Modern Espionage in Ancient Rome

Guest Post by Bill Cushing

Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey is probably best known for his books dealing with China, where his father served as a missionary, but in The Conspiracy, he takes readers back to the first century AD and Nero’s imperial and mainly insanity-tinged reign.

Like the works of Robert Graves or Leon Uris, Hersey uses a historical backdrop to present a political thriller of the first order. Employing two main characters—Tigellinus, co-consul of the Praetorian guard, and Paenus, tribune of the Roman secret police, along with a series of memos, assorted notes, intercepted letters, and interrogation transcripts—the two members of Nero’s intelligence community try chasing leads concerning a potential assassination attempt against their emperor.

The primary suspects involved in this plan?

The philosopher Seneca and a cadre of poets, artists that Nero had earlier supported and entertained, are surveilled, bringing up images from the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others.

However, as the layers of the plot open, it begins to reveal Nero’s descent into madness.

Soon, the reader begins to wonder if this is an actual investigation or a means to create a paper trail pointing to others in order to establish scapegoats while the members of Nero’s own security people become the real perpetrators.

One interesting aspect of this book is that it was released in 1972, when news and revelations of the Watergate incident dominated worldwide media and occupied American minds. Hersey’s story produced numerous parallels between the subterfuge and hidden messages of the novel with the events of those days. If readers want to make those connections or draw any parallels with current events is their choice, of course, but the fact that it’s possible only verifies what a relevant story Hersey concocted in any age when he conceived and delivered The Conspiracy.


The Conspiracy by John Hersey. 1972.

Reviewer bio: Bill Cushing writes and facilitates a writing group for 9 Bridges. His poetry collection, A Former Life, was released last year by Finishing Line Press.

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