Let’s just admit it: the good guys of history can be interesting enough, but the characters who really keep our interest, in historical fiction or actual history, are the villains, the bad guys, the people who lie and manipulate and affect history through their evil deeds. I say this as someone with a degree in history: the horrible people are usually fascinating to read about. Which is a good thing, because this week we have two new historical novels which are dedicated to some of the more infamous characters in western history.
Starting in chronological order, we have the Roman Emperor Nero. He’s one of those people everybody has a vague knowledge of: the guy who fiddled while Rome burned, the one who threw the Christians to the lions, the man who had his own mother killed and also killed at least one of his wives, a true nephew of his uncle, the Emperor Caligula. Of course there’s more to the story than that (as we fans of the books and television series I, Claudius know), and now Margaret George, an excellent historical novelist, brings us The Confessions of Young Nero, to fill in some of the blanks and correct, at least a little, the vague image of villainy the name Nero conjures up for most of us. As you can guess from the title, the book doesn’t follow Nero through his debauches and his bad behavior as emperor, but starts with Nero’s earliest childhood, and the forces that shaped him as a person, most especially his bizarre and twisted family. In other circumstances, Nero might have been a cultured and even artistic person, a follower of Greek philosophy and literature, but since he was born into the Julio-Claudians, he never would have lasted if he’d given free rein to the better side of his nature. Between Caligula’s trying to drown Nero as a baby to Nero’s monstrous mother, Agrippina, scheming and poisoning her way to get Nero on the throne so she could rule through him, Nero learned the hard way that power is everything and whatever you have to do to get and keep that power is all right. After reading this book, you probably won’t see Nero as a heroic figure, but at least you’ll have a better sense of where he came from and why he turned out the way he did. And you’ll get to spend some time with some of the amazing and terrifying characters who populated the upper reaches of Imperial Rome.
Moving much later in Italian history, we come to the Renaissance and the infamous Borgia family. Sarah Dunant, another top-notch historical novelist, has written In the Name of the Family about this clan and the world they dominated, and if you enjoy intrigue and backstabbing and all the worst aspects of politics, you’re going to love the Borgias in this book. Rodrigo Borgia, now holding power as Pope Alexander VI, uses his illegitimate children as weapons to gain and keep power in Florence and beyond: Cesare, his son, could be the model for any number of super villains, with his arrogance, sadism, and the mercenary army he commands, and Lucrezia, the beautiful daughter who’s already been married off to create and cement alliances, and has already had one husband murdered by agents of her brother. Add to this scheming family a young man who’s studying the ways of power, one Niccolo Machiavelli, who is especially interested in Cesare, and you have the makings of an explosive and thrilling look at one of the more fascinating periods of European history, with characters who are both larger than life and entirely based on real people. Murder and manipulation, greed and ambition, conspiracy and betrayal: the stuff of a really exciting read.