Margaret George Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Margaret George

Margaret George

An interview with Margaret George

Margaret George discusses her novel, The Confessions of Young Nero, the first of two novels dedicated to the brief but eventful life of the titular Roman Emperor.

You've written fictional biographies of historical figures from Cleopatra to Henry VIII. Roman history is filled with fascinating, controversial characters. Why pick Nero?

Nero was calling out to me! He was trapped beneath the rubble of history, in spite of his name being a household one. Between Hollywood's portrayals and the catchphrase "Nero fiddled while Rome burned" (the butt of numerous modern political cartoons), the real Nero had vanished. I felt I had a mission to restore him to his rightful place in history.


Nero's historical reputation is at least partly composed of rumor and outright fiction. To paraphrase your novel, sometimes the stories that survive are the most memorable rather than the truest. How did you sort through these biased accounts and decide what to keep, discard or reinterpret?

It helps to have professional academic historians who are doing the same thing, and who showed me how to do likewise. I used to read historical accounts as if they were all true but slowly came to realize how flawed they are--they fail "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" test rather badly (as do our modern news reports). Imagine if all you knew 2,000 years from now about Obama's presidency was what was reported on Fox News, or Bush's from MSNBC. This is what you are dealing with with Nero!

So I had to be a skeptic, an analyst, and try to access the source from which these facts were coming, taking into account the known biases of the writer or the lapse of time between the event and the recording of the event. That said, we really have only a very few sources (in Nero's case, three main ones: Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius) and, in the end, we have to rely on them, but using detachment and reservations about the contents.


You've written about many powerful, potentially dangerous women, but Nero's mother Agrippina might qualify as the most ruthless of them all. Ambitious women often fare poorly in historical accounts thanks to biased ancient authors. When writing ths novel, did you consider that, much like Nero, Agrippina might not have been as bad as she was made out to be?

I agree completely that, like her son, Agrippina has gotten a bad rap. And the modern historians who are revisiting Nero's reputation are doing just the same with her. It has been pointed out that the negative character traits reported about her have been applied to other powerful women in the Roman political world, and some descriptions of her seem canned. A powerful woman was seen as a threat, an aberration of nature who had to be constrained. That was one of the propaganda tools Octavian mustered against Cleopatra, stating, "We must allow no woman to make herself equal to a man."

Certainly Agrippina had a hard life, and needed to be hard to survive. From a little boy's point of view, however, she must have seemed frightening. And from a teenage boy's point of view, irritating, meddling and controlling. So I portrayed her as Nero saw her.

But she did what she had to do to make him emperor, even (if you believe the prophecy--like much else, who knows?) sacrificing her own life to do so. I rather admire her steely, fatalistic resolve.

It's telling that the Romans did not allow any other woman after her to have such power. That speaks volumes as to her importance and also their fear of strong women.


Nero has at least two significant romantic interests. What's it like to write a love story between ancient historical figures? Are there ways to figure out the tenor of these relationships without resorting to guesswork?

I was lucky that Nero was what we would now call a romantic, and romantic love has not changed between his time and ours, so to re-create the feeling was not difficult. It's a mental state, close to an obsession. We know that Nero felt this way because of his actions: as a teenager, he was so determined to marry Acte, a freed slave (and utterly taboo for a patrician, let alone an emperor), that he concocted a bogus royal pedigree to make her suitable.

In the case of Poppaea, he was smitten with her when she was still the mistress (or wife, depending on the source) of his friend Otho. Being emperor, Nero could solve the problem by making Otho governor of Portugal and sending him away so he could marry Poppaea. He had eyes for no one else and was faithful to her until her death. Then his grief was so intense he refused to have her cremated and her beauty reduced to ashes; instead, he had her embalmed and declared a goddess, and burned "a year's worth of spices from Arabia" at her funeral. This is romantic love at its highest expression.


Nero has often functioned in popular culture as a symbol of the worst excesses of the Roman Empire. Placed in historical context, however, his moral status seems more complicated. How do you feel about moral relativism or the general idea of judging ancient men by modern standards?

Although Nero was no angel, popular culture seems to have created a Nero made up of every over-the-top emperor rolled into one, and laid every excess at his door. But the question of moral relativism is a really pressing one today, and even George Washington has been hauled into the court of public opinion to answer for being a slave-owner. It is hard for us to believe, truly believe, that people in past ages did not see the things that seem so glaring to us today. But it is telling, I think, that no lofty ancient philosopher questioned slavery. Seneca said that you should treat the slaves humanely, but that was as far as he got. It takes a real effort for us to forgive past characters for what we see as their blindness to certain things, but unless we can, we can't really understand them or even judge them fairly. We have to enter into their world imaginatively and put on their mindset as a temporary garment.


As the first of your books to center on a Roman, Nero is in some ways a curious choice, given his rather un-Roman personality and preoccupations. Do you think of your Nero as someone born at the wrong time and place? Or do you think Nero did possess some distinctly Roman characteristics?

Nero probably imagined that he would have flourished happily in ancient Athens, and did his best to re-create it in his own life. But he surely would have missed the opulence and power of Rome.

He was more Roman than he wanted to admit. He had a natural affinity for power games (playing them better than his rivals), enjoyed the vast resources the empire brought to his door, and the engineering genius that invented the vault and concrete, changing architecture forever and making his revolutionary Golden House possible. Although he was judged short on the Roman virtues of dignity, gravitas and military valor, he possessed the other valued traits--honesty, courtesy, mercy, generosity, hospitality and élan--in abundance. And his family was so deeply embedded in the history of Rome that he could never really separate himself from it. The Ara Pacis monument erected by Augustus, celebrating his era of peace and his family, has Nero's grandmother and grandfather carved on it, with Nero's father as a little boy tugging on a grownup's toga. Nero was very much a Roman, however much he wanted to think otherwise.


Interview by Hank Stephenson for Shelf Awareness. Reproduced with permission of Shelf Awareness.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Confessions of Young Nero jacket Elizabeth I jacket
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Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Margaret George but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    If you enjoyed:
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  • Ruth Downie

    Ruth Downie

    In 2004, Ruth Downie won the Fay Weldon section of BBC3's End of Story competition. Her first novel, Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls was published in the UK in 2006, and in the USA in 2007 (as simply Medicus). The ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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    Try:
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