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Was Emperor Nero a zero or hero? Margaret George aims to correct the record

Was Emperor Nero a zero or hero? Margaret George aims to correct the record


Margaret George, author, in her home in Shorewood Hills on Monday, November 12, 2018. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither were Madison author Margaret George’s two books on one of the Roman Empire’s most notorious emperors, Nero.

If your knowledge of Nero doesn’t go much beyond him being the guy who allegedly “fiddled while Rome burned,” you’re not alone. George, who has written several bestselling historical novels on Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots and Helen of Troy, thought it was time to correct the historical record.

“I started doing research on him back in 1992, because I really wanted to do that book after I finished Cleopatra,” she said. “People were just like, ‘Nero?’ I didn’t appreciate how people really have this horrible impression of him.”

The result is two books. 2017’s “The Confessions of Young Nero,” now in paperback, chronicles Nero’s rise to the throne while still in his 20s. The just-published “The Splendor Before the Dark” details the tumultuous years of Nero’s rule, including rebuilding Rome in the wake of that infamous fire.

George lives on the west side with her husband and pet tortoise, Troilus (yes, Shakespeare fans, there was a Cressida, but she passed away years ago). She will read from and talk about “The Splendor Before the Dark” at 6 p.m. Wednesday at A Room of One’s Own, 315 W. Gorham St., and Dec. 6, at 7 p.m., at Mystery To Me, 1863 Monroe St.

Nero’s reign as the last ruler of the Judeo-Claudian dynasty (he died at 30) has been thought of, traditionally, as one of tyranny and excess. But Nero may have gotten a bad rap, probably because most of what we know about him was written by three official historians, Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, all of them writing years later in a different dynasty with an axe to grind. For a modern-day parallel, imagine if Barack Obama’s official biography was written by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

“It’s unfortunate that his enemies wrote his legacy,” George said. “As we can see from our own politics, as soon as one president comes in, he seeks to undo the things that the previous president did, and trash him, if he is from a different party. And this is a different dynasty.”

George found Nero fascinating, in part, because he wasn’t a purely political animal, but had an avid interest in athletics and especially the arts, performing in plays and playing music while he was emperor.

“He was a very complex person because he didn’t really see himself primarily as an emperor, but as an artist,” George said. “People make fun of that and assume that he was a terrible ruler and his art stank and his music was awful. That’s not necessarily true.”

George writes in the first person, trying to inhabit the mind of her subject as much as possible. Her writer's studio bears evidence of her exhaustive research, with piles of books, posters, even coffee mugs bearing Nero’s name and visage. She keeps her notes on 4" X 6” cards in a recipe box.

“It’s a form of self-hypnosis,” she said. “You do try to surround yourself with things to do with them, artifacts, even though they’re reproductions. You try to soak up what they’re like, to where you imagine that you can think like them.”

At some point, George puts the research aside and begins to write in her subject’s voice. While some historical writers can start and stop, double-checking facts as they go, George tries to write the entire first draft without fact-checking in order to stay in her character’s head.

“I try to do as much research and know everything possible before I start writing,” she said. “It will flow more easily so I don’t have to stop and look stuff up.”

George had originally planned to do just one book on Nero, but as it got longer and longer, her publisher suggested splitting it into two. George was fine with that, although that meant she had to write “The Splendor Before the Dark” to make sense to both readers who had read the first book and those who hadn’t.

“You had to reintroduce people that you already introduced,” she said. “But you can’t really go on and on about it because it would slow down the action. Not everybody will have read the first one. But you can’t reiterate everything. That was a challenge that I had never faced before.”

With her Nero books done, George hasn’t decided yet which historical figure will be the subject of her next book. She’d like to write about an American, although with the success of “Hamilton,” there’s been such a glut of Revolutionary War historical novels that she’s not sure she can find someone who hasn’t already been thoroughly covered.

She said it often takes a while for her to let go of the historical figures she’s written about and move on.

“For a long time you feel, not that they were historical characters in the public domain, but that you have this special relationship with them, and other people shouldn’t dare to talk about them and use them. That gradually wears off," she said. "I’m over Cleopatra now, but it took a long time.”

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.

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