Saturday, November 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Splendor before the Dark by Margaret George

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

It’s closing in on two years since I read Margaret George’s superb historical novel of the formative years of Emperor Nero: The Confessions of Young Nero. Her follow-up book, The Splendor before the Dark has been recently released. Details from the first book are fuzzy in my mind, but the characters come alive again in this novel which could be read as a stand-alone.

Nero has now been Emperor of Rome for ten years. Married to his great love, the renowned beauty Poppaea, Nero rules supreme, paying the barest of lip service to the Senate, employing a competent civil service of freedmen and spies to keep the empire running. He is a good administrator, but prefers spending his time with Rome’s literary elite and in training for racing his own chariot, pursuits considered beneath the dignity of his office.

The book opens on the eve of the great fire (the one where he gained his reputation for fiddling while Rome burned.) In fact, he had been out of the city (performing on his cithara) when he got word of the fire and raced back. In this novel, he throws himself into the firefighting efforts, risking his own safety, demonstrating a great deal of concern for the poor and common people. It was a little difficult overcoming a learned bias against Nero to buy into this heroic image but I pushed on through to see the aftermath of the fire.

Much of the city is destroyed, giving Nero an opportunity to rebuild Rome according to his own wishes. Some of his plans are good for the city and its inhabitants, like widening the streets and forbidding wooden overhangs that are fire hazards. But his main project, a huge new home for himself with fountains, parks, and a massive room with a revolving removable ceiling, was simply a monument to his own ego – as well as being a drain on the treasury.

Nero was popular with the people of Rome. He was generous with bread and circuses and, at times, opened parts of his palace for the people to view. But a broad swath of the senators and leaders saw him as a tyrant. There was considerable unrest in the aftermath of the fire with rumors sprouting that he had been responsible for it to clear the real estate he coveted. Disturbed by the rumors, Nero, who believed the fire had been accidental, started looking about for a scapegoat. He embraced the idea that it had been the Christians, coming to believe it himself, and began a large-scale persecution.

When a plot arose to assassinate him, something of a tradition in ancient Rome, particularly among Nero’s family, he was warned just on time. The plotters were executed or allowed to commit suicide and the confiscation of their property helped to refill the treasury so that Nero’s building binge could continue.

George is able to take the reader inside Nero’s head. He is a mass of contradictions: completely confident of his right to have whatever he wants, whenever he wants, certain in his decisions, and yet, wounded by criticism of others and given to moments of self-reflection. After which, he manages to conclude that he is right and others are wrong.

Nero’s reputation has been rehabilitated to some degree by recent scholars and George paints a balanced picture of a ruler with positive as well as negative traits. Rome did enjoy a period of peace under his reign, before the empire started unraveling at its seams. He did patronize the arts and inspired architectural and engineering feats in pursuit of his goals. And yet, it’s hard to embrace Nero as a great man when he is such a megalomaniac. He was nowhere near as great and beloved as he believed himself to be. I’m not sure if I’m meant to pity him when the inevitable downfall occurs, but I don’t.

Margaret George’s historical fiction is well-researched and vividly detailed. These two novels of Nero are highly recommended.

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