Holt’s ‘A Song for Nero’ commences with our two anti-heroes, Lucius Domitius Nero and Galen in jail, the latter reminiscing about the events that have got them from their first meeting at Galen’s and his brother, Callistus’, imminent crucifixion for impersonating the imperial Nero to their present incarceration. Opening with a question that all Imperial Roman scholars would love to know the answer to (Did Nero kill his mother and wife?) and not believing the answer, Galen banters with the tired ex-emperor detailing his life as a fourth-rate thief with his brother.
After using a conversation with Seneca to establish the differences between Epicureanism and Stoicism, we move back to the present with Nero’s and Galen’s conviction and sentence for fifteen years hard labour only to escape by a quirk of fate when their precariously balanced slave wagon is rescued by the same Greek merchant that got them captured in the first place.
There is an account of Nero’s, Galen’s and Callistus’ flight from the Imperial palace and Callistus’ subsequent assisted suicide, thus paving the way for Lucius Domitius and Galen to spend the next decade on the run from various officials during an inept crime spree. After managing to denude the son of the senator that Nero sent to the quarries for disliking his songs, the two wind up back in Italy by way of a grain freight ship and an argument working as farmhands on one of the latifundia. Subsequent realisation that their Sicilian benefactor is now hunting them down drives them to Rome where they meet, are forced to befriend and subsequently get killed, two of Nero’s gladiatorial heroes, Alexander and who are working alternatively for Pollio and Blandinia, the former who loved Nero’s music, the latter who, like the ganglords, Scythax and are actually tracking the pair down in the mistaken belief that Nero is actually Callistus. They all believe they know the whereabouts of the legendary treasure of Queen Dido of Carthage.
Our erstwhile pair skip town and with the usual lack of foresight that they’ve shown throughout proceed to get Nero to play the harp at the nearest tavern owned by Amyntas, who promptly shows up with his brother and Myhrrine, trusses them up and takes them towards Utica to recover the lost treasure. This they do, dispose of the trio and in true Monte Cristo fashion manage to secrete it in a cave and promptly suffer a shipwreck, Galen managing to escape in a coffin. After selling his rights to the treasure to the pirates that rescue him he finds himself back in Phyle, Greece with a golden belt and enough money to set himself up as a landowner with his mother, two Syrian slaves and, in an abrupt twist, the alive Blandinia whom he purchases as a maid for his mother. His attempt at bucolic idealism proves too much for him and in another twist of fate, lending to the stoical philospohy that runs throughout the novel, he finds Nero who’s now a flute player’s assistant in Athen’s and ends up with a fiery conclusion at his farm with the final players in this alternative act. There is a brilliant genealogical twist at the end and a satisfactory conclusion to this story in his life.
This now the second of Holt’s historic fiction I have read and Holt’s text is littered throughout with historic nuance and subtlelty. Much of his humour and satire requires knowledge of the time in order to fully appreciate the skill that has gone into this latest effort and I would not hesitate to read any more. For sheer writing ability he is as good as McCullough and Saylor, and his ability to weave both plot and philosophy second to none.
Categories: Tom Holt