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BookBrowse Reviews The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

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The Confessions of Young Nero

by Margaret George

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George X
The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2017, 528 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2018, 544 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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The Confessions of Young Nero is a fictionalized autobiography of one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history.

Most people think of the Roman Emperor Nero as a monster who "fiddled as Rome burned." The Confessions of Young Nero is a fictionalized autobiography giving voice to a kinder, gentler ruler. The author, Margaret George, pictures Nero (37-68 CE) as having been much maligned by history, and narrates her subject's life and times from the first-person perspective. The novel relays his thoughts and experiences from his earliest memories up until the day the Great Fire starts in Rome.

Nero's depravity and murderous nature are well documented and have been the subject of many books and movies over the years including I, Claudius and Quo Vadis. One needs to remember, though, that we have only a few records from early Rome and these were sponsored by subsequent regimes that would have wanted to tarnish Nero's reputation. It's therefore impossible to know how accurate the reports of his debauchery truly are.

George, who has delivered similar treatment of other historical figures such as Henry VIII and Cleopatra, doesn't exactly redeem her subject—Nero still commits many of the horrible acts he's said to have perpetrated— but she does put a human face on him. He might, for example, have someone killed, but he always excuses it as necessary. He generally does express remorse at having his relatives dispatched. Eventually he comes across as the ultimate unreliable narrator—someone who is guilty of horrific deeds but who can completely justify his actions, and through his narration, elicits his readers' sympathy.

The picture we get of Nero is of someone surrounded by palace intrigue from early childhood and who simply knows no other way to behave. He becomes emperor at 16, and without an adult he trusts to guide him he's left to follow his own whims. Anyone familiar with the mind of an average 16-year-old boy would be horrified at the unchecked power this teenager had.

George frequently turns the focus to Nero's achievements in music and architecture, such as the many public works projects he commissioned, including public baths, canals, and the widening of harbors. Although readers should keep in mind that this account of Nero's life is heavily fictionalized, George's inclusion of minor, well-documented details about Roman life makes the novel top-notch historical fiction. Engaging tidbits are inserted throughout, with just enough information to be entertaining without dragging the action down. A very few examples include details about how chariot races were run, the fact that the poor received free grain from Rome's conquered Egyptian territories, all Roman men were clean-shaven because "only barbarians had beards, the mark of the uncivilized"—the list goes on. I particularly enjoyed her description of banquets (at which each guest brought their own napkin!):

In the dining room the three couches were drawn up in the usual horseshoe shape, while the children's table was set off to one side. When I arrived, Claudius and Mother were already reclining on the left-hand couch, with Claudius at the upper end in the host's place. The first place on the adjoining middle couch, to his left, was the place for the guest of honor, and he waved me to it. As I climbed up onto the couch—I was tall enough now that I did not need a stool—I had to grab the slippery covering to keep from sliding back.

Anyone who has spent time studying the history of the Roman Empire knows that it is an extremely complex subject particularly when dealing with the ruling families. Intermarriage, divorce and remarriage were common, naming children for their forebears was standard practice, and people often added to their names or changed them completely to reflect a change in status (Nero was named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus until his adoption by Claudius, at which point he became Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus until his accession when he changed his name again, this time to Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus).

George really helps her readers keep people and events straight. She pares down the history to reflect only what's needed to understand Nero's life, avoiding the temptation to veer off down interesting but inconsequential paths; for example, two of Claudius's four wives are never mentioned because they're ultimately unimportant to Nero's story. The author also sticks to one name per character, further aiding readers' comprehension. One need not be familiar with Roman history to enjoy the novel.

The Confessions of Young Nero is the first of two planned volumes. It works fairly well as a stand-alone novel and ends just as Nero finds out that Rome is burning. Those who find cliff-hangers frustrating may wish to wait until the second book is released. The rest will want to put Margaret George's novel high on their lists. The Confessions of Young Nero is first-rate historical fiction about the ancient Roman Empire and the life of a fascinating ruler.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2017, and has been updated for the April 2018 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Music During Nero's Time

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