For the first few days we read Suetonius, my students complained. “This is too hard.” “How can we read this stuff?” “This is boring!”
And who could blame them? The first twenty or so paragraphs are difficult grammatically, and hardly a page-turner. It’s a study in Nero’s capabilities as a governor and administrator, as well as an early examination of his family’s history over the previous two hundred years. Yawn, who cares?
But then in the hallway after study hall last night, two boys who are not big readers grabbed me by the arm. I am not a small man — I’m 6′ 2″ and I weigh more than I should. But they broke through the physical contact barrier to seize hold of me.
“This Nero guy is a freak!” one kid told me. “Read my translation!” And I did. It told how Nero had prisoners tied to stakes in the arena, while he came out of an underground den dressed in animal skins to attack and rape both the male and female prisoners; and how he ended his ‘performance’ by having sex in front of the audience with his male companion Doryphorus.
“You think that’s bad!?” said another young man. “Get a load of this!” And he presented his own discoveries of how Nero had a young man gelded and womanized just because he could; and regularly seduced married women, and even one of the Vestal Virgins, a senior priestess of the state religion.
It’s likely that I will be criticized for subjecting ninth graders to such difficult and sexually and violently explicit stuff.
Yet none of these students will ever buy into the idea that a President is ‘evil’ just because he comes up with bad policies, or has consensual sex with an intern. They’ll know what an evil dictatorship looks like from reading a firsthand account of it.
Today, they’ll see a page from the official school history book — which says of Nero:
- Bad emperor
- good administrator
- murdered many
- unnecessarily cruel
This is not a genuine or useful summary of the career of one of the most self-centered, profligate, and megalomaniac insane world leaders who ever lived. And it does a disservice to our students to shut them out of the real story for the sake of “protecting them” from terrible truths.
But consider. Both of the boys who pulled me aside on Monday night to talk to me about Nero and Suetonius are considered at risk — both are diagnosed with learning disabilities of various sorts. Both are considered ‘fragile’ in some way, because they “don’t like reading” or they “don’t like learning“.
Clearly, they like reading. They like reading real stories, about real people doing horrible things. They like reading as adults and in a world view that they can dig into without feeling like they’re being pandered to.
And schools, and school teachers? Trying to make a difference in your budgets and bottom lines? These texts are free. They came from Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Classics Archive, or from the Perseus Project. Your high school students will learn to work with primary sources; they’ll learn to weigh evidence, and compare primary and secondary sources.
This is why we study the ancients, you school boards! Not to hear about how how Rome’s republic crashed, or how Rome fell in catabolic stages, like a doyenne tripping down the stairs. But because it is only by knowing the truly bad, and too the best of what the world has ever known, that you raise up citizens equal to the challenges that lie ahead.
Next up, I’m trying to decide between Pliny’s letter describing the eruption of Vesuvius in August AD 79, or the Martyrdom of Priscilla — which would you read next?