The Splendor Before the Dark: A Novel of the Emperor Nero

Written by Margaret George
Review by Vicki Kondelik

Margaret George’s epic novel, the second of two about the emperor Nero (after The Confessions of Young Nero), begins with Rome on fire. George’s Nero is not the cruel tyrant of legend, and he does not start the Great Fire of Rome. In fact, George’s Nero is elsewhere when the fire starts and rushes back to help with the relief efforts. He resolves to rebuild Rome on a grander scale than ever before, and his plans include the splendid Golden House, which he intends to be open to the public. But rumors quickly arise that he had set the fire in order to rebuild the city. Soon Nero discovers a plot to assassinate him, led by people he thought were his friends.

Nero often performs music in public and races chariots. The aristocrats think he is demeaning himself, but the common people love him for it. At the beginning of the novel, he is happy in his private life, married to the beautiful, ambitious Poppaea, even though the lack of an heir is a source of worry. But Poppaea’s death devastates him. In George’s version, her death is an accident rather than the murder that later historians have depicted. He finds comfort in several other women and a boy who bears an uncanny resemblance to Poppaea. Nero’s love of athletics and Greek culture lead him to Greece to compete in the major athletic contests, including the Olympic Games, but his absence from Rome leads to the final crisis of his reign.

George’s novel is meticulously researched, and, as she explains in her afterword, much of what we think we know about Nero was written by his enemies. She goes a long way toward setting the record straight. Her writing brings imperial Rome brilliantly to life. This novel, along with its predecessor, is highly recommended.