly did. This is one of those novels I didn’t want to end. This is most definitely for me the historical novel to beat this year. I can’t sing its praises enough.