By Leslie Lindsay
Ascending the throne was only the beginning for Nero. THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK picks up right after 2017’s THE CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG EMPEROR, beginning with the Great Fire of Rome.
Margaret George is at the height of her game. She is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels of biographical historical fiction, including Mary Queen of Scotland, Helen of Troy, and Mary, Called Magdalene.
Her passion and meticulous research shine in her newest book, the sequel to last year’s THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO (Berkley, 2017), in which she set out to recast the tyrannical, hedonistic ruler of Rome as the truly naive boy he was (having ascended the throne at age sixteen at his mother’s sheer force of will). Margaret–and Nero–won me over then and THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK (Berkley November 6, 2018) captured me just as much, maybe more.
After just ten years in power, Nero faces his biggest test: the Great Fire of Rome. Flames lick at wooden buildings, entire swaths of the city are reduced to rubble, monuments desecrated. And people are talking–did Nero start the fire himself? Was there another arsonist? Did Nero do anything to prevent it?
Aside from that, Nero is surrounded by false friends, spies, and those who conspire against him. He’s trying his best to be a just ruler, compassionate, and loyal, yet he falls in disarray time and time again. Still, I had such a soft spot for Nero and was silently cheering him on.
From chariot races to the Grecian Olympics, art and music, THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK has so much to offer just about every reader. There’s love and mayhem, death and destruction, luxury and intrigue, and of course, the ‘insidious effects of power,’ as Diana Gabaldon says.
Told from the POV of three main characters–Locusta (an herbal medicine doctor), Acte (a woman who has stolen Nero’s heart), and (largely) Nero himself, I was in awe.
Margaret George has outdone herself and her passion for the subject matter truly shines.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Margaret George back to the author interview series.
Margaret, welcome back. I’m not sure I have to ask where your inspiration came from for THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK—your passion clearly shines and you probably felt you had an obligation to Nero to continue his story. Can you talk about that please?
I believed his story needed to be told, and not just the standard one that reduces him to a caricature. He was a very complex person and the truth about him is not simple. Of course he would want the story continued, as the Great Fire of Rome was the defining incident in his reign, the greatest challenge he faced, and one he met with great courage and resourcefulness.
You actively researched Nero for five years, but your fascination with the subject matter has been closer to thirty years. I’m curious if you write while researching, or do you soak it all up, make notes, and then start writing? Can you tell us a bit about your process?
I always do my research first so I have a foundation to build on. I start with general histories, then go on to more targeted ones that get closer and closer to the details. I also attend lectures and visit museums. There were two large Nero exhibits while I was researching, one in Rome in 2011 and the other in Trier, Germany in 2016, with sculpture and artifacts on loan from all over the world. Trier even had an enormous commemorative stone of the Panhellenic Games from Greece shipped over! Last of all I go to the sites where Nero walked and lived—Rome itself of course, but also Baiae and Naples, Antium, and Greece. Only when I feel very much at home in that world he lived in can I start writing.
I’m also curious about your writing space. I imagine it a cramped office filled with Roman artifacts. Am I close? Do you write at home? On the road? In a coffee shop?
You are half right! In my writing room, I do have Roman artifacts, some reproductions and others more silly—like a Nero candle, a Nero rubber ducky, a large poster and a flag from the Trier exhibit. But the quarters aren’t cramped—it’s a big room with two large bookcases, two desks, and windows on all four sides.
I can write only at home and only if I have several uninterrupted hours. I know some people write in a coffee shop but I can’t imagine how they do it. On the road, there’s too many distractions and discomforts. The downside of that is that I am pretty restricted in where I can psychologically work.
In the SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK, you set out to ‘set the myths straight’ about Nero. And there were several big ones. Which one left the most lasting impression on you?
I think the biggest one was that he was a frivolous, effete, incompetent buffoon. Perhaps he was in the eyes of senators—who had every reason to hate all the emperors, because they effectively ended the power of the Senate and demoted the senators to lesser status. To them an emperor who seemed to rate the office less important than his artistic pursuits would seem unworthy. It’s true he did compose music and perform in public, but he was a more capable ruler than they gave him credit for. His rebuilding of Rome was a magnificent achievement, and he was able to negotiate a peace settlement with Rome’s traditional enemy, Parthia, that had eluded the generals and other emperors.
The Boudicca rebellion in England, which came close to ending the new Roman presence there, he put down effectively, saving the province for the empire, when the Roman army was outnumbered 23 to one. His reign was stable and he was not given to cruelties like Caligula, absences like Tiberius, or enacting moralizing laws like Augustus.
“Wow! Margaret George—the reigning queen of historical fiction—is back with this epic saga that vividly re-imagines the life of young Nero in all its operatic, dramatic glory.”
—Stephanie Dray, New York Times bestselling author of Lily of the Nile
Fire has a big moment in THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK. Not only is there the Great Fire of Rome, which lead to the rebuilding of the city, but also there’s a good deal of the funeral pyre, cremation, ‘the Roman way’ of dealing with death. What other symbolism can we draw from fire?
The Romans had a fire god, Vulcan, who had an altar in the Forum and was considered a very powerful god. There were many ceremonies connected with fire in the Roman state religion, and of course cremation was a considered the “Roman” funeral preference. They did not go in for mummification or embalming, which is why it was shocking that Nero had his daughter and his wife Poppaea embalmed.
At the heart of the Roman state religion, and situated in the Forum, was the Temple of Vesta, where the sacred hearth fire of Rome burned day and night, attended by the Vestal Virgins. It was thought that if the flame died out, then Rome would perish. Any Vestal neglecting her duties, allowing the fire to go out, was beaten, and if found to be impure and unworthy of the honor of attending this sacred fire, was buried alive!
Along those lines of rebuilding Rome. I loved reading about the roads, the Appian Way, the Golden Palace, even public latrines (with murals!); plus Nero’s innovative ideas for preventing fire in the future. Many of these Roman design features are still in practice today—here and in Europe. Can you tell us a little more about that, please?
Nero had a lot of modern ideas, like creating green space in an urban area, and mandating fire prevention regulations. Alas, our public latrines are not nearly as inviting as Nero’s, although at least we have ditched the pay toilets, a really uncharitable modern idea!
You can visit the Golden House today on archaeological tours on weekends (it is still being excavated during the week), and even see a virtual reality reconstruction of it. The Appian Way is still used today; certain stretches of it are car-free on Sundays and filled with bicycles and walkers, with the cypress trees beside it and the white marble monuments lining the sides. Our roads today are not as well built or engineered as the Roman ones, which have survived so well for two thousand years. But the idea of needing an efficient road system connecting all the parts of the empire was first invented in Rome, the direct ancestor of our interstate highway system. The Romans needed to be able to move armies quickly, and President Eisenhower sold the idea of the interstate highway system by saying it was needed for national security and evacuation in time of crisis.
Margaret, this book was just so gorgeous, so deeply researched and detailed, I am afraid I will keep you all day talking about it. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
I would like to remind everyone that Nero was so young—only 16 when he became emperor, and only 30 when he died. Today we say Justin Trudeau is so young to be prime minister, but he’s 46, 16 years older than Nero when Nero died.
Nero had to learn on the job—the biggest job in the world—and learn fast, at the age kids today are getting their driver’s license. He had very little help in doing this and his ‘advisors’ like Seneca and Burrus, the head of the Praetorians, mainly just lectured him, and his mother tried to rule from behind the throne. So he had a lot of obstacles to overcome.
Ironically, he was optimistic by nature; roadblocks did not seem to deter or depress him, and he grew into the role. Overall, his reign can be considered a success, and certainly it is a memorable one. I titled the book THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK because after Nero, and the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the glow of the Roman empire gradually faded. It burned bright with Nero—fire image again—but dwindled down to embers after that.
It’s been such a pleasure, Margaret! Thank you so much for taking the time.
I really appreciate your inviting me to join you here, and I enjoyed it. I truly could talk all day! I also want to thank you for your kind words of praise about the book. It truly means a great deal to me.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margaret George is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels of biographical historical fiction, including The Confessions of Young Nero;Elizabeth I; Helen of Troy; Mary, Called Magdalene; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles; and The Autobiography of Henry VIII. She also has coauthored a children’s book, Lucille Lost.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley/Random House and used with permission. Additional photos from M. George’s personal archives and used with permission. Other cover images retrieved from M. George’s website on 11.26.18. Artful book image created by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]