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28 October 2023

The real reason men think about the Roman Empire

It’s not (just) a patriarchal power fantasy.

By Jonn Elledge

“How often do you think about the Roman Empire?” Sky News asked us last month. “What is it about men and the Roman empire?” demanded the Financial Times. The New York Times, meanwhile, said it all with its headline. “Are Men Obsessed With the Roman Empire? Yes, Say Men.”

All these stories and more were a response to one of those viral trends that occasionally take the internet by storm. It began with an Instagram post, exhorting women to ask the men in their lives how often they think about the Roman Empire: “You will be surprised by their answers!” From there it spread to TikTok videos and social media posts, sent by women who had taken this advice and were, indeed, surprised. Some went as far as horrified.

And somewhere in the middle of all this, a friend sent me a tweet by a woman who’d been genuinely freaked out by the discovery that apparently normal men were, unbeknown to her, thinking about the Roman Empire, all the time. “That’s you, that is,” was the obvious subtext of my friend’s text. I wouldn’t have minded, but I was in the middle of a conversation about the fall of the Western Empire at the time.

As with any of these things, characterising it as unique to men, all men or all the time is going a bit far. Not every man is obsessed with Rome, whether secretly or, in my case, rather less so. And there are women who think a lot about these things, too, just as there are men who don’t. But I probably do think about Rome as much as I think about the Labour Party or Doctor Who, and more normal men think about football, and it’s clear that I’m hardly alone. The obvious question is why.

At least part of the reason is, well, men. Kevin Feeney, a fellow who teaches about Roman history at New York University – and who told New York Times “I’m starting to get sick of being asked about this” – puts it down partly to the “extremely, extremely patriarchal” nature of the civilisation, and its domination by alpha males with big armies behind them. Similarly, in Time, Mary Beard – who, in a piece of timing so lucky it’s almost suspicious, has a book to promote named Emperor of Rome – blamed “macho fantasies”.

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[See also: The Ancient Greeks will never be feminists]

For the part of the right-wing internet that’s acquired the obnoxious habit of spelling “return” with a V, this is clearly part of the appeal. The inconvenient fact that concepts such as “white” and “European” would have been meaningless to a Roman – Britain was seen as more foreign than, say, Syria – are shoved to one side. Rome is remembered as a place where white Europeans performed great deeds and built great things: where men were men, women were quiet, and you could beat the crap out of foreigners and then stick up a triumphal arch about it. The right-wing power fantasies here are not incidental.

But they are also not everything, and my own growing fascination with Rome has comfortingly little to do with any of that. Rome, after all, really was the foundation for much of our world: an influence on attitudes and institutions from London to Washington to Moscow, and a big factor in the birth of Christianity and Islam alike. The last Roman Republic is also one of the earliest democracies, ish, for which we have decent records: there’s something fascinating about a period of history in which some of the forces in play (ambition, populism, security, glory) are so familiar, while others (Tribunes? Vestal virgins? The sacred ritual of the good goddess? What?) are completely and utterly alien.

More than that, the demise of the Roman Republic has come, these last few years, to feel uncomfortably relevant. From the tribunate and murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133BC onwards, that last century is a story of institutions creaking under a changing geopolitical role – of a series of ambitious men (Sulla, Clodius, Pompey, Caesar) realising that behavioural norms are no real bar to bad behaviour, and that if nobody stopped the last guy who broke all the rules then they’re probably not going to stop you, either. If you can’t see parallels with everything that’s happened these last few years, then you probably aren’t looking hard enough.

But a big reason I personally find Rome fascinating is that it’s a complete story: an entire arc of a civilisation, as it grows from tiny city state to a vast empire and then declines once again. That doesn’t just mean that the story of Rome contains potential lessons for a polity at any point on its journey, from beginning to middle to end. It also serves as a memento mori. It will never not be haunting to me that another civilisation reigned before us, and yet still turned to dust. One day, so will we.

Rome does still influence our politics. The architecture of Washington DC copied it. Everyone from Moscow to the Vatican considers themselves heirs to it. The British ruling class were force fed it. And our two largest religions sprung from it. Perhaps it’s weird to think about it all the time, yes. But you’re missing something if you’re never thinking about it at all.

[See also: Spirituality is the only rational option]

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