I, Titus Petronius Niger, aesthete, author and erstwhile Adviser on Taste to Nero Claudius Caesar (the gods rot the little bugger) have reached a climacteric in my existence; I might say two climacterics, for although autobiography and suicide aren’t normal bedfellows they’re both pretty final, and I’ve no intention of rushing either to oblige anyone; certainly not by poking a sword through my own gut, which may be the traditional recourse of the Roman gentleman but is, in my view, hopelessly crude, not to say extremely messy and hell on the upholstery.

No. I will bleed to death in comfort, like a civilised being. If done in a leisurely fashion by tightening and loosening the wrist-tourniquets (as I will do it), opening one’s veins allows one to hang up one’s clogs at a decent pace. If I really have to die before my time (and needs must, ho hum, when the emperor drives, even when the emperor is poor loopy Lucius) then I intend to savour every minute of the process. Even if it kills me…

History has not been kind to Emperor Nero: the one fact that everybody knows about him is that he fiddled while Rome burned. Outlawed by the Senate and deserted by most of his friends, he died a suicide, his last words, infamously, being: ‘What a loss to art!’

But what elements of nature and nurture combined to make such a notorious character? An entertaining view is presented by Titus Petronius, Nero’s pleasure-loving Adviser on Taste, through whose eyes we see the tumultuous, and ultimately tragic, life of the emperor. Nero emerges as a well-intentioned but mentally unstable young man out of sympathy with the society he rules; a sensitive and talented artist who is also capable of sexual perversions, incest, matricide and acts of appalling sadism.

read the 1st chapter