Everybody knows that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Many people think he set fire to the city before picking up his violin. And anyone with a taste for historical gossip knows he had sex with his mother, whom he ended up murdering. All of which means that if you’re handed a book called “The Confessions of Young Nero,” you probably want to read it. Messy lives make good stories, and nobody knows that better than Margaret George.
Still, as any student of history knows, fake news and alternate facts are nothing new. Politics being what they are, smear jobs, whitewashing, character assassination and real assassination have been around as long as people have. History is not what happened; it’s what someone chose to write down, and — I hope I don’t disillusion anyone by mentioning this — the motives of historians are not necessarily pure.
George has earned a stellar reputation with intensively researched, compulsively readable biographies of famous figures from Henry VIII to Helen of Troy. She burrows through the centuries to find real people beneath the layers of careless reporting, political propaganda and malicious libel. And knowing both the value of a reputation, and how it’s gained or lost, she here sets out to recover Nero’s.
Admittedly, he did have his mother murdered. (In fairness, she tried to kill him first.) He didn’t burn down Rome, though, and if he had been playing a musical instrument at the time, it would have been a cithara, fiddles not having been invented. But George’s reconstruction of the man, in terms both of his public life and private character, is more than a revisiting of fact: It’s a subtle exploration of identity and the insidious effects of power.
One slight problem is that the book begins at the beginning. Nero is the narrator for most of the story, and the unfortunate fact is that your average 3-year-old hasn’t got much in the way of perspective or penetration. Reality is garbled for any young child — filtered and shaped by adults. If they’re constantly being exiled or poisoned by one another, a child’s sense of reality is likely to be a trifle skewed. Ergo, despite a good opening in which his uncle Caligula tries to sacrifice little Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (Nero’s first of many names) to Diana, the first 80 pages or so are slow going. It’s a detailed and mildly interesting picture of rural 1st-century life in the Roman empire, but things don’t really get moving until Nero’s ambitious mother returns from exile and poisons his beloved stepfather so she can marry the (apparently) dimwitted emperor Claudius, as part of her quest to elevate her son — and herself — to that position.
“Confessions” is all about identity: How is it made, lost, reinvented? The young Nero’s life is ruled by the destiny proclaimed by his mother, and her bending of reality to accomplish it. Even when he assumes his role as emperor, his “self” is still shaped by the people around him.
The tragic irony is that Nero is aware of this trap but unable to escape it, except, he thinks, by creating a separate identity as musician, actor, athlete. He seeks to compete as a performer and thus prove to everyone — principally himself — that he has merit as a man; that he exists as something other than the emperor. But of course, he can’t: He’s always the emperor, and it’s doubly ironic that this private life must always be lived in public, and that his conception of his merit is still dependent on other people’s opinions of his performance.
In an oddly poignant moment, Nero finds his one moment of true man-to-man understanding in a brief conversation with a Jewish prisoner, Paul of Tarsus, who says: “You know what it is to train, to put all of yourself to the test. . . . That is what drives me, as well as what drives you. We are fellow competitors, brothers in dedication that others cannot understand.”
George encourages us to consider the peculiar difficulty of living a moral life if one had no real idea what morals are, let alone what they might be good for. A lot of politicians have behaved as though common morality didn’t apply to them, but for Nero, it literally didn’t. Nothing mattered, save the fact that he ruled. Keeping order wasn’t enough; he had to be the best — the best athlete, the best musician, the most loved emperor — because there was nothing else for him to be. And in the end, you end up liking the guy and even feeling sorry for him despite the collateral damage.
Margaret George occupies that blurry space between history and fiction. And between Tacitus and Margaret George, I rather think it’s George’s account that is not only most sympathetic but most truthful.
Diana Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander series. Her new book, a collection of Outlander novellas titled “Seven Stones to Stand or Fall,” will be released in June.
By Margaret George
Berkley. 514 pp. $28