Built on the backs of those who fell before it, Julius Caesar’s imperial dynasty is only as strong as the next person who seeks to control it. In the Roman Empire no one is safe from the sting of betrayal: man, woman—or child.
As a boy, Nero’s royal heritage becomes a threat to his very life, first when the mad emperor Caligula tries to drown him, then when his great aunt attempts to secure her own son’s inheritance. Faced with shocking acts of treachery, young Nero is dealt a harsh lesson: it is better to be cruel than dead.
While Nero idealizes the artistic and athletic principles of Greece, his very survival rests on his ability to navigate the sea of vipers that is Rome. The most lethal of all is his own mother, a cold-blooded woman whose singular goal is to control the empire. With cunning and poison, the obstacles fall one by one. But as Agrippina’s machinations earn her son a title he is both tempted and terrified to assume, Nero’s determination to escape her thrall will shape him into the man he was fated to become—an Emperor who became legendary.
With impeccable research and captivating prose, The Confessions of Young Nero is the story of a boy’s ruthless ascension to the throne. Detailing his journey from innocent youth to infamous ruler, it is an epic tale of the lengths to which man will go in the ultimate quest for power and survival.
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This is not the first time I have been imprisoned. So I am hopeful that this is a sham and that the new emperor, Galba, will soon need my unique services and quietly send for me and once again I shall be treading the palace halls. I feel at home there, and why shouldn't I? I have provided my timely services for those in power for many years.
By trade I am a poisoner. There, why not say it? And not any old poisoner, but the acknowledged expert and leader in my profession. So many others want to be another Locusta, another me. So I founded an academy to pass on my knowledge and train the next generation, for Rome will always be in need of poisoners. I should lament that, should say what a pity that Rome must descend to that, but that would be hypocritical of me. Besides, I am not convinced that poison is not the best way to die. Think of all the other ways a person may die at the hands of Rome: being torn by beasts in the arena, being strangled in the Tullianum prison, and, most insipid of all, being ordered to open your veins and bleed yourself to death, like a sacrificial animal. Bah. Give me a good poison anytime. Did not Cleopatra embrace the asp and its poison, leaving her beautiful and stretched out upon her couch?
I first met the late emperor Nero when he was still a child, still Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the name he was born with. I saw him at the low point in his life, when he was an abandoned child at the mercy of his uncle Caligula. (Now, that was someone who gave me a lively string of business!) His father was dead, his mother, Agrippina, had been banished when he was not even three years old, and his uncle liked to toy with him.
I remember he was a likable child-well, he remained likable all his life; it was a gift-but timorous. Many things frightened him, especially loud noises and being sent for unexpectedly. Caligula had a habit of that-sending for people in the middle of the night. He once forced me to watch a nocturnal theatrical performance in the palace, featuring himself as Jupiter. Sometimes it was harmless, like the playacting; other times it ended with the death of the helpless person he had sent for. So, Nero-let us call him that to avoid confusion, just as I call Caligula Caligula rather than Gaius Caesar Germanicus-was precocious in recognizing the danger of the serpent in his uncle.
Ah, such memories! Here in my cell I find myself returning to them, helping the hours to pass, until that moment when Galba sends for me with a task. I know he will!
The moon was round and full. It shone on the flat surface of the lake, which was also round, making it appear that the moon itself had expanded and enlarged itself there. It rose golden from the encircling hills but soon was a bright white ball high above.
It illuminated the wide deck of the ship. I was to sit beside my uncle and listen to him intoning praise to the goddess Diana, whose sanctuary was on the shore of the lake and to whom the lake itself was sacred.
I remember the flame of the torches that threw a flickering red light on the faces around me, in contrast to the clear bluish-white moonlight bathing the wider scene. My uncle's face looked not like a human's but like a demon's, with a burning hue.
These are all impressions, memories that swirl without being attached to anything. The reflection on the water-the torches-the thin, reedy voice of my uncle-the nervous laughter around me-the chill in the air-
I was only three years old, so it is no wonder my memories are disconnected.
Then his face shoved up into mine, his silky voice saying, "What shall I do with the bitch's whelp?"
More nervous laughter. His rough hands grabbed my shoulders and hauled me up, my legs dangling helplessly.
"I shall sacrifice him to the goddess!" He strode over to the rail and held me over the rippling water. I can still see the undulation of the reflected moonlight, waiting for me. "She wants a human sacrifice, and what more worthy than this kin of mine, descendant of the divine Augustus? Only the best for Diana, and perhaps a propitiation for the lapse of Augustus, who preferred to worship her brother Apollo. There you go!"
And I was flung out over the water, landing with a splash, cold, cold, and I sank, unable to swim or even cry out. Then strong hands grasped me, pulled me mercifully out of the water, and I could breathe. I was hauled onto the deck, where my uncle stood, hands on hips, laughing.
"Better luck next time, eh, Chaerea? You are too softhearted, to rescue such flotsam. Anything born of my sister can come to no good."
As I sat shivering next to Chaerea I could see down the whole length of the huge boat, see the light dancing on the mosaic-covered deck, the moonlight shining on the white marble cabin. The madman who had thrown me in the water now paced up and down, laughing. Not until I was older did I hear such a laugh again, and it was from a captive hyena, whining and mewling in its cage.
Let me off, let me off, let me off this boat, I prayed, to what god I knew not, just whatever god was listening.
"Come, lad," said Chaerea, putting his huge arm around my shoulders. "You should walk, warm up." He pulled me up and marched me up and down the deck, until feeling returned to my numb feet. We passed the rowers, whose heads turned as if on stalks to see us as we passed. One or two smiled. The others looked like the statues that were placed here and there on the deck.
"The shore is close," said Chaerea, holding me up and pointing to it. "Soon we will be back on it."
How I got back and when I got back I do not know. I have told you, my memories are wispy from this early age and do not join together to make a whole; rather, they are like pieces of cloud drifting through the sky of my mind, each portion separate and contained. But the horrible memory of the boat ride is burned into my mind.
My little bed in my auntÕs home, where I lived, was narrow and hard; I can feel the rough linen when I think about it, but cannot see what else is in the room. I know the place was in the country because I heard roosters crow in the morning and I remember gathering eggs, still warm, from a bed of straw. I also remember many kinds of butterflies, and flowers on tall stalks, although I know now those were weeds.
I called my aunt Butterfly because one of her names was Lepida, which means elegant and graceful, and she was very pretty. Her hair was the reddish color of copper with a bit of dust on it, not the bright shiny copper that has just been polished. She was my father's younger sister and told me stories about him-he who had died before I could know him-and about their ancestors. When I told her how the sun made her hair glow, she laughed and said, "Bronze hair is in our family. I can see little glints of it in yours, too, even though it's mainly blond. Shall I tell you the story about how it came to be that color?"
"Oh, yes!" I settled in next to her, hoping it would be a long story.
"Well, long ago one of our ancestors saw two tall and handsome young men standing in the road."
"Were they gods?" I guessed. Whenever tall strangers appeared out of nowhere, they were gods.
"Indeed they were-the twin gods Castor and Pollux. They told our ancestor that the Romans had won a great battle, and to go to Rome and tell everyone. To prove that they were gods and telling the truth, they reached out and touched his beard, and it turned instantly from black to red. So from then on the family was called Ahenobarbus-Bronze Beard."
"Did my father have a red beard?" I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to hear that he was a hero and famous and that his death had been tragic. I later found out he was none of the above.
"Oh, yes. He was a true Ahenobarbus. Another unusual thing about our family is that all the men have only two personal names-Lucius and Gnaeus. Your father was a Gnaeus and you are a Lucius. Your grandfather, also a Lucius, was a consul but also a chariot racer. A famous one, too."
I had little ivory play chariots, and I loved racing them against one another on the floor. "When can I drive a chariot?"
Aunt Butterfly cocked her head, smiling. "Not for a while yet. You have to be very strong to race chariots. The horses pull the reins from your hands unless you hold very tight, and the chariot bounces and you have to be careful not to fall out, which is very dangerous."
"Maybe I could have a little chariot, pulled by ponies?"
"Perhaps," she said. "But you are still too young even for that."
I do remember this conversation about the chariots and the red beards. But why I was living with Aunt Butterfly, and what had happened to my mother and father, I still did not know. I knew my father was dead, but I did not know about my mother. All I knew was that she was not there.
Aunt gave me two teachers. One was named Paris and he was an actor and a dancer. The other was named Castor and he was a barber. He shaved the beard of AuntÕs husband (who did not have a bronze beard but a regular brown one) and sewed up cuts and did other handy things. Paris was only for fun. I could not see that he did anything but act and pretend to be someone else. First he would tell a story-usually it was about a Greek, because they seemed to have the best stories-and then he would pretend to be those people. In real life, he was dark and not very tall. But when he played Apollo, I swear he grew tall before my eyes and his hair lightened.
"No, little one," he would say, laughing. "That is only your imagination. It is the actor's job to make you see and hear things inside your own head."
"Does an actor do magic?"
He glanced around; a frightened look flitted over his eyes. "Of course not! The magic happens only in your own thoughts."
It was not long before I learned that practicing magic was forbidden, and that there was just such practice going on in that household.
In some ways it was odd to be the only child in the household. I did not have anyone to play with except Paris-who was childlike in many ways but still an adult-and the children who were slaves. Aunt did not like my playing with them but she could not be watching all the time, and what did she expect me to do? Let me say it: I was lonely. Lonely as in alone, as in solitary, as in set apart. Aunt kept stressing that being set apart was a special thing, a glorious thing, but it only felt like a punishment to me. So I found freedom in playing with the slave children my own age, and freedom in acting out the parts Paris taught me. Sometimes I was a god; sometimes I was a girl (I would be Persephone to his Hades-and we always used the proper Greek names, not the Roman ones of Proserpine and Pluto); sometimes I was an adult. On the stage-in actuality just the courtyard-I could be anyone. In real life, as Aunt kept reminding me, I was the descendant of the divine Augustus and must remember this at all times. But, as Paris informed me, I was also the descendant of his adversary Marc Antony, and Marc Antony was a lot more fun than the stolid and dull divine Augustus.
"Antony went to the east, to the lands that speak Greek, and to Egypt, and reveled in music, flowers, wine, and the Mysteries of Dionysus. He commanded a great fleet of ships and had a wife named Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. He-"
"Ruined himself, and disgraced himself as a Roman," cut in a sharp voice. We turned to see Aunt's husband, Silanus, standing in the doorway. It was doubly frightening because he was rarely at home. He stepped over to me, bent down, and looked me in the eyes. "Let Paris tell you the whole story, then. Go on, Paris!" He jerked his head up toward the trembling tutor.
"Uhh . . . he fought a great sea battle against Augustus, at Actium, and he lost."
"More than that, he fled back to Egypt, rather than falling on his sword as any self-respecting Roman general should do," finished Silanus. "Before he had defected to the east, he had married Augustus's sister. He left two fine daughters behind, Antonia the Elder and Antonia the Younger. You are descended from both of them. Never forget you are the heir of the Roman Marc Antony, not the debauched and debased Greek one."
He was so fierce about it I nodded just to get him to look away. Finally he did, standing up and telling Paris to get back to his regular lessons with me, and none of that Greek nonsense.
After he was safely gone, I said, "But what happened to Marc Antony back in Egypt?"
"Augustus pursued him there and he died. He is buried in Egypt, not in Rome. Now, Egypt is a very interesting place-there are ancient ruins and huge pyramids-many tombs-and all in all, not a bad place to lie for eternity." He whispered to me, "Antony had other children in Egypt; Augustus brought them back here and raised them as Romans."
"Did it work? Were they good Romans?"
"As far as anyone could tell. The girl grew up to be queen of Mauretania, and her son came to Rome later. He would have been your cousin."
"What happened to him?"
"Caligula had him executed-because he dared to wear royal purple in the emperor's presence. Now do you see how lucky you were that he only threw you overboard? And that he let someone rescue you? And only laughed about it?"
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
Augustus, a canny politician and great statesman, was unable to solve the basic dilemma of disguising the empire as a republic. It was part of Roman civic pride that they had banished kings—Julius Caesar was assassinated for behaving like a king—but in truth the Republic was not structured to govern what was now an empire.
So the fiction had to be maintained that the emperor was really just the first citizen. That meant the Romans could not openly have a dynasty and there was no clear line of succession—hence every man for himself in securing the throne. In an atmosphere like that, there were no holds barred in battling for supremacy. So ruthless was this process that by the time of Nero’s death, there were no descendants of Augustus left alive, and the entire dynasty ended.
1. What if Nero had refused to compete for the crown? Could he have had a quiet life and pursued his art in peace? Later in life, he expressed the idea that he could support himself by his art if he were deposed. Was that at all realistic? Or just another of his romantic dreams?
2. Two living emperors (Caligula and Claudius) are in the book, and the earlier ones are a constant psychological presence. What effect does Nero’s awareness of his lineage and of the expectation that he live up to it have on him from an early age?
3. Nero’s descent from Augustus meant that he was always in a spotlight but at the same time obscure, as there were many other descendants of Augustus. In the book he says, “I was, as always, solitary and singled out.” He was both watched and ignored. What did he do in response to this?
4. There were rumors that Nero and his mother had an incestuous relationship, instigated by her as a means of controlling him. Of all the forms of incest, mother-son is the rarest. But it is the easiest to conceal, because mothers normally lavish affection on their children, including physical affection. In what ways do you see Agrippina’s seductive behavior affecting him in the novel?
5. How would you sum up Nero’s feelings toward his mother? Was the matricide at all justified? At what level? Political or psychological?
6. Did Nero really have no choice but to go along with Agrippina’s plans to murder Claudius so he could become emperor? What if he had refused?
7. Murder abounded in Nero’s family, but in the novel he wants to think he is different. At the same time, he fears he isn’t. Is there such a thing as “the blood of murderers” that is inherited?
8. There were four important women in Nero’s life: his mother; his first love, Acte; his first wife, Octavia; and his second wife, Poppaea. With the exception of Octavia, who was his arranged-marriage wife, the others were all older than he was and very strong characters. Acte and Poppaea he was madly in love with. Was he seeking a mother figure/surrogate in the older, beautiful, and strong-willed women he loved?
9. Nero was a romantic about marriage and exotic adventure. In what ways was this his undoing?
10. Nero was only sixteen when he became emperor and held supreme power in many spheres. At an age when people now just become eligible to drive and are too young to serve in the military, he commanded the entire Roman army and empire. Considering this, how well did he perform?
It has been observed that Nero and Oscar Wilde had much in common. Both believed that life should be a work of art and that aesthetics was the most important aspect of living. Both, too, treated life and sexuality as theater. Because of this viewpoint, both came to a bad end, although the things they practiced are tolerated, if not condoned, today. Oscar Wilde’s quip as he passed through customs (“I have nothing to declare but my genius!”) and Nero’s last words (“What an artist dies in me!”) are very similar.
1. From his childhood on, Nero showed an interest in art and music. His earliest tutor, Paris, was an actor, and music was part of his education. How much influence do you think Paris had on him, teaching him at an influential age? Do you think art became a refuge for Nero, his private sanctuary when he needed to escape his role as emperor and his family’s machinations?
2. Two of Nero’s outstanding passions—his love of Greece and his love of athletics—must have come from somewhere, although both are un-Roman. The Romans thought Greece was effete and athletics for its own sake a waste of time. Why do you think Nero was drawn to both? Could it have been because of his early tutors, who were Greek? Was it his way of carving out his own identity?
3. As part of his Greek mania, Nero seemed obsessed by the story of Troy. He composed an epic about it, making Paris the hero. Paris was banished from Troy as a child because of a prophecy; as an adult, he was mocked for fighting with arrows from a distance rather than at close range with a sword like traditional epic heroes. Did Nero identify with Paris because Paris did not follow the pattern of epic heroes and was an outsider?
4. Nero was born right around the same time of year as the Saturnalia. It seemed to be his special holiday, where rules were suspended and people went about in disguise. He showed an early attraction to costumes, change of identity, and pageantry, and to rule breaking. What do you think inspired this behavior?
5. At times, Nero seemed to be several people, and he was aware of this when he said there was the daylight, dutiful Augustan Nero, the artist Nero, and the dark Nero who did dark deeds. He thought of them as separate entities rather than as facets of the same person. Was this his way of avoiding admitting the dark Nero was just as truly himself as the other ones?
6. One historian says the history of Nero’s reign was the attempt to “break boundaries.” In what ways did he do this in his personal and political life?
7. To be an emperor was to have supreme power over many things, but that in itself precluded anyone being truly honest with Nero. It also meant that there could be no true competition because no one could beat the emperor. What did this mean to his deep need to measure himself as an artist and an athlete?