March 26, 2018

When Emperor Nero ruled Rome, life got complicated

Roman emperor Nero, named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus at birth, ruled more than 2,000 years ago. He was born Dec. 15, 37 A.D., not long after Pontius Pilate had Jesus nailed to the cross between two thieves.
      I recall hearing that while Rome was burning, Nero was playing the fiddle. Fake news, maybe. So I sought the truth. According to the ancient biographer Suetonius, Nero was the son of the first Roman emperor’s only daughter, and his ancestors were not what you would call hospitable folks. His grandfather enjoyed “violent gladiator games,” and his father was “irascible and brutal.”    
      His father, Domitus, had apparently been involved in a political scandal of some kind and died in 40 when Nero was 3. Before that, Nero’s mother Agrippina had her own scandal and was a “suspect of adultery with her brother-in-law.” Quite a group running things back then, replete with banishments, power grabs, and plots to take control—even an assassination.
      Just the kind of environment for someone to seize control of the government. His great uncle Claudius took Nero’s mother for his fourth wife and added Claudius to his name “to mark the adoption.” And so he became Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus and entered public life as an adult at 14 years old.
      While there were differing accounts about how Claudius died in 54, most folks think Nero’s mother Agrippina helped to make sure her son would become the emperor. So with a little manipulation, Nero rose to power.
      All reports from ancient writers say Nero was quite extravagant in his construction projects and the way he spent the country’s funds and left the provinces ruined. But historians today take a different view, believing that Nero was really interested in making things better with public works projects and charity—which took lots of cash and seems likely for someone leading his country to make it great. Still, Nero’s policies were deemed “well-meant but incompetent notions.” Like a failed initiative to abolish taxes in an effort to help the people.
      At only 16 years old when he became emperor in 54, Nero had no experience in governing. His tutor, Seneca, is said to have written his first speech before the Senate, and his mother has been reportedly to have “meant to rule through her son.” While she was doing that, they say she got even with her political rivals and murdered three of them. How’s that for taking care of business?
      Nero followed in his mother’s footsteps by getting rid of people who didn’t share his beliefs. He was also said to be having an affair with a slave girl, and he poisoned his half-brother Britannicus because his mother sided with him when she saw Nero was following his own mind. That got her exiled from the palace.  
      Later, he had his mother killed, possibly because of her disapproval of his affair with Poppaea Sabina while she was still married. Regardless, Agrippina was no more. The modern scholar Miriam Griffiths suggests things go really went downhill after her death and says, “Nero lost all sense of right and wrong and listened to flattery with total credulity.”
      Prior to this, his relationship with the Roman Senate had been relatively good. But scholar Jurgen Malitz writes, “Nero abandoned the restraint he had previously shown because he believed a course supporting the Senate promised to be less and less profitable.”
      He divorced another of his wives, Octavia, on grounds of infertility, banished her, and when there were public protests, he accused her of adultery and executed her and married again in 64, the same year The Great Fire of Rome erupted. That was the night of July 18-19 when a large number of mansions, residences and temples were burned. The fire lasted a week, destroying three of 14 Roman districts and severely damaging seven more. 
      Differing accounts of the cause have described it as an accident, a plot of Nero’s or simply “unsure.” Some said the plot was because of Nero’s dislike of the ancient construction, and he wanted to build his own lush palace and a “30-meter-tall statue of himself, the colossus of Nero.” So he accused the Christians of starting the fire and had many arrested and brutally executed by “being thrown to the beasts, crucified and being burned alive.”
      More than 2,000 years later, scholars and historians continue to research and argue whether Nero started the fire, sang and played the fiddle while Rome burned. But Nero ruled his kingdom for several years and did pretty much what he wanted and nobody touched him.
      By 65, though, there was a conspiracy against Nero, with many wanting to “rescue the state” from him and restore the republic. But he got wind of it and executed its leaders. Even his old adviser, Seneca, was accused, but denied being involved. Nevertheless, he was ordered to commit suicide.
      Then some said Nero kicked his next wife, Poppaea, to death before she had her second child. Other historians suggest she may have had a miscarriage and died.
      Later, his tax policies caused a rebellion. The rebel leader lost the battle and committed suicide, while the followers of Nero’s commander wanted him to be emperor. He wouldn’t act against Nero, but others stepped up, and his army officers refused to obey him.
      He couldn’t leave Rome, the palace guard left and most friends abandoned him. At this point he wanted someone to kill him. But he couldn’t find anyone, and reportedly cried out, “Have I neither friend nor foe?” and ran to throw himself in the Tiber River but couldn’t do it.
      A friend offered a villa outside Rome, and some of Nero’s loyalists accompanied him in disguise. Once there, he ordered them to dig a grave for him. He knew the Senate had declared him a public enemy and planned to execute him by beating him to death. The Senate hoped to find a compromise, but Nero didn’t know that and prepared to commit suicide. He begged one of his companions to set an example by killing himself.
      When he heard horses approaching, and knew they were coming for him, he pressed his private secretary to kill him. But Nero finally got the job done, becoming the first emperor to do so. One of the horsemen tried to stop the bleeding, but was too late.
      His last words were reported to be, “Too late. This is fidelity.”
      That was June 9, 68 A.D., almost 1,950 years ago. What a time in which to have lived in such a place!

March 12, 2018

School shootings—a shocking and drastic change for safety consideration in education

At Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., two teens went on a shooting spree on April 20, 1999, killing 13 people and wounding more than 20 others before turning their guns on themselves and committing suicide. At the time, the massacre was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history and prompted a national debate on gun control and school safety, as well as a major investigation to determine what motivated the gunmen, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17. —

Nearly 20 years later, the “national debate on gun control and school safety” is still ongoing, and there are always “major investigations to determine what motivated the gunmen.” Changes have been made by some retailers regarding who can buy what kind of gun after the shooting on Valentine’s Day that killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
      But our perspectives changed with the Columbine shooting.
      At the time of the Columbine High School shooting in an unincorporated area of Jefferson County, Colo., I was teaching English and journalism at Urbana High School. Not long after the story broke, the administration sent a notice to all teachers to read to their classes about what to do if someone was suspected of planning that type of incident or that someone was exhibiting a suspicious form of behavior.
      While I was reading the notice to my class, I saw one student about half way down the middle row in front of me writing and not seeming to pay attention. After I finished reading, I intended to have a discussion about the school shooting and what it meant for the school environment.
      But the student got up and brought his note to me.
      I don’t remember exactly what it said, except that it was something about a possible event of the Columbine type happening at the high school and identifying a student dressed in black as a possibility. Knowing the student in my class and his father, I didn’t think the student was serious in what he had written or that there was any danger from the kid dressed in black.
      Nonetheless, I walked over to the side of the room, punched the call button and asked for a dean to come to my classroom. When the dean arrived, I handed her the note and told the student to go with her. From that point, the student’s parent was immediately contacted, explained the situation and asked to come to the school and get the student. At the time, the father was involved with an extremely important situation at his job that I won’t try to explain.
      Suffice it to say, he was very upset at being interrupted and by what his son had done. And while I don’t know what happened at home, I do know that the father brought his son to school a couple of days later, had his son apologize and assured me that that behavior would never happen again.
      And it didn’t.  
      But the Columbine shooting marked a new time. Prior to that there had been school shootings going all the way back to the Enoch Brown school massacre on July 26, 1764, when a group of Delaware Indians entered a log schoolhouse in the Province of Pennsylvania and killed Brown, the schoolmaster, and nine students. Others followed through the years, but it wasn’t until Columbine that school shootings seemed to increase in their frequency and really got the country’s attention.
      Since Columbine, there have been 25 school shootings, 10 of which resulted in the deaths of four or more students or staff for a total of 122 fatalities, including the death or suicide of the shooter(s) who gunned down the innocent.
      Before Columbine, there were training sessions for tornado drills, and how to respond if hostages were taken—back in the early days of the atomic age, there was even something called a “duck-and-cover” air-raid drill where students were instructed to crawl under their desks and cover their heads to somehow protect against nuclear fallout.
      Holding training drills and sending a kid to the dean’s office who did a stupid thing because he thought it was cool (sounds like something I might have done as a kid, and my father would have done the same thing my student’s father did—maybe even taking off his belt and wrapping it around my rear end in the process) are what the school environment has come to, even more so today after all the school shootings and other threats to our security where the benefits of freedom are curtailed.
      There have been cable news talk show discussions 24/7 since the shooting in Florida, town hall meetings, politicians and the National Rifle Association members spinning their positions and everybody who has an opinion or a solution bickering, talking over each other, tweeting and jacking their jaws, still without any idea of how to really stop the senseless killings.
      But with the available security to get on an airplane, enter a courthouse and other public arenas, it would seem that it is equally important for security to be afforded to the staff, teachers and students going to school day in and day out.