Gendered TikTok trends are almost too tempting to avoid. They’re lighthearted fun in a 24/7 media hellscape, easily replicable with friends, and expose unexpected, yet significant differences between men and women. The most recent one where women ask their boyfriends or husbands how often they think about the Roman Empire is no exception.
Whereas women may find themselves thinking about Taylor Swift on a weekly basis, Ancient Rome is the subject of male daydreams every week, or perhaps even every day if this phenomenon is indeed true. Or perhaps, the trend isn’t actually indicative of true male psychology and is instead a reflection of how chronically-online individuals can now commandeer mainstream discourse.
Not Only Historians and Classicists – Some Normal Guys Think About Rome Every Day
Where did this all even begin? The Washington Post traced it back to a Roman reenactor named Artur Hulu who posts comedic videos of himself under the stage name “Gaius Flavius.” The 32-year-old history buff and social media influencer observed that men and women have different levels of interest in Roman history, so he posted on Instagram: “Ladies, many of you do not realize how often men think about the Roman Empire. … You will be surprised by their answers!”
This video spawned a storm of videos in response. Do men (Roman reenactors aside) often think about the Roman Empire? Do women underestimate how often the men in our lives think about the Roman Empire?
According to an associate pastor named Kelsey Lewis Vincent from the Candler School of Theology, her husband thinks about the Roman Empire daily and even answered her question “without missing a beat.”
I’m nothing if not skeptical of a seemingly universal trend. So, before coming to my own conclusions about the trend, I took it upon myself to ask the gents in my life just how often they think about the Roman Empire. For full disclosure, most of my male friends lean right-of-center on the political spectrum. As such, they’re probably the perfect target demographic to confirm the biases of mainstream media which conflate male interest in ancient history as revealing underlying traces of patriarchal, right-wing ideology, right? You’d be surprised.
“I Do Sometimes Consider Its Parallels with the United States”
When I asked my male friends on a scale of 1 to 5 just how often they think about the Roman Empire (1 being very infrequently, or never, and 5 being very often), most men responded on the “very infrequent” side of the scale, while only one guy responded “very often.”
“I don't tend to think about the Roman Empire very often, but sometimes I do consider its parallels with the United States as I think about American history a lot,” admitted one of the guys.
He continued by pointing out how the empire lasted for around 2,000 years, and many believed it could never fail because of its power. In contrast, the United States has only been around for a few hundred years, which, historically speaking, is not a very long time at all.
“We often want to think of our beautiful country as permanent and never-ending,” he ruminated. “Yet I'm sure Romans felt the same way about their empire at the time. Americans face many of the same problems today that Romans faced, such as political instability, economic decline (specifically heavy taxation and inflation), maintaining borders, and cultural shifts and tensions.”
Another guy who admitted he doesn’t fit the trend went so far as to say that if a man is spending tons of time thinking about the Roman Empire, it’s because he’s imagining that it was a more purposeful time and that this proverbial man should “play fewer video games,” “get his current life together,” “find purpose” in his own time period, and “quit deflecting.”
He felt that it’s fair to draw comparisons between the fall of the Roman Empire and America, but pointed out that the Romans “didn’t exactly solve that one,” so he questioned why people would look to them for answers to our uniquely modern societal issues.
“Thinking about the past and being interested in it is not the same as fantasizing about it. All time periods have druggies, losers, vandals, and boredom,” he explained. “I sometimes think about the Tokugawa and Edo periods in Japan because Samurai are dope, and it's an interesting time to learn about.”
Other men were similarly skeptical of the overall concept of the trend. One man in particular who voted right down the middle said he thinks about Greco-Roman mythology a lot, but isn’t interested in “cringe Reddit r/roughromanmemes” type of content.
He pointed out that Roman Empire memes hit their peak several years ago and that this viral TikTok trend feels reminiscent of a few years back when men suddenly took an interest in sea shanties. Another man echoed this sentiment, saying that when he was in school, he “read enough” about Roman history, so “it’s kind of like beating a dead horse, honestly.”
In both cases of male interest in sea shanties and the Roman Empire, my guy friend said he thinks a lot of guys are over-inflating their level of interest and “hamming up their response” when girls ask them how often they think about Rome. Though he made it clear that many men have always been into ancient history, he remarked that the dramatic increase in interest is mostly men playing it up for women who don’t know much about Rome or ancient civilizations in general.
Is This Being Blown Out Of Proportion? The Guys Think So
My one male friend who voted that he thinks about the Roman Empire “very often” referenced its historical impact as “the foundation and basis of everything in Western Civilization.” But does its historicity mean it's worthy of this volume of modern discourse?
The skeptical male friend who voted down the middle explained that America and Roman Empire comparisons are overly simple analogies, but that they’re fair ones. As such, he thinks that the U.S. will likely fall as any empire did before it, but our deterioration won’t be for the same reasons.
“Rome had expanded so far that it couldn’t properly administrate itself, while the U.S. has built a bureaucracy that’s arguably the biggest in history – only China rivals it – and we’re overregulating ourselves into oblivion,” he explained, adding that Rome also didn’t experience our obvious obliteration of social cohesion.
If we are to fall, he believes it will be because America built an administrative state so large that the political machine, controlled by unions and special interests, will become invulnerable. As a result, our country will only provide for massive corporate conglomerates and the public sector.
“You will not be able to start a small business. You’ll either work for the State or for Amazon, Apple, or Disney, and you will own nothing,” he asserted. “Every transaction you make will be monitored by the banks. All your data will be sold to Chinese companies to whom we will then outsource all of our manufacturing thanks to hostile environmental legislation and the rapidly-devaluing USD which makes it impossible for you to do it affordably on U.S. soil.”
What do you think – does this man think about the Roman Empire very often? Perhaps in a very broad sense, as he drew similarities between Ancient Rome and modern-day America’s government corruption. But, his prediction for our downfall is, as he put it, “a lot different from what happened when Romulus Augustus was forced to surrender the crown in 476 AD.”
There appear to be endless pseudo-psychological diagnoses floating around in an attempt to dissect the male psyche and get to the bottom of the question and, what do you know, I’ve just added to the discourse.
Ancient Rome Is an Easy Scapegoat for Political Agendas
Roman Empire memes have risen so quickly because they’re incredibly accessible to the masses, took place long ago, and are therefore open to endless interpretations. Memes are, as Richard Dawkins explained back in the ‘70s, just ideas that ripped through public consciousness.
Memes are nothing more than bits and bobs of information that are easily self-replicating, more transmissible than the novel coronavirus, and can often capture cultural moments while distracting people from the things that truly matter.
Sure, sharing memes and remixing them with our own takes can create some sense of community, but with how quickly trends come and go nowadays they’re swiftly gobbled up by prestige media or special interests to leverage social and political commentary.
Not only is there a war on honest femininity, but there’s also mass campaigning against honest masculinity. Vox once reported on how the alleged “alt-right” glorifies white masculinity through a fascination for ancient Greece and Rome. Spartan culture and Stoic philosophers are “used to reinforce misogyny and racism” as a response to liberals “trying to create a chaotic multicultural society that’s destined to fail.”
One male commenter on the original Instagram Reel asserted that men don’t just think about Rome, but since he believes that “to be a man is to want to create,” “build,” to “dream of empire,” or even to “destroy and conquer,” Rome serves well to epitomize that.
Dr. Alicia Brown, a psychologist interviewed by The Tab, weighed in on the trend, explaining that she thinks there’s a mental tie between the Roman Empire and strength.
“When we think about this period of time, we tend to conjure up an image of a male gladiator, and a lot of men can consider this to be the ultimate alpha male image,” she said. “This links back to when we were hunter-gatherers and there needed to be a more dominant male to ward off danger. Although we no longer live in a hunter-gatherer society, our brains are still wired for survival."
If that’s to be believed, then why aren’t we seeing memes for male daydreams about Japan’s Edo period, India’s Maurya empire, or China’s Yuan Dynasty ruled by the Mongols? (Probably because, as a culture descended from Western Civilization, we’re exposed to the roots of Western Civilization in school, not ancient Eastern civilizations.)
Hannah Cornwell, an ancient world historian at Birmingham University, told The Washington Post in an interview on the viral trend that imagery for the Roman legion, gladiators, military, and the imperial eagle have “a long association with masculinity and power,” so it makes sense that more men would think about the Roman Empire than women.
But, this Washington Post piece simply ignores the actual “why” for male interest in masculinity and instead leverages commentary from their slew of historians dismissive of “‘elite, masculine’ sources” that apparently misinform popular culture.
“It was also a diverse place: there were numerous forms of masculinity, women could have agency and power, and there were multiple gender expressions and identities, as well as various sexualities,” said another historian in the article. Cornwell brought up cross-dressing, female gladiators, and a clear, but flexible “sense of what is masculine and feminine.”
Unsurprisingly, There’s a Not-So-Hidden Agenda Being Leveraged Against You
When you read coverage of these “trends,” you always have to ask yourself – why did the author take this angle? Well, whether it’s the WaPo shoehorning in mentions about cross-dressers or Rolling Stone using a meme about Ancient Rome as an opportunity to dunk on Donald Trump or Elon Musk, it often feels like liberals can’t seem to go a single day without the “toxic patriarchy” taking up precious space in their brains.
On one side of the coin, you have feminists trying to leverage patriarchal power structures in Rome as a way to express their disgust with America’s so-called patriarchy. In a sense, they’re not wrong. Roman women couldn’t own property, control their finances, or participate in politics, and were typically married around age 12. Infertility was considered grounds for divorce, they were forbidden from drinking wine (punishable by death – so, perhaps no wine aunts back then), and they weren’t actually allowed to have personal names, instead feminizing their father’s middle name to distinguish social class.
On the other side of the coin, some of those same feminists engage in a little bit of revisionist history to cope with just how patriarchal Roman society was by mentioning exceptions to the norm. How else have we ended up with historians cherry picking “female gladiators” and showrunners casting a black woman as Cleopatra?
Historical revisionism or race swapping for politically charged reasons, is no novel concept, as Slate writer Nadira Goffe even acknowledged in her piece supporting Netflix casting black actress Adele James as Cleopatra. Those in favor don’t actually care about accuracy; they assert that “it’s a translation,” and therefore, it makes perfect sense to blackwash.
Take it from Goffe herself, who said, “The entire point of consistently rehashing Cleopatra’s story and her racial identity as a potentially black woman is that people often use it to make some sort of statement or commentary about the state of black people today, like, We used to be queens and kings, but now we’re here under the weight of generations of oppression. Antiquity doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”
It’s not just Cleopatra, it’s Anne Boleyn, Joan of Arc, Achilles, Margaret of Anjou, Sir Lancelot, and Friar Tuck, and it’s even unassuming children’s cartoons featuring high-ranking Roman soldiers. At one point, director Gregory Doran from the Royal Shakespeare Company revived Julius Caesar with an all-black cast. One Huffington Post contributor praised the revisionist interpretation, saying that “instead of coming off as a gimmick,” their blackwashing made Shakespeare’s play “more relevant for today’s audience.”
And Doran proudly defended his reinterpretation: "Once you get rid of the togas and the sandals, you see what Shakespeare was doing. He was writing something really, really acute about politics."
Progressives have an obsession over race that is consistently weaponized to rage-bait white people into trying to protect something they once thought was uniquely theirs. As James said about her casting: “To be black or mixed race or a non-white person in the world today, especially in the Western world, is kind of a political act in and of itself.”
Keeping all of that in mind, Roman Empire discourse reeks of a “trend” usurped by legacy media and being used in ways convenient toward their political agendas. In some aspects, the Roman Empire represents a world where men were allowed to be men and political corruption led to its destruction. So, unsurprisingly, media ringleaders are more than happy to use things like Rome as a way to police what they perceive as wrongthink about the issues du jour.
But, maybe I’m the weird one for viewing every meme through a hyper-political lens. I personally don’t believe this meme was all that organic of a “viral trend,” and mostly caught clicks through prestige media reporting on a small buzz.
For what it’s worth, when I first asked my husband about the meme-ified question, he reasoned that perhaps Rome is on his mind, maybe more than one would think, since the Roman Empire is central to his faith and worldview as a Catholic.
In any case, most men aren’t really “thinking about Ancient Rome,” my male friends included. And if some men are? Well, that’s no proof of the rise of the fearful “alt-right.” It’s simply a loose reaction by some men to regain the masculinity our gynecocracy has deprived them of.
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