No you all are not hallucinating.  My blog is no longer covered with cyber-space cobwebs; I have a brand-new blog up and ready to read.  Who says the Age of Miracles is over?     I was fortunate enough to lure Margaret George here to discuss her new novel.  But before we begin the interview, I have news about my own new novel, THE LAND BEYOND THE SEA.  It is finally done and is currently in the care of my editors at Putnam’s and Macmillan’s.  While there are some loose ends to tie up and the Author’s Note still to finish, the Deadline Dragon has been defeated at long last.  Of course he is still hanging around the house, blowing smoke rings and sneering.  It is not easy to evict a dragon, but at least he can be ignored for now.  I do not know when THE LAND BEYOND THE SEA will be published, will spread the word as soon as it reaches me.

I am so pleased to have Margaret George here.  She is one of my favorite writers and a friend and wherever he is in the Hereafter, Nero must be thanking his lucky stars that she chose to tell his amazing, improbable story.    Welcome, Margaret.   Shall we get started?   I suspect that patience is not one of Nero’s virtues.  In fact, many people probably assume he had no virtues at all, so your novel is going to be a revelation for them.

SKP:  It’s a pleasure to talk with you about the continuation of Nero’s life story, THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK.  Tell me, how did you choose that title?

MG: The right title is hard to find, but I thought this one really summed up his reign—there was a burst of creative energy, glitter, and excitement about it, before his dynasty, that was founded by Julius Caesar, collapsed in A.D. 68.  I wanted people to realize it was a high point in Roman history, not to be overshadowed by the negative things in the popular imagination connected with Nero. Historians have dubbed it ‘the Neronian Era’ and very few rulers get an era named after them.

SKP:  Of course the first question people probably ask you is: why Nero?  Why did you want to write about him?

MG:  I am drawn to people in history that seem to be unfairly condemned in the popular imagination, starting with Henry VIII.  You remember that, as an anti-Tudor person.  But you kindly read that book with an open mind.  I am just asking people to set aside their preconceptions and read about Nero with an open mind.

SKP:  But I assume there must be more to it than just that someone has a bad reputation.  After all, some people have earned that bad reputation!

MG:  Indeed they have, and well deserve it!  But Nero is an example of those whose legacy was written entirely by his enemies, and who had the misfortune to have the balancing positive appraisals of him lost in time.  Whenever a new regime comes in, whether it’s a change of dynasty in ancient Rome or a change of president in the U.S., immediately the new emperor or president, and their party, want to undo what their predecessor did, and blacken their name.  Nero was a victim of this.  I am just trying to let the suppressed voices on the other side have a say.

SKP:  Nero is one of those larger than life characters, who scarcely seem real.  He’s the Roman emperor who is a household name, who is seen in countless cartoons fiddling while Rome burned.  What was the real Nero like?

MG: I think the key to his character was that he was like a modern young person (and remember, he became emperor when he was only sixteen) who wants to be an artist—a writer, a musician, an actor—and is told by his family it’s not practical, and he has to go to law school instead.  In Nero’s case, it was that he had to be a politician.  But the conflict between the role he had to play in order to survive, and what he felt was the ‘real him’ is what makes him fascinating, sympathetic, and modern.  We can relate to that.

SKP:  But what about his art?  Was he any good?  People now laugh about it and assume he was a buffoon.

MG:  He was involved in many facets of art.  But none of his poetry, none of his sculpture, none of his musical compositions survive.  The one thing that does, however, the Domus Aurea—the Golden House in Rome—is a showcase of his revolutionary architectural vision. Nero was actively involved in designing of the building, working closely with his favorite architects Severus and Celer. Its stunning frescoes (the palace was rediscovered in the late 1400’s) influenced Raphael, who visited it, and other Renaissance artists.  It used light as an architectural element, centuries before Frank Lloyd Wright.  The Octagon Room, the first Roman building to have an open dome supported not by central pillars but by weight-baring arches on the sides, was the forerunner of the Pantheon.

SKP:  But it was not all work with him, right?  He is famous for throwing the ultimate toga party. Probably in the Domus Aurea!

MG:  No doubt about it, he liked to have a good time, and insisted on inviting the common people—with whom he felt more at home than with the senators and patricians—to join in with him, with banquets in the Forum, chariot racing, and athletic contests.  (Ironically, he didn’t like togas—he found them uncomfortable and too ‘establishment’.)  He gave the city a state of the art gymnasium and training ground, and would exercise there in public in his loincloth!

SKP: But in spite of this, he fell from power and was ousted by a new dynasty, the Flavians.  Why?

MG:  There are several theories about this—that he had made enemies of the Senate by bypassing them for the common people, that he didn’t pay enough attention to the military, that he was seen as a byword for frivolity—but I think the ultimate reason was that he chose his art over being emperor.  He embarked on a sixteen month artistic and athletic tour of Greece, in spite of warnings this was dangerous. Sure enough, in his absence conspiracies grew in Rome.  By the time he was summoned back to save his reign, it was too late.   His last words, “What an artist the world is losing!” shows how he saw himself.  He didn’t say, “What an emperor the world is losing!”

SKP:  Is there any parallel to him today?

MG:  Unlike some historical characters that get a modern makeover, Nero is impossible to update, he was so unique, and his actions so specific to that time and place, that no—there has never been, and will never be, another Nero.

SKP:   This was fascinating, Margaret.  Thank you so much for agreeing to discuss the new book with us.   For new readers, THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK is the second in a two book series by Margaret; she began Nero’s story with THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO.   I knew very little about Nero before reading these books and have a much better understanding now of this controversial yet compelling man and the times in which he lived.

November 5, 2018


  1. Mac Craig Says:

    It is wonderful that you are finally free from the Deadline Dragon, and I look forward to reading Outre Mer when it is published. My sister Janet is a dedicated reader, and I just told her about your books - in hard copy and on electronic media. Since she lives in Texas, it would be quite difficult for me to show any of your books to her. That she will find the relevant information on-line I have no doubt. Perhaps you can rest for a day or two before starting your next project.

  2. Priscilla Royal Says:

    Fascinating interview! Thank you, Margaret and Sharon, for presenting this intriguing take on a very maligned character.

  3. skpenman Says:

    Thanks, Mac and Priscilla. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview.

    Benjamin Franklin is my favorite Founding Father, and one of the two men to whom we owe the most for the birth of our country; the other is George Washington. There is one story told about Franklin that has never resonated more with me than it does in 2018. It was reported that as Dr Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him what form of government the delegates had given them. His reply was “A republic—if you can keep it.”
    Please keep Dr Franklin’s warning in mind today. Exercise the right that so many have died to protect. Please go to the polls in your town and vote.

  4. Joan Says:

    Great news about “Outremer”, Sharon & a very interesting interview with Margaret George. In other matters, a good first step accomplished!!

  5. skpenman Says:

    Thanks, Joan.

    This will be an odd post, for I am telling you about something you cannot see here. One of my Facebook friends posted a wonderful image of a literary dragon on my fan club page. I liked it so much that I shared it on all of my Facebook pages. Unfortunately, that won’t work here. So for those who are my Facebook friends, do wander over to take a look. The rest of you just have to take my word for it that this is one spectacular dragon. :-)

  6. Mac Craig Says:

    That is an impressive dragon. Of course, he fits right in with the title of you second historical novel.

  7. skpenman Says:

    It has always fascinated me, Mac, that dragon myths or legends exist in so many different cultures, Wales and China, just to name two.

  8. skpenman Says:

    I’d planned to share one of my posts about medieval history. Then I turned on the news. What is even more horrible about these mass shootings is that while we are horrified and our hearts bleed for the families who lost their loved ones, we feel no sense of surprise whatsoever. That is truly terrifying. This was the fourth mass killing in just two weeks. A grocery store assault in Kentucky that was racially motivated; the savage Anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue in PA; a yoga studio rampage in FLA by a self-proclaimed misogynist; and now twelve more dead in this CAL bloodbath. But midst the carnage, heroes often emerge. The story below is about one of them.

  9. skpenman Says:

    I have many friends and readers in California and I hope and pray they—and everyone else in the path of those hellish fires—stay safe. From outer space, it almost seems as if the entire state is on fire. The stories we are hearing are terrifying and tragic. For those who would like to help people rebuild their lives, donations can always be made to the Red Cross and to local California charities.
    I am finding it hard to focus on the past when the present is so troubling, but I’ll give it a try. On Tuesday, I’d urged all my American friends and readers to vote. But here is what happened on the historical front on that date.
    On November 6, 1153, the Treaty of Wallingford was signed, providing that Stephen would hold onto his crown until his death, but Henry (and not Stephen’s surviving son) would be recognized as his heir. Napoleon asked of a general not “Is he good?” but “Is he lucky?” Well, Henry was both good and lucky. Stephen was 57, could easily have lived for another decade. But Henry had less than a year to wait, for Stephen died on October 25, 1154. Henry and Eleanor sailed in a storm to claim his crown and the Angevin dynasty began.
    On November 6, 1479, the sad Queen of Castile, Juana, was born. She has gone down in history as Juana la Loca; she was betrayed by the men whom she had most reason to trust—her father, her husband, and then her son. But Christopher Gortner has done her justice in his novel, The Last Queen, which I recommend.
    On a non-medieval note, America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was elected to that office on November 6, 1860.

  10. skpenman Says:

    I had planned to share a touching story about a letter written by a Welsh soldier in the trenches during WWI as my Veterans Day and Armistice Day post, and I still will do so later. But I came upon a story that I felt compelled to share first. I was shocked to learn that thousands of US veterans are facing eviction because they have not received their benefit checks for months. The GOP chairman of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs calls it a “train wreck.” I would be the last one to argue that the VA has ever been a model of efficiency. Too many ailing veterans in my part of NJ were forced for years to make exhausting bus rides to receive treatment at VA hospitals in other states because they could not receive permission to be treated at any of NJ’s local hospitals. But this latest glitch is widespread and was foreseen, yet nothing was done to head the crisis off. You can read the story below to learn about this latest outrage. I would urge all of my American readers and Facebook friends to contact their senators and congressional representatives, insisting that something be done for the vets being deprived of their GI bill benefits. Will this help? I honestly don’t know. But maybe if enough of us express our anger, that will be enough to attract congressional attention to a problem that began last year—yes, last year! If you share my indignation and believe our vets deserve better than this, please share this on your Facebook pages. Thank you. I’ll be back later with the Welsh letter.

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