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The Confessions of Young Nero ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Confessions of Young Nero ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Emperor Nero (real name Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) was born in the year 37 AD and died at age thirty in 68 AD. He became the fifth Roman emperor in 54 AD at the age of seventeen.

History for the most part has not been kind to the Emperor Nero. Historians, writing about Nero in the decades after his death, advanced the narrative that he was an over-the-top lunatic, whose cruelty, depravity and sexual excesses brought the Roman Empire to its knees. He reportedly had sexual relations with his own mother, Agrippina, and had her killed five years into his reign. He is believed to have tortured and killed thousands of Christians and earned the distinction of being designated the “Beast” in the Book of Revelations. He had poisoned (or otherwise murdered) anybody who challenged his authority. He spent money lavishly and lived luxuriously. He murdered his wife, Poppea, and then, feeling remorseful, marring a surgically altered boy who resembled Poppea. It might be said that he was a perfect example of the adage: Absolute authority corrupts absolutely.

Nero certainly did have his own mother, Agrippina, killed (as a desperate act of self-preservation), but the rest of the ugly stories about him might only be based on rumor, innuendo and fabricated tales. Historians didn’t like him because he was popular with the common people (but not the aristocrats and the elites). He was an unconventional emperor who engaged in sports competitions, musical performances, chariot racing and other activities deemed unworthy of an emperor.

The historical novel The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George, is an attempt to set the record straight about the real Nero: what he was really like, instead of what his enemies and detractors thought of him and his reign. One of the reasons the common people liked him was because he engaged (at great expense) in many public-works projects, including bathhouses, stadiums, theatres and other entertainment venues. He sometimes gave away expensive “gifts” (including tracts of land and horses) to people who attended sporting events. As an artist (poet and musician), he promoted the arts and public performance. As a military leader (but never on the field of battle himself), he scored impressive victories against foreign enemies, including in Britain and Parthia.

The Confessions of Young Nero is over 500 pages long, but it is only half the story of Nero’s life, told in his first-person voice. The second book, also over 500 pages, is The Splendor Before the Dark. As author Margaret George explains in her lengthy Afterword,   The Confessions of Young Nero is her attempt at an honest portrayal of the life of a fascinating, controversial, long-ago historical figure who has been frequently misunderstood, maligned, and misinterpreted by history.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp