Like many women last week, Kait Grange was shocked – nay, flabbergasted! – to learn how often her husband thinks about the Roman Empire.
Since last week, women have been recording conversations with their husbands or boyfriends on TikTok in which they ask them, point blank, how often they think about the Roman Empire. Almost unanimously, the answer is a lot.
Who is doing PR for the Roman Empire?
When Grange asked her husband about Rome, he replied tentatively at first (“Yeah, sometimes. I don’t know, once a week?”) before revealing the depths of his feelings: “Basically, everything you know and love is because of the Roman Empire,” he said in their clip.
Grange, 26, was left speechless and had a number of questions: What about the Roman Empire? What around you triggers your mind to jump to the Roman Empire? Is it a subconscious thought or one that he actively reflects on?
“He said that he thinks about gladiators and Roman mythology often,” said Grange, who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. “And then he started talking about plumbing. He said plumbing was a direct gift from the Romans: ’You like plumbing? ROMANS.″
Caley Svensson, a 39-year-old from New Jersey, was similarly floored by how often Caesar, Commodus, Augustus, et al. are on her husband’s mind. She and her husband are both history lovers, but Svensson underestimated his interest.
“I thought for sure his answer would’ve been hardly ever, but instead he answered, ‘Frequently, every other day or so,’” she said. “And he really doesn’t go on social media, so he never has any idea what trends are ‘trending.’”
Svensson was also shocked by the amount of sexist comments in her replies: “There were many men who commented about how dumb women are, how we shouldn’t be president. I never once implied in my line of questioning that I didn’t think about it often – rather, I was shocked at my husband’s answer.” (Sadly, the internet is going to internet.)
In an interview with HuffPost, Svensson’s husband, Erik, gave some insight into his ancient Rome interest.
“I think about it every day because the parallels to their entire way of living and our way of living were very similar,” he said. “The fall of Rome is comparable to the fall of our entire civilisation, so perhaps there is no better culture to learn from and reflect upon.”
To get some generational perspective, other women asked their dads how often they ruminate on Roman history.
“Every time I take a shit I think about sewers and how the Romans invented the modern day sewage system,” TikToker Jordan Bunning’s dad replied over text. “So at least twice a day if all things are working correctly.” (We’re noticing a theme here: Men love sewage.)
Here’s what Roman Empire scholars think is going on
Given how rare it is for the Roman Empire to trend on social media, academics who study the period sat up and took notice of the trend.
“I was not totally surprised, given the new emphasis on machismo in our culture,” said Ronald J. Mellor, a distinguished professor of history at UCLA, where he has been teaching Greek and Roman history since 1976.
“And there are, indeed, many elements in Roman history and culture – architecture, law, constitutional elements (veto, Senate, elections, etc.), civil wars, slavery, military organisation and pensions, etc., which have similarities to American institutions,” he said.
Rome fascinates us because it both is and is not what we want to be, said David Potter, a Francis W. Kelsey collegiate professor of Greek and Roman history at the University of Michigan. It’s a powerful empire that lasted for centuries – at its height in 117 A.D., it controlled swaths of land from Western Europe to the Middle East – but it’s ultimately an empire that fell, he said.
“Roman emperors can be very wise – people like Marcus Aurelius, whose ‘meditations’ are a popular read these days – but there are also dreadful tyrants like Caligula, Nero and Commodus. Roman emperors model the best and the worst for us,” Potter told HuffPost. (If you’re wondering, yes, he thinks about Rome during his free time. “It’s pretty hard not to think about Nero when Donald Trump is around,” he joked.)
There’s also no shortage of pop culture artefacts associated with Rome: Spartacus and the BBC series I, Claudius in years past, and Gladiator or HBO’s Rome more recently. Millennial men in particular really seemed to glom onto Maximus, Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator.
“In many ways, Maximus is the archetypal male hero,” Potter said. “He is fighting for what he believes in and has to overcome great challenges in doing so. Before there was Maximus, there was Spartacus. Striving against the odds is something many men see themselves as doing.”
Both characters sync up well with the Roman idea of heroism: “Aeneas, the founder of Rome, was driven from his homeland and lost pretty much everything. Gladiators have to overcome danger and pain in their pursuits,” Potter said.
Kimberly Bowes, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks Roman fanfare has something to do with men’s preoccupation with power: who has it, how they get it, how they maintain it.
Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, is a big Roman Empire fanboy, and that seems to be at the core of his obsession, Bowes said. (Suddenly, that Caesar haircut is making sense.)
“Apparently [Zuckerberg] was obsessed with the Roman emperor Augustus. He attributed this to the idea that Augustus created world peace,” she said. “Augustus was also the master of changing everything while convincing everyone he had changed nothing: the originator of the social network. Could this be a clue of why men think about the Roman Empire? Power ― of all kinds.”
Carlos Noreña, a professor of ancient history at the University of California, Berkeley, suspects the appeal for men stems from the centrality of warfare in most mainstream accounts of ancient Roman history.
There’s also the remarkable feats of engineering that characterised Roman culture, he said: aqueducts, underground sewage (again?), far-flung road systems, massive urban moments made possible by Roman innovations in the use of concrete.
Noreña noted that there’s a darker side to this cultural interest, though. “Extreme right-wing ethno-nationalists here and abroad have sought to appropriate the history of the Romans (and the Greeks before them) in their efforts to legitimise their movements with the prestige of ‘the classics,’” the professor said.
“This is dangerous and involves a serious distortion of the ethnic and cultural fabric of the Roman empire, which was diverse and pluralist in the extreme,” he said.
Are women similarly obsessed with something?
All the professors we talked to were quick to note that there’s just as many women as men enrolled in their classics courses.
When asked if there was a women’s equivalent to men’s Roman fixation ― the sinking of the Titanic perhaps or Anastasia and the murder of the royal Romanov family ― classics professor Judith Peller Hallett wasn’t convinced either rivaled the general interest in, you guessed it, ancient Rome.
“I work with and have taught literally thousands of women who are fascinated by the ancient Roman Empire, too; women who hold degrees and publish and teach about it in an informed and responsible way,” said Peller Hallett, who’s a distinguished scholar-teacher emerita at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Peller Hallett herself has been into ancient Rome since around age 13, when she started Latin lessons. It’s been an obsession ever since. “My 8-year-old granddaughter complains that I am too into the Romans!”
Roman history is complicated, as is the gender politics of the empire, added Michael Stahler, a 26-year-old actor from Philadelphia whose friend posted about his impressive Roman Empire knowledge on TikTok:
“It’s wrong to think that women, queer folks and non-Europeans were not major players in that history,” he said.
Look at Galla Placidia, he said, “a Roman empress and major power broker who at one point tried to bridge the cultural gap between Romans and the Goths,” or Elagabalus, who ruled Rome in the 3rd century and had a complex relationship with gender that many trans and genderqueer people have connected with.
“Then there’s Septimius Severus, a successful Roman emperor of mixed heritage who hailed from Africa,” Stahler said. “And those are just the imperial families.”
“I encourage people who are baffled by the seemingly inexplicable fascination men have with the Roman Empire to look into the scholarship, talk to people like me who love to share info or, best yet, talk to some actual experts who could highlight why this time period so frequently captures the mind,” Stahler said.
Of course, it’s fine not to think about the Roman Empire all the time, too. Some women on X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok have noted that the “girl version” of the Roman Empire tends to be more introspective.
“The girl version of the roman empire is constantly thinking about that one thing that happened 7 years ago,” one woman joked on X.
Melissa Tovar Patrie, a 29-year-old digital marketing expert with a Rome-obsessed husband, said she’s generally more concerned with things happening in the present or future. (“In terms of historic personal things, I also think about my ex best friends quite often,” Tovar Patrie joked.)
Post-TikTok trend, Tovar Patrie said she’s happy to have a new peek into her husband Marco’s brain – which, for the record, is thinking about ancient Rome approximately once every two weeks.
“That’s not a lot compared to other things,” Tovar Patrie said. “He says, ‘If you think it’s weird that men think about the Roman Empire, wait until you find out how often we think about World War II.’”