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David Wishart

Hodder & Stoughton, 1996


The Theban king Oedipus, as everyone knows, murdered his father and slept with his mother. The Roman emperor Nero slept with his mother and murdered his mother, Julia Agrippina, Augustus' granddaughter and the emperor Claudius's third wife. Nero also condemned to death hundreds suspected of conspiring against him; participated with associates in nocturnal killing sprees; committed sodomy and pederasty with children under ten years of age; and, upon returning from Actium during the great fire in Rome, donned a tragic gown, perfume, eyeliner, and other makeup, and, from a vantage point on the Palatine which afforded a panoramic view of the destroyed city, gave a stirring performance of his tragic bel canto "The Sack of Troy" while accompanying himself on a cithara. Indifferent to the suffering and destruction in the city's poorest wards, he soon thereafter designed and oversaw a scale model of a new Rome whose centerpiece was a massive palace complex extending from the Palatine to Maecenas Gardens, an area whose existing structures were destroyed in the great fire. None of this was his fault. He was, simply, mad, too unstable to cope with the demands of a position which had been forced upon him and which, at least initially, he did not desire. Such, at least, is the viewpoint of Titus Petronius Niger, the first-person narrator of David Wishart's gripping fictionalization of Nero's reign and the emperor's unofficial Adviser on Taste, who is better known as the author of the Satyricon, a picaresque novel of lower-class life in Italy during the first century A.D. Petronius is himself marked for death at the instigation of the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Tigellinus, who has become Nero's principal adviser, during the purges following the discovery of a plot by three right-wing senators and a consul-designate to murder Nero Instead of awaiting his fate, Petronius commits suicide in a leisurely fashion by slitting his wrists and then binding them up with a tourniquet, interrupting the bleeding in order to sip wine, dine, and dictate his surprisingly sympathetic account of the deranged emperor. Nero, it seems, is also a man of taste and vision, blessed with a remarkable singing talent, who seeks to civilize the bloodthirsty Roman masses by introducing them to Greek-modeled concerts and dramas as intended complements and eventually replacements for the brutal gladiatorial games, whose awful spectacles cause him to vomit. When opposed in such endeavors by tradition-bound senators, he decimates their ranks; after being continually reprimanded by the statesman-philosopher Seneca, who has served as his tutor, he orders him to slit his wrists. By reason of his own iconoclasm, Petronius finds himself more in sympathy with Nero than with the Senate, even after Nero signs his death warrant, and this perspective lends Wishart's tale a measure of objectivity that mitigates what would otherwise be an intolerable catalogue of Gothic horrors. The story provides so many analogies to our own era as to achieve the quality of timelessness. Consider, for example, Nero's stratagem of blaming the city's Christian population, which appears to consist mostly of slaves and freedmen, for the great fire. In Roman tradition, groups of them, unarmed, are released into a stadium to face armed assailants. But instead of running or resisting; they simply sit down together and, much to the disapproval of the spectators, serenely await their fate. No educated contemporary reader can fail to compare their reported behavior with that of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent followers. Again, when Rome's city prefect, Pedanius, is murdered by one of his slaves who had purchased his freedom only to be doublecrossed by his master, who failed to return the money, does this not sound like an aborted twenty-first century drug deal? And when, in accordance with Roman law, all four hundred slaves in Pedanius's household, men, women, and children, are slain in reprisal for the killing of the master by only one of their number, does this scene not evoke images of Hitler's epoch, in which the murder of an SS officer by a concentration camp inmate automatically resulted in the execution not only of himself but also of at least fifty of his fellow inmates? In sum, in his haunting portrait of the Roman emperor Nero, David Wishart has created an unforgettable anatomy of madness, creative genius, wanton cruelty, and the consequences of unrestrained capricious behavior. Its two hundred seventy-three pages virtually cry out to be read at a single sitting. If this book contains any serious fault, it lies in the annoying repetition of endearing forms of address such as "Dear" and "Darling" by which noblemen greet and salute each other. These insistent reminders to the reader of the prevalence of bisexuality among the upper classes in ancient Rome seem to this reviewer, at least, to be excessive. Michael Wells Glueck November, 2001

- Michael Wells Glueck, 11/1/2001

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