Macmillan | 2018 (15 November) | 571p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 64 and the Emperor is in his villa in Antium, to the south of Rome, where he performs his own epic on the Fall of Troy for his appreciative audience of friends and fellow artists. It is while Nero is there that an exhausted messenger arrives from Rome and tells him that the city is burning. The Great Fire of Rome has begun and it is threatening everything in its path, including Nero’s own palace. Nero immediately rides back to Rome as fast as he can, determined to fight the fire with his own hands, alongside the fire officers and crews who are working day and night to save the city. What Nero experiences over the coming days and nights will change him forever, but it will also give his vision new expression – Nero will rebuild Rome. Its splendour will astonish the world.
The Splendour Before Rome completes Margaret George’s superb and original portrait of Rome’s most famous and infamous emperor that began with The Confessions of Young Nero. In the first novel we saw Nero’s rise to power, his transformation from the unknown young child Lucius into heir to Claudius’s throne, finally becoming emperor himself. It was a part of Nero’s life largely controlled and steered by his notorious mother Agrippina, whose fate forms such a central role in the first book and in the emperor’s life. It is from that point that Margaret George now resumes her story, covering the period from the Great Fire of Rome – possibly the most well-known event of Nero’s reign – through to the very end. You can read The Splendour Before Rome without having read The Confessions of Young Nero first, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
The Nero that presents himself to us here – for most of the novel is written in Nero’s own words – is not one that I’ve met before, and I’ve read a lot of wonderful books over the years that feature him. Margaret George explains in her afterword that she believes that Nero has been unfairly treated by Roman commentators, who had their own agenda to maintain, leading to a whole series of rumours that were perpetuated by later historians, not to mention Hollywood. Whether you agree with this or not, Margaret George here pulls together the strands of Nero’s life, finding the roots of some of the gossip that grew up around him, while also presenting a fascinating portrait of what absolute power can do to a young man who’d really much rather race chariots and compose heroic verse than rule an empire. It’s an intriguing mix. In one sense, we’re given reasons to explain why Nero was regarded as he was by historians, but conversely we’re also given glimpses of a man who failed in the one role he couldn’t maintain – emperor. He is both misunderstood and flawed.
Nero is conflicted and his self-awareness of this is a truly fascinating element of Margaret George’s treatment of him. Nero talks of the dark Nero, the third Nero, that will do anything to keep alive his other two Neros – the emperor and the artist. We’ve seen in the first book what his dark side will make Nero do but in this second book Nero does his best to suppress the evil. Instead he wants to focus on the arts and also on his passion for chariot racing, a cause of great scandal to Rome’s elite. The senate is shocked by Nero’s decision to go to Greece and compete in all of its festivals (all compressed into one year on his orders). Nero seems oblivious to how he is perceived by Rome and carries on regardless, but there are clues for us that this cannot end well.
Nero is oblivious to other things as well – how people will regard his great Golden House that he will build across much of the city’s centre, and then there’s the enormous colossus statue of himself that will tower over Rome. Nero genuinely believes that the people around him are his friends. He accepts their criticisms because he is a humble artist and that is what artists must do – they will always have their critics. But there comes a time when he will learn the truth about what they really think about him. And he is amazed.
The emperor might have his enemies but he is also loves and is loved and we see that here, especially in the figure of his wife Poppaea but also in his first love, Acte. The fate of Poppaea is dealt with so well while Acte is given occasional chapters as narrator, revealing another side to young Lucius, as she will always regard him. And then there’s the tragic figure of Sporus.
Certain infamous deeds of Nero’s reign seem to take place in the shadows, especially the persecution of the Christians in the aftermath of the fire. It’s as if Nero can distance himself from these acts. It’s described almost as if it’s a dream. Nero seems proud that he’s never hurt anyone with his own hands but, as emperor, with power over life and death, this is a meaningless belief. Especially as many are forced to die by their own hand. I really loved this conflict between Nero’s view of himself and the view of others that we’re given tantalising glimpses of – the Nero who makes decisions about the government of the empire without consulting his senate, who evicts people to seize their land for his own palace, the extravagance of that palace. At times he is deeply saddened when people he loves seem not to love him back. He struggles to explain why when we can see it as clear as day. He is also very superstitious. He is a man who lives in dread of his fate while seeing signs to it all around. Nero is also an outsider – at odds with the ideal of Roman martial masculinity. There is no doubt that he is looked down upon. At times, one might almost feel pity for him. Almost.
I love these two books. Aside from the drama of Nero’s own conflicted personality, there are dramas of other kinds – the fire is described brilliantly as we follow its destructive path across the ancient city, burning its temples and holy places. It’s impossible not to warm to Nero the fire fighter. The chariot racing scenes are thrilling and I really enjoyed the chapters spent on Nero’s great cultural tour of Greece. Then there’s the great love affair of Nero and Poppaea, which is treated here in a wholly original way. Poppaea is such an unusual woman, as was Nero’s mother, and Margaret George does wonders in bringing such complex personalities to life.
I have enjoyed Margaret George’s ‘biographies’ for many years and her portrait of Nero is a fine addition to them. Here we have Nero as he may have been. Perhaps as Nero might have recognised himself. This remarkable, flawed, possibly mad, individual here gets the chance to speak for himself and his words are never less than riveting.
The Confessions of Young Nero