Rendered in exquisite detail, Jesse Browner's The Uncertain Hour is a facinating foray into sights, sounds and smells of life in Ancient Rome under the rule of Nero
- the fifth and last Roman Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty who reigned from A.D. 54 to 68.
An enthusiastic patron of the arts, music and sport, Nero's chief patron was Gaius Petronius Arbiter (ca. 27–66), a Roman writer and a noted satirist
who authored the novel Satyricon. Intelligent and well-educated, he garnered a reputation as a pleasure-seeker and was also thought to be very wealthy.
Petronius also served as consul and governor of Bithynia, after which Nero appointed him
arbiter elegantiae (arbiter of elegance), but eventually Petronius incurred the hostility of the commander of the imperial guard who accused him of involvement in an assassination conspiracy against Nero, after which he ended up committing suicide.
"I've had word from the emperor. I'll be dead by morning," Petronius says, sickened by his own weariness. Deep down, Petronius hopes that by hosting a luxurious banquet, he will be lifted from his mass of confusion, which will allow him to bestow gifts upon his closest group of friends who have been invited to his villa to share his final hours.
Forever guiding Petronius through the evening is his great love, Melissa, the most important person in his life.
Petronius loved this uneducated commoner and former wife of Roman general in secret from the first moment he saw her.
Now she comes to him in his hour of need, helping put his affairs in order efficiently and affectionately.
There's also the ribald Martialis, a bawdy Spaniard with "his wild black hair and yellow-toothed grin," who loves to frolic with tarts in gutters and whorehouses and who has become fast friends with Petronius even though they're opposites. Martialis wants to help Petronius escape to Spain on a yacht that is anchored off the beach, but Petronius is determined to observe Nero's edict and play the petulant contrarian until the bitter end.
Certainly Petronius cherishes his friends, especially young Fabius and Pollia, along with wily Anicius.
As the banquet begins, he makes a point of telling them that tonight they are all here to celebrate. Petronius is a tough, moral man,
unafraid to die, yet he continues to cling to the world "as a ship clings to shore at an approaching storm, anchored in place by desire."
Browner delves deep into Petronius' life, and his profound love for Melissa forms the core of The Uncertain Hour. He takes her to Rome where she becomes part of Nero's exalted circle; in his final hours, he is wracked with despair and self-loathing that he has abandoned her in the "shark-infested waters of the imperial court" even though she
has handled herself admirably against all of the odds.
The first century A.D. was indeed a fascinating world, particularly that of the Julio-Claudian period.
We do finally meet Nero "with his wide arrogant eyes the color of fish pond and his full lips curled in a perpetual sneer," and it is no small thing to flatter the Emperor as Petronius soon learns, much to his detriment.
Certainly Petronius thought of himself as an aesthete of the highest rank, yet he foolishly allowed himself to be drawn into Nero's inner circle, from which there was no safe or simple way to extricate oneself. Consequently, the author exposes a life that was fully lived but full of regret,
in which a man's thoughts have become forever muddled and fervid, tumbling over one another "like water in a cataract."
While the evening continues and his noble guests enjoy themselves with their customary ease and self-possession,
soaking up the earthly delights of food, wine and poetry, a weakened Petronius retreats to his chamber and, with the help of his trusted servant, begins to open his veins, drawing blood in readiness for death.
Part of Petronius' journey is that he finally sees the moral implications of his life and an awareness of a hope that has been irredeemably squandered. It's a heartrending rendition of a man who ended up trading the ambition and aspirations of Nero's imperial court for the hedonistic delights of Melissa's love.