The Splendor Before the Dark:
A Novel of the Emperor Nero
Nero. A name that invokes disgust and a certain residual fear in many Christians hearts and minds. After all, this is man who, after fiddling as he burned Rome, then blamed the fiery holocaust on the Christians and had them persecuted and put to death in horrible ways.
Or at least that’s the story many of us learned in Sunday school classes. What we learned had some basis in ancient writing.
For example, the historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (most commonly known as Suetonius) who was born just a year after Nero died, reported that some people, including prominent citizens, claimed that Nero played his lyre and sang “The Sack of Ilium” (also known as “The Sack of Troy”) as Rome burned.
Supposedly enraged by this rumor, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, who was alive at the time of Nero, wrote in his famous Annals, that, “… to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” Tacitus then goes on to describe the various tortures Nero visited upon the Christians, including their being “covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination.”
All of the above certainly conspire to make Nero an unsympathetic subject for a novel.
Yet, Margaret George takes on this task. George is no stranger to tackling intriguing (and Nero is certainly filled with intrigue as well as being intriguing) characters. A few of her previous subjects have been Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry VIII. This New York Times best-selling author is known for her careful research, attention to writing, and compelling story-telling. The Splendor Before The Dark is not her first novel of Nero. The Confessions of Young Nero was released in 2017.
The Splendor Before the Dark opens in 64 CE. Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus is in the tenth year of his emperorship and is just twenty-six years of age. Nero is in his villa at Antium with his second wife Poppaea Sabina (who he married after killing his first wife Claudia Octavia and his mother Agrippina to clear the way for Poppaea) when he receives word that Rome is afire. Far from playing his cithara (a Grecian lyre) he rushes to Rome to survey the damage, coordinate fire fighting efforts, and provide aid and comfort to displaced Romans of all classes. This includes opening the grounds of his palace to tent cities to which the dispossessed can repair.
During the fire, in the novel, while helping fight the fire, he encounters two men who, instead of trying to douse the flames, are rejoicing in them, saying “Oh, great and glorious name of Jesus! … It’s the Day of the Lord at last! And we are given the gift of speeding its coming!” Appalled, Nero watches one of them pick up a flaming brand and throw it into the house, adding to the fire. Before he can say anything, the house collapses in flames on the two men.
That’s our first encounter with Christians in the novel. On page nineteen. For a long stretch of the novel, Nero is consumed with the fire, its aftermath, and his grand plans for the rebuilding of Rome. A rebuilding which will deplete the imperial treasury and lead to much unrest, as the novel progresses.
He also entertains those displaced by the fire and his own household by playing his cithara and singing. This brings a fair amount of disdain from some of the upper classes. Is Nero an emperor… or an entertainer? As we learn throughout the book, he desires to be both. And an athlete as well.
As Nero is alerted to the rumors of his playing the cithara and singing while Rome burned, he at first ignores them. Then he learns that some of his inner circle seem to believe the rumors. He decides he must act – and the Christians are easy scapegoats, even though, according to the novel, he has nothing personally against them. Indeed, he finds them a bit fascinating if heretical and offbeat. But Nero didn’t get to be emperor without being willing to sacrifice any and all, and so encourages counter-rumors of the Christians involvement of the fire and then orders them hunted down and put to death in a huge public spectacle, where he dresses as “Sol the charioteer” and drives around a track to public accolades. He sees it as a sign that a new sun is rising on Rome, where, in reality, his sun is setting. In four years he will be dead by his own hand, in disgrace.
All of the above has happened less than the first third of the book. As the rest of the novel unfolds, George shows Nero’s complete descent into narcissism – believing that the accolades he receives for his poetry, cithara playing, and charioteering are because of his astounding talent and not because he is the emperor. He is unable to understand how, despite his extravagances in rebuilding Rome (in particular his palace and a colossal statue of himself), public sentiment could rise against him and coups be planned. The plots he meets by meting out severe penalties, wiping out his enemies at home and in the far reaches of the empire. He causes Pompaea’s death in 65 CE and his final three years are marked by becoming increasingly out of touch with the reality of what it means to be the emperor of Rome. In disgrace, in hiding, declared an enemy of Rome, he commits suicide rather than face the kind of public humiliation and brutal death he had forced on so many others.
Excellently researched, richly detailed, and nicely written though it is, I found the story less than compelling and the book a pretty long slog. Four hundred pages would have made it a much better read, in my opinion.
For those who would like to immerse themselves in the world of the early Christians (and their first organized imperial persecution) and Rome in the first century CE, this is just the novel, though. And the title is a perfect fit for the final four years of Nero and his Rome.
Brent Bill is a writer, writing teacher, photographer, and Quaker minister. He lives on Ploughshares Farm in rural Indiana which has been converted from production agriculture to a tall grass prairie and woods filled with native trees. His most recent book is Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality. 2nd edition. His next book, Beauty, Truth, Life, and Love will be released by Paraclete Press in September 2019.