Part of the fun about writing historical novels is that you get to use real people. And part of the fun about writing historical novels set in Ancient Rome is that none of their relatives are still alive to complain if you portray them incorrectly.
Sub Rosa is set in 58 AD. Nero’s been emperor for about four years and—here’s the hard sell to a modern audience—he’s not a monster. Nobody in Rome fears him, because, so far, he hasn’t done anything horrible. Just like Caligula, Nero got off to a great start. And, just like Caligula, nobody today remembers that part. That’s not an endorsement of their characters—“Listen, he may have done unspeakable things, but he was really nice to cats!” or something—it’s just an observation. Of course we don’t remember the part where Nero got off to an okay start, because well...
In 58 AD, Nero is trying to step away from the influence of his mother, Agrippina—everyone agrees this is for the best. But what will also happen very soon is that he’ll step away from the influence of Seneca and Burrus, the two men who along with Agrippina were very much Team Let’s Make Nero the Emperor. And this was notfor the best. Without anyone to stop him—worse, with people who will encourage him—Nero is going to become that monster.
And as with all history, we don’t have the full story. What we know about Nero was very much written by his enemies. The fire is prime example. We know that Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burned—he didn’t have a fiddle, for starters, because they hadn’t been invented yet. But we do know that he raced back to Rome, coordinated firefighting efforts, and opened his grounds to people who were made homeless by the fire. So was it only coincidence that the fire cleared a massive swathe of land that Nero then used to build his Golden House on? Probably. Possibly. We have no way of knowing.
But to a certain extent, it’s irrelevant. Nero might shoulder the blame for the fire, and even have been accused by ancient writers of starting it, and that’s probably total bullshit—but it doesn’t matter. Because the fire might be one of the most famous of Nero’s supposed crimes, but it’s just one entry on an incredibly long list. Don’t get me started on Sporus—which, incidentally, barely makes the ancients’ list of Nero’s crimes, but sits pretty near the top when viewed through a modern lens.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of what it must have been like for Roman Patricians under the reign of Nero. The fear and the paranoia. The shifting sands of political intrigue. The knowledge that if you acted against him, or were rumoured to have, then you were a dead man—and so were your friends and family. The reigns of tyrants reach a tipping point, I think, where eventually the people under their rule realize that if they’re likely to be murdered on a whim, they might as well be murdered trying to bring the tyrant down. And once that happens, it’s usually over very quickly. Because even if that first guy doesn’t succeed, the next one, who also has nothing to lose, just might.
I haven’t quite figured out yet where Valerius and Atreus are going to end up as Nero’s reign transforms into a reign of terror. But it’s going to be a hell of a ride for both of them, trying to outmanoeuvre, and outlive, a monster.