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John Hersey

Conspiracy, The
Knopf, 1972


Thorton Wilder, in his 1948 novel Ides of March, used a series of fictional documents of a variety of types to tell a vivid and often humorous story of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Clodia and Catullus. Hersey employs the same technique to tell a generally darker story of the creation and suppression of the Pisonian conspiracy against Nero in 64-65 BC, through the exchange of memoranda between Sofonius Tigellinus, co-Prefect of the Praetorian Guard and head of the secret police as well as inciter of Nero's extravagance and debauchery, and various others, mainly Paenus Afranius, tribune of the secret police. These memoranda often include intercepted letters, especially those between the Stoic L Annaeus Seneca and his nephew, the poet M Annaeus Lucanus. This technique allows a multitude of voices in first-person narration and a supposed insider's look at the work of Nero's most important minister, who is obssessed with the amusement as well as the protection of the emperor. Thus, we see not only the steps taken by this jacked-up ex-slave to protect the imperial person, and to penetrate the conspiracy, but also to provide outlandish entertainments and spectacles suited to Nero's new Domus Aurea after the fire. Hersey creates a number of interesting characters, virtually all of them off the pages of Tacitus (or Suetonius), including, in addition to those already named and a number of historical but sketchily-developed members of the conspiracy of poet-politicians, the exotic liberta/concubine of Mela, Seneca's brother, Epicharis, and Nero's current empress, soon to be kicked to death by him while she is pregnant, Poppaea Sabina. The characters we see the most of are Seneca, Lucan, Paenus, Nero and, of course, Tigellinus. Seneca's words often are quoted from his Moral Epistles and parts of Lucan's Pharsalia and comments about the work figure in. Combined with the relevant part of Tacitus' Annals (15. 48-74) or Suetonius' Life of Nero, these give a solid historical base for most of the situations and dialogues Hersey presents, even the seemingly least likely, such as the stolen dagger or the anti-conspiracy statuette of a young girl. Agrippina's murder and Epicharis' silence under torture are dramatically reproduced. Through the correspondence of Seneca and Lucan, Hersey explores the demands of art and manhood under a tyrant, and Seneca knows from the inside the workings of that imperial tyranny while Lucan, in his idolization of Cato in the Pharsalia, has set himself a model of opposition to established power. But of even greater interest (and to some degree more fictional), the memo exchanges between Tigellinus and Paenus show the nature of the corrupting influence of unbridled power. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most interesting characters are Tigellinus and Paenus, into whose minds we see more fully. There are a few places where Hersey differs from his sources, but these departures do not seriously affect the otherwise historically accurate details of the book. Since the novel is composed mainly of letters, there is not much occasion to fill in details of furniture, dress and the like, though the account of a dinner party gives us some of that. However, Tacitus describes one of the conspirators, Scaevinus, as one who "had enfeebled his mind by excess, and his life, accordingly, was one of sleepy languor" (Modern Library Classics), whereas Hersey makes this a pose. Hersey also fills in details of Lucan's youth which are more conjectural, but nothing in his characterizations in general jars with the sources or with one's feel for the times and these men. In short, a good novel (in fact, a fairly fast read) and a faithful reflection of the sources, well worth reading or assigning to students who are studying the times of Nero. (Mench; unpub)

- Fred Mench, 12/2/2005

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