THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO takes readers through the early life of Rome’s infamous Nero. Through the machinations of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, Nero became emperor at the age of sixteen, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But the road was a frightening one. The young boy, an intelligent, sensitive and watchful child, had a series of psychological shocks from an early age. His cruel uncle Caligula and his scheming cousin Messalina threatened his life, and his domineering and ambitious mother Agrippina married and poisoned two men en route to securing the throne for her son. Agrippina viewed Nero’s power as an extension of her own will. But once on the throne—like the teenage boy he was—Nero did not want to take orders from his mother. Soon the world was not big enough for the two of them. Thereafter he was remembered as a hedonist and tyrant who “fiddled” while his people burned. But the truth behind the caricature, revealed here, shows Nero to be instead a product of his mother’s relentless ambition, and the incest, violence, luxury, and intrigue that have gripped Rome’s seat of power for generations.
How could I resist a story of Nero one of the most famous of Rome’s Caesars from his childhood to the heights of his days as emperor? Well I couldn’t and I’ve always wanted to try some of Margaret George’s historical fiction. This was a slow build story introducing a broad cast of colorful characters and set against a deftly painted background and a carefully constructed plot. But patience during the early pages was worth it because I felt I was able to really know the Nero of this story and truly feel sympathy for the character.
The author argues in her notes that the Nero we are familiar with is the one told from the perspective of only three of the myriad historians and others painted him and his actions quite differently. I would suppose this is true to I was willing to be persuaded to put a more positive spin on many of his actions, though that said, this Nero was no saintly innocent, but could get as dark and brutal as any in his family tree when he felt threatened or there was something he really wanted.
The Confessions of Young Nero begin when he is a very small child and carry through to his time as Roman emperor. He has known what it is to be in danger of his life as a child and to see his mother ruthlessly clear the way for his rise. As a teen, he is married to his cousin and also step-sister since his mother married her own uncle, Emperor Claudius. Then he falls for a freed Greek woman and they share a special love all in secret. As long as there are other family descendants and his manipulating mother is around, Nero cannot be safe so he does something about it. Ruthlessly. Nero is taken with the arts of music and drama and with Greek sports and chariot racing, but what he is not taken with is making war. Much of his life, Roman is at peace, but Nero faced war in Britain with Queen Boudicca and helped gain peace in the east with Parthia. During this time, he falls in love again and it is deeply with his friend’s wife who is willing to divorce Otho to have Nero. Nero uses his power to divorce his wife and have his Poppinaea.
So, this was a long one and it begins with Nero’s family history and situation. I was a little lost amongst all the names and past situations that were mentioned. Then I settled when it moved forward with Nero’s own story. Interestingly, this is told first person and mostly by Nero, but there are two other brief narrators, Locusta the Poisoner and Acte his first love. Both of their outside perspectives were good for seeing him through other eyes.
When I read a historical fiction, I am quite aware that it is- well, fiction. What I want to see is a story that is convincing that it could actually happen that way. Or when it is about a person, that it could be true of them. I felt this book did that. Other famous people were part of this story and played their roles in Nero’s life and the Roman history at the time.
The main character, Nero, was portrayed as a man of his times and their ways were different from our modern ones. He truly believed in the Roman and Greek gods, in curses, in signs and fortunes as did the people. Though that said, Nero saw value in other races and in other classes. It was interesting to see things as the people of that time saw them.
For most of this book, Nero is young, but he is also forced to grow up fast. There are orgies and parties, but the author drops a veil over that side just like she stays vague about the brutal side.
Nero appears as a romantic figure and one who wishes to do good by his people. He walks the path alone much of the time because of his heritage and his exalted rank, but he wants true love, friends and he wants to have earned the accolades he is given. He was a great favorite of the common people. I’m a bit of a romantic, too, because reality or not, I enjoyed seeing this side of Nero. I’m actually on Team Acte and not to thrilled with the one he ended up picking for himself, but there’s more to the story so who knows maybe my gal will win in the end.
This is only part one of the story and it ends abruptly on an ominous note promising things are about to get a bit crazy and bad. Because it’s history, I’m well aware what comes in the end. I was glad to have gotten all this earlier history and to know Nero as a man and not just emperor. I would recommend this one for those who enjoy historical fiction and particularly fiction centered around a famous historical figure.
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