The only novel I’d read by Margaret George was Helen of Troy, some years ago, which didn’t quite do it for me, but I was keen to try her new book, the first of a pair, about the Emperor Nero. Set in the duplicitous, cutthroat world of the Roman imperial family in the first century AD, this had the scope for plots and psychosis aplenty, an impression encouraged by its titular promise of ‘confessions’. I hoped for something along the lines of I, Claudius, taking the story of the Julio-Claudians into the next generation with the same kind of meaty detail that I enjoyed in Tom Holland’s Dynasty. However, George’s decision to take a revisionist viewpoint, and present Nero as a well-meaning, misunderstand and popularly-beloved emperor, means that much of the story’s dramatic flair is sacrificed.
Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was never meant to be emperor. His childhood is spent at the mercy of his unpredictable uncle, the Emperor Caligula, but he is able to spend much of the time living on the quiet farm of his aunt Lepida. However, when Caligula dies and Lucius’s great-uncle Claudius comes to the throne, exiled members of the imperial family return to Rome. Among them, is Lucius’s mother, the ambitious lady Agrippina. Alert to her vulnerability as a single woman, Agrippina carries her young son off to her villa near Rome, where he presently gains a new stepfather: the senator Crispus. For a brief time, Lucius lives in a haze of happiness, blessed with attentive tutors and the study of all sorts of things that capture his enthusiasm. He becomes a keen sportsman, an avid fan of chariot racing, and a devotee of music and the arts. Even the looming shadow cast by the empress Messalina, who sees in him a threat to the succession, can’t destroy his happiness. But Lucius’ life as a wealthy young gentleman can only last so long.
After a series of unfortunate coincidences – the death of his beloved stepfather Crispus, and the death of Messalina – Lucius’ fate alters swiftly and irrevocably when his widowed mother becomes the wife of Claudius. Suddenly he has to give up his quiet life at the villa and move to the Roman court, where he finds himself an unwilling pawn on a game-board that has only two outcomes: death, or victory. As the adults around him plot and poison, Lucius and his cousins, Claudius’ children Octavia and Britannicus, are made de facto enemies. After all, only one of the two boys can inherit, and Agrippina is determined to give fate a helping hand, to ensure that her own authority remains strong. As Claudius adopts him, and then betrothes him to Octavia, Lucius must also give up his own name: he is now to be Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, and a legend is born.
The family relationships and politics of this period are labyrinthine and George does a good job of clarifying them for a general readership. She has evidently done a lot of research and I was glad to see an author’s note, along with a select bibliography, at the end. It’s always good to see that an author has thought carefully and at length about their subject and George, of course, has done so with a particular purpose. She avowedly wishes to avoid the sensationalism that’s so often been attached to Nero, and to emphasise that he was a wise administrator as well as a talented artist on many levels and a true man of the people. For the most part, Nero (through his first-person narration) only ‘confesses’ that he’s a terribly nice chap and that any questionable acts have been forced upon him by the intransigence of those around him. This might have been quite fun if we had the sense that he was being disingenuous, because an unreliable narrator always adds a delicious extra layer to a story, but it seems that George wants us to believe him completely. We are meant to sympathise with this well-meaning, sensitive young man, and to pity him when, towards the end of the novel, he responds to circumstances by developing a darker side to his character. Personally, I was relieved when this happened, as I found him implausibly ‘nice’ for most of the book and was itching for a bit more personality. I’m not saying that Nero has to be bouncing off the wall with madness, but I would have been interested to see a ‘good’ emperor dealing in a more thought-provoking way with questions of ethics and political ambition. Being ‘nice’ doesn’t have to mean being someone else’s pawn.
As ever, I was most attracted by the powerful women of the piece. Here, the men are often manipulated by their female relatives (although George hints, pleasingly, that Claudius had a well-concealed dark side). The chief struggle for control is that between Messalina and Agrippina, two very powerful women whose own ambitions will affect the path of an entire empire. It’s thanks to them that life in the palace is so isolated and dangerous for the younger generation, something George does convey well. Her scene-setting is full of detail, from descriptions of the food and furnishings, to the habits of daily life; although I questioned her suggestion that a young emperor-elect could unwind by taking strolls around the Forum or other parts of Rome. Surely a band of Praetorians would have been on board even for the junior members of the imperial family? One other thing that jarred with me was the completely disproportionate amount of page-space given to the Boudiccan revolt. No other political event was described in this much detail and unfortunately the description was also rather dry. Although it was being described to Nero in person, it felt like pure exposition, with a textbook account simply being put in a character’s mouth. It was a rare misstep of pacing, since much of the book flows well in that respect.
I questioned the need for chapters told from other viewpoints. Nero is the main character and, since we are clearly meant to be on his ‘side’, it makes sense that we follow the story at his side. If only his narrative voice had been a tiny bit more vivid and engaging; a tiny bit more colourful! But, in any case, we are committed to him: why do we need chapters told by Locusta and Acte? As far as I can tell, they didn’t add anything new and served merely to reinforce George’s implication that Nero is generally admired by other characters. Unfortunately they also emphasised that there is little discernible difference between the various narrative voices. And did Acte really exist? I don’t know the history well enough, but there were points where it seemed that she was playing the role Poppaea should really have had. It’s true that I probably have a skewed understanding of these things, since much of my knowledge of this story comes from Monteverdi and we all know that isn’t necessarily the most reliable source. I was happy, though, to spot old ‘friends’ from the opera turning up throughout the book: Seneca, whose hypocrisy as a wealthy stoic is constantly flagged; Octavia, whose oppressed childhood gives way to a miserable marriage; Otho, the rather camp libertine; Lucan, Seneca’s poetry-writing nephew; and, of course, beautiful, auburn-haired Poppaea herself. Nero’s few moments of true Roman decadence come courtesy of the debauched circle of friends represented by the final three.
I sense that The Confessions of Young Nero wants to be part of the traditional of fictitious Roman memoirs exemplified by the Memoirs of Hadrian and I, Claudius. Personally I don’t feel it reaches this level, as it never quite succeeds in creating the deep characterisation that both these books manage so well and, without that rich sense of personality, I found it very hard to see Nero as a person and not as a character on paper. The claustrophobia of court life, the inner torments of a good person forced to do bad things, and the struggle of coming to terms with the rule of a vast empire, could all have been brought out more effectively. Having said that, George has done her research very thoroughly and she is to be congratulated for trying to tell a familiar story in a less sensational and more thoughtful manner. It’s just that, personally, I’d much prefer a Nero with sharper teeth.
Perhaps it’s true that I simply don’t get on very well with George’s novels, which would be a shame. As ever, I see there are many exuberant reviews of this book in which people rave about George’s characterisation and mastery of the historical novel format, so very likely I am simply out on my own once again. Or perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by the very high class of historical fiction that I’ve been reading recently, which has led me to expect more.
I recieved this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review