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The Splendor Before the Dark Book Review

This book is the second part of The Life of Nero and begins right as Nero is being informed of the great fire of Rome. Now we already know that he's not the sharpest emperor there was, kind of oblivious and naive to more serious situations. This book follows him through his decision making of these situations and gravitation to being hands-on, as well as his public perception and his ultimate fate.


So the big fire in the city is really what sets the tone of the book. It's where we see Nero make an atypical decision to not just delegate the fire brigade, but to actually be a part of it. I find this decision surprising given how susceptible he would’ve been to an assassination--I would think that he would understand the need to bring guards everywhere he goes. However, given the seriousness of the situation with the fire, I can understand this hasty decision and why he was not thinking of his safety.


This brings me to my next point of who he is versus who the public thinks he is. Nero gets a very bad rap for being neglectful, wrongly accused, and indulging in leisurely activities. They also believe a lot of rumors, which leads to their disdain for him. They also could've been a bit jaded from the last emperor, who was certifiably insane. The people thought that Nero had something to do with the big fire, when in reality he wasn't anywhere near it. They also don't like him for doing things like taking part in plays and chariot races, but the big one was probably how he went for Greece for a year. While he didn't do things like cultivate his relationship with other elites, I don't think he was a bad emperor for doing the things he did. Do I think he was too naive and trusting towards others? Yes. I think he was simply too open with his interests, which gave everyone the impression he wasn't working as an emperor. Although, I think his downfall was not adopting an heir. That way, he would have nothing to worry about in terms of succession.


There are several points in the two books where he breaks down and wishes not to be Emperor anymore. The handful of people in his support circle prop him up and keep him from resigning. I think that Nero should have resigned when he first had that inclination. I also think it would’ve been easier for him if he had kept his adopted brother alive. That way he would’ve had an easy way to relinquish power if he felt it necessary.


His trust in others and overall lack of awareness are also probably what got him into hot water towards the end. He made people who were out to get him part of his guard, he married the woman who killed his first wife without knowing it initially. And he probably spent way too much time outside of Rome for his own good, wasn't able to receive necessary internal communication in a timely manner and establish relationship where he should've. All of this led up to his unfortunate demise where he takes his own life. When he finally received news that invaders were coming for his spot, he got the message way too late, and decided to die by his own hands than theirs.


I'm glad they didn't go with the whole "he's mentally ill" narrative the entire time because that simply wasn't the case, and another symptom of rumors spreading around. It definitely seemed like the people wanted a more military-minded emperor, which might've helped him out for his own sake if he was worrying about security. His lack of drive to focus on conquest led to him being conquered himself. Regardless, I still liked this book because it humanized him and added some rationalization to his decision making even though pretty airheaded. He wasn't the worst emperor, in my opinion. What is your impression of Nero?

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