Edition: Sceptre, 1996 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1085
The first few Roman emperors have a real enduring fascination, having among them some of the most over-the-top characters in history. Writers from Suetonius and Tacitus onwards (and most famously in the last few decades Robert Graves) have recounted the scandals which surround their extravagances. Nero is of course one of the most notorious, scandals associated with him including murder, incest and arson (if he is indeed to blame for the burning of Rome), while on the other hand being artistic, passionate about music and the theatre.
One of the best known figures of Nero's reign was his advisor on taste, Petronius. When his favourites fell from grace, Nero had a tendency to suggest that they kill themselves, and this happened to Petronius two years before Nero's own death. The method he used (as described by Tacitus) was to gradually drain his blood by slitting his wrists and having slaves tighten and loosen tourniquets, while entertaining his friends and dictating an account of Nero's crimes, to be sent to the Emperor. The conceit of this historical novel is that it is that account, a no holds barred, behind the scenes description of the life of one of history's monsters, by a member of his intimate circle.
This intriguing idea is realised as a distinctly camp first person narrative, as Petronius catlogues being unwillingly drawn into the dangerous imperial circle. Most of the scandal is based on the accounts in surviving histories, Wishart's major additions being conferences between those close to Nero seeking ways to curb the world's most powerful man and diminish the unfortunate influences (as they see it) of Agrippina, Poppaea, and Tigellinus. Another addition is contact with Saint Paul.
Even before reading this novel, it had occurred to me to wonder how the Roman Empire survived the excesses of this period and being under an absolute ruler with no interest in government. Wishart doesn't answer this question, any more than Suetonius and Tacitus do. Instead, he gives an entertaining picture of Nero, with excellent writing using rapid changes of mood as a lighthearted humorous scene is given a sudden chill by Nero's unpredictable behaviour. The most chilling moment of all comes with Petronius' attendance at Nero's famous party lit by torches made of the bodies of burning Christians. Nero is perhaps best read in small doses, as the style given to Petronius quickly ceases to be amusing and begins to irritate. Since this is part of Wishart's characterisation of his narrator, it is not a reflection on the quality of the writing.
Wishart also makes a kind of psychological diagnosis of Nero through the observations of Petronius, seeing him as someone whose problem was an inability to separate life and drama. This is seen to manifest itself in a taste for theatrical display (as in the famous story, included by Wishart but, I think, considered likely to be apocryphal, of the fiddling during the burning of Rome), in an inability to understand the human cost of his actions particularly when ordering a killing and in a tendency to edit the past in his mind and believe that this version was what had actually happened. He comes across as a larger than life, "luvvy"-ish actor whose tragedy was his relationship with his mother and her ability to elevate him to the Imperial throne to which he was not at all suited. It seems convincing enough when reading the novel, though it is clearly extrapolation; there is definitely not enough detail in the historical records for a psychiatric diagnosis.