The Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

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The Roman emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, desiring the worship, adoration, and awe of millions, had to have the biggest, gaudiest, flashiest everything. He had big plans. One time, Nero proposed to the Senate and People of Rome that they make Rome even greater than it had ever been by tearing down a third of the city and building a series of magnificent palaces on top of the newly cleared land. The conjoined palaces would be called Nero City (Neropolis).

The Roman congress was adamantly against the proposal of building Nero City, no matter how Nero Claudius Caesar raged and tantrummed and insisted that he’d simply shut down the whole Roman government if they didn’t build what he wanted. Curiously, shortly after the Senate rejected their executive leader’s plans for Nero City, a devastating fire burned down the senators’ ancestral family homes on the Palatine Hill and much of the rest of the city, too. It was rumored that the fire was started by arsons employed by Nero.

In the place of those lost homes, Nero built a Golden House (Domus Aurea), the biggest and most golden house in all the world. It covered the Palatine Hill and the slopes of several other adjacent hills in Rome. The palace covered more than 100 acres and may have covered more than 300 acres; we don’t know the size for sure, because we haven’t dug up the entire grounds. We know that the Golden House had 300 rooms covered in polished white marble, as well as vast halls coded by theme and color. There was a massive revolving dining room where guests at dinner could be showered with flower petals and perfumes while the room slowly, slowly turned. There were parks and woods inside the palace, and a vast artificial lake where Nero had fleets of gladiators perform re-enactments of Rome’s naval combats, showing in the storm of swords and the crash of timber and the cries of battle just how much Rome was the greatest and had always been the greatest. Nero also had a 100-foot statue of himself carved and parked inside the lobby of the Golden House. The statue of Nero may have been even bigger; it depends on which ancient source you’re reading. Nero paid for a 120-foot statue, but he may have only gotten a 99-foot statue in the end. And judging by the differing reports from his contemporaries, there may have been some public contention over what the actual size of his finished statue was. It was, regardless, the hugest statue in Rome, the city in the Empire that had all the statues, all the best statues.

Nero also had to be the best and greatest at everything. He wanted to be the best athlete and the best boxer, and he competed in the Olympic Games. He wanted to be the best musician and actor and entertainer, and he composed songs and would sometimes hold a concert for an entire night that no one attending was permitted to leave, though there were reports of guests going into labor during Nero’s concert, or feigning death in order to get out. The safer option, of course, was to wait until the end and give Nero Claudius Caesar your fullest applause. He believed that he was the best architect, the best shipbuilder, the best engineer, that he knew more about each of those subjects than those Romans who had spent their lives in those professions. On one occasion, in an elaborate (but so very Nero) plot to assassinate his mother, Nero designed an ornate pleasure boat that would collapse and sink, and then sailed his mom off in it. It did collapse and sink, but too quickly, so she swam ashore. Another time, he built her a collapsible house.

Nero was incredibly popular with the masses. He would put on vast gladiatorial games for them, he built baths and gymnasiums that anyone could use, he bragged incessantly about the greatness and glory of the Roman military and the Roman people, and he always found someone to blame for all of the problems that hardworking Romans had to face. Their gods were being besmirched and their jobs were being taken by immigrants from the Middle East. And when the great fire of AD 64 burned much of the city, it was clearly the immigrants’ fault. They had come here, sneaky-like, with their alien religion and their violent Middle Eastern ways, and they hated Rome and Romans, and they had started the fire. They were terrifying arsonists and violent people and they needed to be dealt with. Thrown to the lions, burned alive, executed in very showy ways so that the Roman people could see the retribution for their lost jobs and lost homes and lost family, and so that Rome could be rebuilt and be made great again.

Epictetus, a Roman philosopher of the day, criticized Nero Claudius Caesar for his need for adoration. Epictetus said that Nero was a childish, unhappy man who did everything he did in order to get as much praise as possible. If anyone else was getting praise from the Roman masses, Nero would fly into a rage and smear and attack that other person. Or even have them done away with. Suetonius, a historian, said that Nero was possessed by an “unreasonable craving for immortal fame.”

Nero talked a lot about the Roman economy. He talked about closing loopholes in the Roman tax laws and making taxation fair. He talked about spending only on things that mattered and made Rome great … like Nero City. And, curiously, he bankrupted the empire’s treasury and sent Rome into a deep abyss of debt to foreign banks. And though Nero talked all the time about the greatness of Rome’s military, he wasn’t actually very interested in military plans or details. He announced that he intended to abandon the empire’s campaigns across the sea in Britain, he consistently ignored the advice of Rome’s military commanders, and in the end, his military leaders rebelled. Reportedly, Nero’s last words were “Qualis artifex pereo! (What an artist the world is losing!)”

All this, naturally, has nothing to do with current events or persons in today’s world.

Read a Story, Save a Life

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Hey, everyone. There is an organization called Extended Hands of Hope Colorado that connects girls who have survived domestic sex trafficking with housing, education, and counseling services. When we think of trafficking, we usually think of the investigative work or the rescue work: stop the traffickers, save the youths. But the hardest work comes after: the labor of helping these children build lives afterward. This organization is helping with that. Let’s throw our weight and our hope behind them too.

Here are 2 ways you can help:

  1. I will be giving 50% of the royalties from sales of my novella Ansible: Rasha’s Letter to Extended Hands of Hope this season. You can get the book here, in paperback or kindle edition: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06Y59H2YN. The book is part of a series but can be read as a standalone story.
  2. Don’t want a book? Give directly here at my Colorado Gives Day campaign for Extended Hands of Hope. (I will be donating the royalties in a couple of weeks directly through this campaign, and you can join me by adding any amount you want to.)

Rasha’s Letter is a time travel thriller and love story between a Syrian refugee who is nine months pregnant and a time-traveling, shapeshifting, bisexual hijabi defender of humanity from the far future. I think you would love the read. Even if time travel isn’t your thing, you can jump in the campaign directly here. Let’s extend refuge to some of the girls and young women here in our neighborhood. If you do read the book and love the story, here is your chance to be a defender of humanity — and 50% of the royalties from the book will go to Extended Hands of Hope.

Please join me. Thank you.

And if you are so moved, check out Colorado #ResistanceReads; I am one of a group of writers who are each giving 50% of their royalties from one of their books to an organization they believe passionately in supporting, this season. Please join us.

Stant Litore

A Humble Request

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A humble request. My science fiction and fantasy, my work on the New Testament, my toolkits for fiction writers — all of it is funded and made possible through my Patreon membership; these funds have also provided for my daughter’s medicine and care on many occasions. It is the primary way I get paid for the books. But also, more than all that, it’s the community I am gathering around this work to share in the creation of the stories. Would you join us? It can be $1/month, or $5 or $10, or whatever you decide.

Projects underway right now include a time-travel/space-travel novel (Ansible: Falling from the Sky) and a nonfiction book on biblical translation and the contexts of the first century church, and a fantasy novel set in ancient Rome (an addition to The Zombie Bible). I’d be delighted to have your support and encouragement. This is where I tell stories, and the community I tell them for. And if you read ebooks, those come with joining. It would mean a great deal to me. You can explore here.

Stant Litore

3 A.M. Thoughts

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3 a.m. thoughts, in sequence, upon waking:

1. Life is most likely not as bleak and drear and futile as it briefly appears when you wake at 3 a.m. with a headache and an overabundance of snot.

2. That cyborg ceratosaur that you just fled in your dream for an hour while firing a ray gun over your shoulder and yelling at your crewmates to run faster, dammit…that ravenous robotic dinosaur did not actually eat your friend Jorge. No matter how choked up you just got at the memorial service, where his casket held only his favorite helmet because the rest of him was inside that ceratosaur’s half-mechanical belly, Jorge is not really dead in real life. You didn’t lose him. You don’t have to feel like you abandoned him on that world, down there in the belly of the beast. It’s ok. Sometimes you fight the cyborg ceratosaur and overcome, sometimes you fight the cyborg ceratosaur and you’re breakfast. That’s life in the fleet. It’s ok. You did all you could. Also, that was a dream, silly, and Jorge is just fine. His memorial service can wait a few decades yet. You can tell him about the dream tomorrow after sunup and laugh about it together.

3. You do not actually know anyone named Jorge.

The History Behind “Hocus Pocus”

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This was written tongue-in-cheek to entertain a friend yesterday, though it is mostly accurate. I’ll share it with you, too.

The question was: Where does “hocus pocus” come from? So I took a deep breath before the plunge, and then told this story.

OK, so. England. Early 1600s. For a half century England has been a theological and political war zone between the Anglicans, the Catholics, and various Protestants sects:

  • Much of the Church of England wants a good middle-of-the-road religion with a Bible written in King’s English and that isn’t too obsessed with squishing England’s many folk traditions.
  • Half of the Protestant splinter sects want to ban anything that looks remotely Pagan (which in their minds is a code word for “Catholic,” except for when “Papist” is a code word for “Pagan”), such as stained glass and Christmas and orphanages and kissing.
  • The other half of the English Protestants are smaller sects assembling hastily around a charismatic prophet, in quite a few cases an educated woman who can read Latin and English and has Some Thoughts about the biblical text.
  • The Catholics want England to be Spanish. Now, some of the English don’t want that because their grandfolk saw Bloody Mary and the Spanish Inquisition and the horror of Inquisitors rooting out heretics and “secret Jews” and just torturing and burning people left and right and up and sideways, but since over on the continent the Protestants are now performing their own genocides, many of the English don’t want *them* either.

Super turbulent.

Many English folk whose parents were Catholic and whose county now isn’t Catholic would love to pay alms to an orphanage or a chapel or a hospital whose patients can sing prayers for the souls of their dearly departed to get them out of purgatory into heaven faster, but the Puritans are busy telling them, “HOLD ON NOW, ALL YOUR PARENTS ARE IN HELL, THERE AIN’T NO PURGATORY OR NO GHOSTS OR NONE OF THIS CATHOLIC STUFF NOW WE AIN’T HAVING IT, THIS IS A GODLY AND PROTESTANT LAND, YOU ALL ARE PROTESTANTS NOW, Y’HEAR. EXCEPT THE KING, HE’S A TOTAL HEATHEN (AND GAY), BUT HE’S FUNDING US.”

But not being able to fund doctors and orphanages to sing for the beloved dead (which used to be the big engine driving philanthropy), lots of English folk with dead loved ones who apparently are burning in hell now have the major sads. (As Stephen Greenblatt argues in Hamlet in Purgatory, it’s part of what Hamlet is about. How do you mourn for the dead when you’ve been told ghosts and purgatory aren’t real and most of the dead are in hell, and what if a ghost does show up and tells you to avenge your dad and off your uncle, who do you believe then??? Someone is playing you an unkind trick, and something is rotten in the state of Denmark.)

And Catholic Spain sends in an invading armada, and a generation later, a terrorist tries to blow up Parliament, so the Pagan Pontiff in the east is clearly out to kill all good English people and also bring kids presents and hang glass balls and ribbons on trees in the middle of the winter. Nefarious bloke, that one. And Ben Jonson puts on a masque for the king when the king visits London, where Father Christmas is led out in chains by the London Guard, to plead his case before the king. Yes, he dresses fancy and gives gifts and decorates trees, but Father Christmas insists that “he’s as Protestant as any,” and the poor orphan children should be allowed to see him this December. Meanwhile, every street in London has its own new religion forming because now the middle-class can read and the Bible’s done been translated into English and everyone Has Thoughts.

Now into this colossal mess walks the Great Hocus Pocus of London! With his billowing stars-and-moons cape and his gift for lifting an object over his head, intoning the solemn, allegedly Latin magic phrase “Hocus Pocus!!” and BOOM, his scarf just becomes a bunny wabbit, or something. He was a great illusionist of the early 1600s. There was no Vatican II yet, so every Catholic liturgy was in Latin and most folk didn’t know Latin. So, it was a common misconception at the time that when the priest lifted the bread and blessed it, he was performing a work of Magic, transforming the bread to the body of Christ, and the wine to the blood. Transubstantiation was something scholars could debate until they were blue in the face; the working class, many of whom still celebrated Yule and Samhain and the rest, knew it was Magic. So the Great Hocus Pocus of London would hold up items, mimicking a Catholic priest, and intone solemnly, “Hoc – us poc – us!” And BOOM! The item changed to something else. Hocus pocus was a seventeenth-century corruption of the Latin phrase “hoc est corpus” (this is the body) from the Eucharist.

His magical illusions earned the Great Hocus Pocus many coins and noisily excited crowds, and many Puritan scowls. He got to perform before nobles great and small. And the Puritans published a street pamphlet condemning the Great Hocus Pocus, with a little engraving of the Pocus himself in his cape with a malevolent sneer and with the Pope following along at one elbow and with a little horned devil with a long tail and shrivelled little bat-wings following along at his other. I saw it when I was a graduate student at the Bodleian Library.

But for ever after, street and stage and vaudeville illusionists would cry “Hocus Pocus!” as they performed their spells, and Puritan polemicists would adopt “The Hocus Pocus” as a slur for the Pope. Mid-century, the Puritans take over the country, behead the king, and criminalize Catholicism, Christmas, maypoles, theatrical productions, laughing too loud, and wearing colors other than black. A generation later, they’re overthrown, Oliver Cromwell’s head is stuck up in a steeple, and England reveals to the world just what happens when a people who have been repressed by Puritans for twenty years suddenly get to let loose: they launch a non-stop party, open opera houses and brothels and vaudeville theaters (where an actress-witch might entertain a drunk crowd by yelling “HOCUS POKE-US!!!” and appearing to transform a fellow nude actor’s manhood into a bouquet of flowers. Or a rabbit, I suppose), and they rewrite all of Shakespeare’s tragedies with happy endings and mad cool sparkly special effects. (You haven’t *really* seen King Lear until you’ve seen Lear and Cordelia dance off stage at the end to a sprightly tune while the audience is showered with flowers, let me tell you.) Also, the Anglicans get to hang up Christmas stockings and burn Yule logs again, and some Catholics get to come back, too, although good Anglicans still celebrate escaping the Gunpowder Plot by burning Catholics in effigy every 5th of November.

There is a 1680 Restoration-era political pamphlet that urges the king not to allow the Puritan faction to get any more power because they are “Fanatics.” The pamphlet stages a debate between the Pope and a “Phanatick,” and caricatures many common Puritan arguments. In one, the “Phanatick” names the Pope the “Anti Christ” and “the Spiritual Pasha of Mystical Babylon, the great Hocus Pocus of Christendom, Son of the Scarlet Whore!” Because the Puritans used to throw phrases like that around a lot.

So Hocus Pocus was originally “Behold, I transform this wine into blood and also your dangly parts into a fluffy bunny! POOF!”

It was a phrase invoked by London street magicians and by Puritan brimstone preachers who had an itch to fight the Pope. And because the two catchiest things in the world are brimstone preaching and lewd comedy, we still hocus pocus things today.

Stant Litore

Photo above Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash.

A Comfort on the Long Road

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The statements being released by some members of my faith, filled with hate and prejudice and a desire to disclaim responsibility rather than accept the radical responsibility that Christ teaches … It makes me tired. It makes me mad. It makes me grieve. It makes me want to take some of my brothers lovingly but so, so firmly by the shoulders and shake them.

A friend reminded me today of these words from Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Dear Teresa of Avila, she and Julian of Norwich, have been a comfort to me on many long roads.

Stant Litore

The Invasion of the Acropolis

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I am alternately amused and mildly appalled while perusing my old Greek textbooks today. Athenaze were my texts and for my money they’re still the best available for learning ancient Greek. They teach the language the same way modern languages are often taught: by having the reader follow a story and learn as they go. It’s very effective, and I recommend the texts for anyone who’s interested; Greek doesn’t have to be as hard to learn as folks make it out to be.

That said, the cultural norming happening in the story written for the textbook is getting a wry look from me. The farmer in the story is hardworking, honest, but occasionally henpecked by his wife; the slave is lazy; the wives set out to persuade their husbands sweetly and submissively to let them go on an outing; the son likes to scare the daughter with gory stories, and the daughter is appropriately horrified; etc. It’s a somewhat Victorianized version of the Attican countryside.

I think if I were ever to write a textbook for ancient Greek (which I would NOT; I will leave that to those who are far better at it! and who have grants to fund it, too), I think I’d help the student learn Greek by walking them through the story of the winter when the Amazons invaded Athens and fought the Greeks toe to toe on the Acropolis in an attempt to rescue their kidnapped queen and bring fire and death and the wrath of Ares on those who had trafficked her across the sea. Now THAT would be a story to build a textbook on. Will the temple of the Thunderer burn, or will Theseus retake it? Will Hippolyta’s sister succeed in her night raid on Theseus’s camp? What do the slaves who are keeping the war-camp fed have to say about all this? You can find out as soon as you conquer the sigmatic first aorist active verb endings and thus unlock the next chapter.

Stant