I knew something was up when my eldest daughter texted me: “Dad, how often do you think about the Roman Empire?”
I replied quickly – and honestly. “At least every other day.”
“That’s what I thought,” she wrote.
“I know why you’re asking this,” I responded.
It had begun just a few days earlier when an Instagram user named Gaius Flavius asked his followers: “Ladies, many of you do not realize how often men think about the Roman Empire … You will be surprised by their answers!”
Gaius Flavius was Artur Hulu, a 32-year-old “Roman reenactor and history influencer from Sweden” as he was later described by the Washington Post. (I’m strangely cheered by the thought that there is a role for a “history influencer” in this world.) His question, for some reason, lit a bit of cultural touchpaper that nobody knew existed and quickly spread through social media.
But for many people it wasn’t a thing until the New York Times acknowledged the trend, which they did in a Sept. 15 article. The paper of record pinned the crucial moment to when Kelsey Lewis Vincent – a Baptist associate pastor from Wilson, N.C. – decided to challenge her husband, Remy, with Gaius Flavius’ question.
“Without missing a beat he said ‘Every day.’” And just like that one single man was deputized to speak for his whole sex.
She shared his response on Twitter/X, it migrated on to TikTok and became a viral sensation that eventually made its way to me and my daughter, but only after I’d seen it mysteriously trend across my decidedly antique social media feed.
By the time it transformed into a meme, digestible at a single glance when it flashed across your feed, the analysis began across old media and new. And like any topic on social media it requires us to pit one discreet group against another – in this case the oldest and most basic divide of all: men versus women. (And for the purposes of this pitched battle, contemporary social convention was suspended and we were allowed to assume there are definable and obvious differences between the two.)
The Times article reminds us – via Kevin Feeney, “a faculty fellow at New York University who teaches an introductory class on Roman history” — that Roman society was “extremely, extremely patriarchal.” The Post story that introduced us to Artur Hulu tells us that it was “of course patriarchal and violent” according to Lewis Webb, an Oxford historian who specializes in ancient Rome, but hastily adds his assertion that it “was also a diverse place: there were numerous forms of masculinity, women could have agency and power, and there were multiple gender expression and identities, as well as various sexualities.”
Which would seem to redeem all this masculine interest in Rome if nearly every article didn’t lean on assumptions that most men were obsessed with gladiators and legions, aqueducts, plumbing, Pompeii, empire, Caesar, Augustus, and Russell Crowe as Maximus in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator.
One post on social media tried to suggest that Rome is for men what the Salem witch trials are for women. But that doesn’t sound right at all.
And the anecdotal evidence continued to pile up on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram, with men happily volunteering their obsession with all things Roman. A Huffington Post article quoted Kait Grange, 26, from St. Louis, Missouri, whose husband “replied tentatively at first” – you get the sense that some men have become wary of walking into a verbal trap, especially when their partner is holding up their phone while asking a question – and admitted “I don’t know, once a week?” before telling her that “everything you know and love is because of the Roman Empire.”
“In some ways, ancient Rome is a kind of safe place for macho fantasies,” said renowned Roman historian and TV presenter Mary Beard when interviewed about the phenomenon for Time magazine. “It’s where men can pretend to be macho men. That must be part of the appeal, I suppose.”
And while Beard said she was happy when anything creates an interest in her lifelong object of study, she added that “I’m very keen that they should see that there’s more to the ancient world than macho fantasies. I think my job is to say, ‘Okay, you’ve gotten interested in Rome. Now, I’m going to tell you it’s more interesting than you thought’.”
Fortune even went so far as to get Scott Lyons, a licensed psychologist, to explain how our Roman obsession might be hard-wired into the male brain, going back to history classes at school or watching a film like Gladiator when we were growing up. And Hollywood is probably to blame. “Every time I work out, and I think about getting bulkier or more defined,” Lyons explained, “the image I’m holding, even though I don’t consciously know it, can be that image from the Hollywood movie 300, or Gladiator as what I’m trying to ascend to. That reminds me of this image of this idealized male I want to be or this idealized shape I want to be.”
You might even recall the old cliché, made famous by John Gray’s 1992 bestseller on the behavioural differences between the sexes, that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. But then we have to remind ourselves that this generalization has its roots not in astronomy or astrology but in Roman cosmology, where Mars was the god of war and Venus the goddess of love. And then we’re right back where we started again.
And there might be something darker at work. The Times story states that “ancient Rome is intriguing to Americans because the country is facing a similar decline today.” (It went on to note that this “status anxiety” was perennial, and that the Times had published articles comparing the United States to the declining empire “in 1975, 1999, 2007, 2018, 2021 and just this month.”) The Post story quoted Artur Hulu, the man at the centre of it all, saying that he’s fascinated by “how similar the Roman Empire is to our world today.”
At the height of the “Men and Rome” meme, no less than Elon Musk tweeted about the epidemic of shoplifting and mob looting of stores in the U.S. and elsewhere and “watching the Roman Empire collapse but with wifi and memes this time” by asking: “Anyone feeling late stage empire vibes?”
There might be something to this. No less than Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the epitome of a man who thought about Rome at least once a day, wrote that “In an extensive republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents.”
He also wrote of Rome that “prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.”
He added that “instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.” Something might be going very wrong and it might be time to worry about it, but why bother when it’s so much easier to make jokes about men being victims of testosterone daydreaming that they’re Caesar before the battle of Alesia. At least it’ll amuse us until it’s time for those memes about Napoleon.