My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The children and I have bumped up against Nero several times in our homeschool studies recently. We have studied “Beric the Britain,” and learned some about Nero. We encountered him in our current read-aloud, “An Island Story.” Still, the main impression that I received about Nero from the angle that our studies were oriented in was that he was an insane emperor who persecuted Christians after the fire that burned down parts of Rome. I didn’t really know anything about Nero other than that.
Margaret George, in the book “The Confessions of Young Nero,” takes a different approach to Nero’s story. As she argues in her afterward, the histories about Nero are mostly slanted to make him look bad, either by historians wanting to run down the Julio-Claudian dynasty or by historians that blamed him for the intense Christian persecution in the latter part of the first century.
Instead, George chooses to portray Nero from his youth, as a young idealist and artist, who is born into a family of murderers and schemers. He begins his story living with his aunt, with his mother in exile from the crazy and evil Emperor Caligula. As his aunt’s family continues to scheme, Caligula dies and is replaced by a family member Claudius.
Claudius allows Nero’s mother to come home, and that is when Nero’s life truly begins. He gains a stepfather he loves, learns to train athletically, begins to learn instruments and realizes how murderous his mother actually is.
Through a series of his mother’s machinations, Nero becomes trapped in a loveless marriage and unexpectedly becomes emperor. The rest of the book is spent following Nero’s political and personal life, leading up to the book ending at the fire in Rome.
I found the book to be quite fascinating. I learned much about Nero, and I found that I understood better both why the people of Rome loved him, but why the Roman upper class and senate hated him. I felt sorry for the poor child who had such a dysfunctional childhood and who was such a dissolute character.
George portrays Nero as if he is two people–a good and upright person and a deep and dark murderer, attempting to keep himself safe. I’m not sure that the emperor’s laurel actually suits him because he seems to be an artist and musician above all. It’s an interesting picture.
I look forward to seeing how George is going to continue her story because it seems that most of what I know about Nero is from the parts of his reign not covered in this book. I also found myself telling my children incidents from Nero’s life as I read–some of which my children remembered from their history studies (and I just didn’t remember). Interesting and informative. I love they way George has brought real history to life and made a three-dimensional person out of one of history’s greatest stereotypes.