The first in a pair of novels devoted to Roman Emperor Nero—the one blamed for fiddling while Rome burned—offers a new take on an age-old reputation.
Insane, cruel, a sex fiend? That’s not the Nero who narrates George’s (Elizabeth I, 2011, etc.) latest historical epic. This lonely child, attracted to music, poetry, and sports and propelled to the forefront of history when his scruple-free mother, Agrippina, returns from exile, scarcely has clean hands, but neither is he mad, bad, and dangerous to know. It’s Agrippina who sets her son on the path to power, employing Locusta, a poisoner, to help clear the way to the imperial throne. Having disposed of her husband, Agrippina positions herself to marry her uncle, Emperor Claudius. Then, once Nero has reached age 16, old enough to take power, it’s Claudius’ turn for the poisoned platter. Indeed, it’s the women around Nero who seem to introduce much of the danger, passion, and excitement to this version of events. Admittedly, Nero uses Locusta too, to rid himself of a threat, and is eventually driven to arrange the murder of overbearing Agrippina, yet he’s muted rather than megalomaniacal and haunted by the matricide. Other notable female figures include Octavia, his first wife, ignored, then divorced; Acte, the freed slave Nero wants to marry but who spurns him; Boudicca, the British queen who leads an uprising that nearly defeats the Roman army; and Poppaea, already married to a friend of Nero’s but who will become the emperor’s wife in due course. On its whistle-stop tour through the years, George’s revisionist novel makes hefty use of its research, yet the emperor himself, shorn of his bad-boy reputation, emerges as oddly pallid, neither charismatic nor catastrophic.
By reconfiguring one of history’s most notorious villains as “a man of integrity, ingenuity, and generosity,” this workmanlike saga redeems Nero while simultaneously rendering him rather less fascinating.