The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George
I read it as an: advanced reading copy
Length: 592 pp
This book picked up right where the previous book in Margaret George’s Nero series (duology would be a better term) left off. Jumping right into the thick of things, Nero has just learned about the fire sweeping through Rome. He rushes back, determined to do anything he can to stop it. He was in the middle of the efforts to stop the Great Fire, though later he would fall victim to rumors that he started the fire himself to make room for his Golden House, or, infamously, that he was fiddling about the fall of Troy as Rome burned.
Nero’s troubles didn’t end with the last smoke of the fire. He had to deal with fossilized senators from old families who were scandalized that he wanted to do things in new ways. Hey, kind of like the fossilized old farts in the senate today! How much things remain the same… Nero wanted to introduce arts and theatre and culture to Rome, and Rome, especially the patrician Romans, wanted nothing to do with it.
He also had to deal with numerous revolts, uprisings, and betrayals during his reign. Nero changed from an idealistic young boy to a somewhat paranoid man because of the betrayals he had suffered in his short life. He thought that betrayal, when it inevitably came, would come from within his family or possibly the senate, but he never saw it coming from the provinces or his Praetorian Guard. And certainly not from some of those he trusted most.
I really loved this book, at least as much as the first Nero book Ms George wrote. Here, we truly get to see Nero as he most likely really was – a sensitive, thoughtful man who wanted to make sweeping changes to a centuries-old system and instead got destroyed in the politics of it. He was first and foremost an artist and musician, loving nothing more than to write and perform poetry and music. I took years and years of Latin from high school through grad school; I’ve read Tacitus and his comments about Nero. I never thought they seemed very realistic. The outstanding research that went into this book and its predecessor really highlights how misunderstood Nero has become to history. He wasn’t insane, cruel, or in love with persecuting Christians. He was flawed, yes, maybe a bit childish and naive for the ruler of the known world. Likely he was a bit narcissistic, or at least he came across that way somewhat, but not in a malignant way *coughtrumpcough* nor in an entirely self-centered way, if that makes sense. His narcissism, such as it was, seemed to be derived purely from being a child of luxury and privilege and not knowing anything else. Sometimes while reading this, I felt a little embarrassed for him, as I think I was meant to, because, like others in the room with Nero, I wanted to tell him to stop, or ask him, “Don’t you know you can’t do that/say that here to these people?” He was so idealistic that he was really clueless about a lot of things, and it made him a target in a variety of ways.
As with all her other books, Margaret George has some absolutely lovely prose in this one as well. When speaking of the gods and religion, Nero has many things to say that were intriguing and well crafted. When one senator accused him of being an atheist, Nero replied that, in practical terms, he is because
“since we cannot know [the gods’] thoughts, it is best to admit that and proceed in the dark, unlike ignorant people who think they know and make stupid interpretations.”
Later, regarding the Christians who he ordered executed for their alleged role in the fire, Nero said,
“In some ways they are to be envied…. Having something so precious that it overrides all else in your life, even your life itself.”
As an atheist myself, I don’t feel this way about religion, but I do understand the sentiment. I hold many things in higher regard than my own life. Nero felt this way about his art, and came to realize he felt that way about Rome itself.
Combining thoughts on religion with philosophy, another of Nero’s favorite pastimes, is a terrific scene that comes just after he competes in his first chariot race. Nero’s wife Poppaea berates him for racing, an act that a charioteer (i.e., a slave) would do, not a patrician, and she was afraid for him for many reasons. She told him he was acting like a child:
“You are no longer a child. Or are you? You behave like one.”
“If I behave like one, it is because deep inside the child is still there.” …
“Childhood is a phase of life, to be put aside as one grows up.”
“No, it should be cherished, because it is the truest part of ourselves, the part that came into being first. …It is when we are our childhood selves that we are closest to the gods.”
This one reminded me to cherish my daughter’s childhood and to get more in touch with my own inner child. When Nero is on stage or talking about the arts, his true love, is when his real personality comes through. Nero and an actor are discussing the destruction of many of the theatres in the fire and how to rebuild so that plays can be put on again. Nero says,
“Yes, people need that. Especially after such sorrow. It helps them to know that life goes on.”
“Oddly enough, tragedies are a remedy for that. They put our own sorrows in context, the context of being human. Suffering is woven into all existence.”
“Oh my,” [says Nero,] “perhaps you are in the wrong profession, and belong with the philosophers.”
“Actors bring philosophy to people in a form they can understand,” [the actor] said.
I love this exchange so hard because it encompasses so much of what the humanities as a whole stand for. If you’ve known me for any length of time at all, you will have been subject to one of my epic soapbox rants about the vital role the humanities play in modern society and how it is stupid and short-sighted to cut such programs from schools. The humanities teach us literally the human experience, how people experience the world around them. We may have all kinds of cool technology now, but someone had to think it up in the first place, and think about how it impacts human life and experience. Just…don’t get me started. But I loved this scene for a lot of reasons.
Overall, I think this was just about a perfect novel. I just loved the deep research that clearly went into it, and the discovery of a man who is so different than how he is often portrayed in history. I think Margaret George has uncovered a more realistic version of Nero than anyone else and I adore the way she handles him and the multitude of myths and scandals that surround him.