March 7, 2017
The New York Times bestselling and legendary author of Helen of Troy and Elizabeth I now turns her gaze on Emperor Nero, one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history. Built on the backs of those who fell before it, Julius Caesar's imperial dynasty is only as strong as the next person who seeks to control it. In the Roman Empire no one is safe from the sting of betrayal: man, woman--or child. As a boy, Nero's royal heritage becomes a threat to his very life, first when the mad emperor Caligula tries to drown him, then when his great aunt attempts to secure her own son's inheritance. Faced with shocking acts of treachery, young Nero is dealt a harsh lesson: it is better to be cruel than dead. While Nero idealizes the artistic and athletic principles of Greece, his very survival rests on his ability to navigate the sea of vipers that is Rome. The most lethal of all is his own mother, a cold-blooded woman whose singular goal is to control the empire. With cunning and poison, the obstacles fall one by one. But as Agrippina's machinations earn her son a title he is both tempted and terrified to assume, Nero's determination to escape her thrall will shape him into the man he was fated to become--an Emperor who became legendary. With impeccable research and captivating prose, The Confessions of Young Nero is the story of a boy's ruthless ascension to the throne. Detailing his journey from innocent youth to infamous ruler, it is an epic tale of the lengths to which man will go in the ultimate quest for power and survival.
I’m a fan of Margaret George and enjoyed other novels from her. Confessions of Young Nero is, like her other work, is a balance of history and good storytelling, and provides the reader the opportunity to read what history may have lost or in Nero’s case, skewed towards the negative because those who first wrote his history had reason to make less of the Julian-Claudian rulers.
George always paints a wonderfully detailed world and creates believable, sympathetic characters — even those with a more ‘villainous’ take on the world. Her ability in utilizing historical texts and sources shows in the grounding of the novel in historical events including the early Christians rebellion against Judaism, and Boudicca’s rebellion in Britain. The intimate portrait of Nero is set in the larger context of the Republic and the novel is populated by others such as Seneca, Octavia daughter of Claudius, and his mother, Agrippina. George shows the splendor of Rome and the surrounding areas as well as the machinations and excesses of the powerful.
While I enjoyed the novel, it isn’t my favorite. The early going, while great for fans of Graves I, Claudius because we get the tale end of that period, is a bit uneven narratively. We see episodes that will later explain some of Nero’s choices, but it is sporadic and jumps a bit without a clear sense of Nero’s age or how much time has passed. And there were moments throughout that made me feel like George had sanitized him a bit too much. Despite that, Nero is complex and struggles with decisions and necessities of his role, largely sympathetic.
While flawed, I recommend the novel to fans of George, those who enjoy historical novels well steeped in the research, and those who want those historical gaps filled by great storytelling.
If you are interested, check out my reading stats for this novel: Reading Stats: The Confessions of Young Nero