The Conspiracy

by John HerseyKnopf, $6.95
Having presided for five years as Master of Pierson College at Yale, during which time he wrote no fiction, John Hersey last year withdrew from the contention of the campus to enjoy the stimulus and privacy accorded the writer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. Inspired by Tacitus, drawing from the obvious sources, and, as he says in his Afterword, departing from them too, he has taken for the theme of his new novel the conspiracy which was intended to assassinate Nero and which Nero squelched in the year 64 A.D. Nero was then twenty-seven, bullnecked, dissolute, and infected by the murders that had brought him to power; he had lost his two most dependable advisers—Burrus, by death, and Seneca, the philosopher, by banishment. He had turned against his friend Lucan, of whom he was jealous and whose poetry he had proscribed. Rome had just emerged from the nine-day fire, which the Emperor was rumored to have started; the Senate and the Plebes were jumpy.
The evil genius in the story is Tigellinus, a vicious horse trader, “a tough of the tracks, a born alleyway policeman, vulgar, cruel for the sake of cruelty,” as Seneca describes him, whom Nero has elevated to be CoCommander of the Praetorian Guard and who has enough imagination to play on Nero’s fears and his lusts. Like Stalin’s Beria, he suspects everyone, and in his effort to smoke out the plotters, Tigellinus arranges a fete on the Lake of the Golden House, where Nero will be enthroned on a barge drawn by a thousand swans and where in small booths on the shore fifty beauties of noble family behind flimsy curtains will be available first to Nero and then to all comers. When the suspected conspirators, who are of course shadowed, refrain from the orgy and say nothing, Tigellinus is driven to more desperate invasions of privacy—slaves are bribed, homes ransacked, letters intercepted, and what transpires comes to the reader for the most part in the secret dispatches between Tigellinus and his underling, Paenus, the Tribune of Secret Police.
The thoughtful resistance to such tyranny is expressed in the letters between Lucan and his uncle Seneca: Seneca from his country refuge, speaking of his tutelage of young Nero, of how the boy was poisoned by his mother Agrippina’s intrigues until he could stand her no longer and had her killed, and of how that poison had infiltrated the nobility of Rome; and Lucan, for his part driven to distraction by the degradation of the man he had once loved, pleading with his uncle to tell him what a writer’s responsibility should be in such a crisis.
There are striking scenes throughout this story: the fete; Piso’s banquet, when Lucan’s angry verse lampoons the Emperor; the Interrogations, when innocent and guilty testify before Nero; the torture of that defiant, honest woman Epicharis; and the tragic climax, when Seneca and his wife, Paulina, put their wrists side by side and with one motion of the dagger Seneca opens the veins of both. I think what troubles me about this story is the method of telling it; the dispatches and the intercepted letters do not convey as much strength and individuality as a man speaking; there is too little differentiation between the conspirators, and in the absence of description the picture of Rome fails to emerge. But Latinists will read into this what others may miss.