Although it is now dying down, disappearing and changing into a new form (much like Roman political authority itself) this past month or so has been witness to a peculiar internet trend. It has involved women asking their male significant others: how often do you think about the Roman Empire?
Originating with a Swedish influencer Saskia Cort in 2022, the trend reached new heights in August 2023 when the classically themed Instagram account Gaius Flavius (coincidentally also a Swede) exhorted his following to pop the question. That unleashed a tide of interrogation all over the western world, from England and France to the United States, with even politicians and celebrities jumping in. Although I doom scroll through Instagram as much as the next man, I didn’t think much of the trend until I started being asked by friends and acquaintances at university how much I thought about the Roman Empire.
The crux of the trend seems to me to be multifaceted. One side is the interest in why a polity from two millennia ago (Byzantium doesn’t count, sorry) still occupies so much of the mental capacity of the men of the West. The other is why there appears to be such a difference between men and women in thinking about the Romans. That therefore begs the question: what is the Roman Empire for women?
To answer the first of these questions, simply put, “the Roman Empire was the apex predator of antiquity: powerful, terrifying, box-office”, writes Tom Holland, popular historian and author of multiple books on the topic like Rubicon and Dominion. I think the input of a man like Holland is particularly illustrative in understanding the trend more fully. Holland is not a classically trained historian, rather his degree is in English. For people who have not approached the Romans through systematic study, this is what Rome means: power, wealth, gladiatorial combat, blood and conquest. In this way, the men who daydream about the Roman Empire and imagine themselves as Caesar rampaging through Gaul are merely continuing a European trend hundreds of years old. Much as Shakespeare used Roman times as a setting for his plays without particularly engaging with historical accuracy, for such men, the Roman Empire is more a stage for them to play out fantasies of success and glory far away from our stymied and controlled modern world. A convenient replacement that is mostly separated from the sufferings of modern nations but nonetheless familiar enough for fantastical purposes. The prime example of such a worldview would of course be Ridley Scott’s legendary 2000 film, Gladiator.
Building on the same point, this fantastical element appears to be one of the key differences in understanding the gender differential in the trend. The Roman Empire is a “safe space for having a macho fantasy”, says Professor Mary Beard, Britain’s best-known classicist and a regular visitor to St Andrews whenever a new book of hers comes out.
Beard said that while she is glad to see anything draw people to classics, the interesting and complex elements of Roman civilisation come from the rapidly expanding field of subaltern studies. Looking at how the ordinary man and woman lived their lives under the whip of these so-called “great men”, idolised by the idle male thinker of the twenty-first century, is the key to deeper meaning, she said. She uses the famous example of the Alexamenos graffito (the c. 200 AD first artistic evidence of Christian worship) to illustrate that over a century before any emperor would profess Christianity, ordinary people were forming the culture of the Roman Empire from the ground up.
To see if he agreed with Professor Beard, I asked the head of the School of Classics here at St Andrews, Professor Roger Rees, what he thought about the trend. The first thing he expressed was surprise. Although prevalent across Instagram and TikTok at the time of questioning, the trend had managed to slip Professor Rees’ notice. Being a Latinist and Roman historian, Rees naturally thinks about the Roman Empire much of the time. But he took pains to confirm that in contrast to some of the (perhaps exaggerated) examples online, he firmly does not think about the Romans every day, instead trying to “keep the weekends free”. When asked about the gender dimension in the question, Rees did agree that men probably think about the Roman Empire more than women (despite the classics student body being overwhelmingly made up of women, in line with higher education as whole).
Bucking the argument that men think about the Roman Empire because it provides convenient macho factoids that are easily accessible, Rees said that he believes the imbalance is somewhat more nuanced and is owed to the traditionally male-dominated nature of classical scholarship.
If the power fantasy and macho intellectual environment mean that thinking about the Roman Empire is more a male activity than female, what fulfils the equivalent gap amongst women? Not being a woman myself, I decided to bow to better minds and ask my female friends. I received a dizzying array of alternatives (perhaps to be expected when asking half the human population a reductive question) ranging from Victorian manners to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. However, if thinking about the Roman Empire is actually imagining yourself in fantastical scenarios in a safe and detached historical environment, then one scenario that shone through multiple answers was the Regency era. The grip that Pride and Prejudice still maintains over a significant segment of the population cannot be denied and the continual argument over whether the 1995 TV series or 2005 film is better, shows that the issue remains alive in many hearts and minds. Indeed, beyond simply Pride and Prejudice, the hit show Bridgerton perhaps more clearly illustrates this phenomenon. Much as the Roman Empire appears to provide men with a less problematic environment to imagine themselves as conquering military heroes, Bridgerton provides the viewer with the ability to fantasise about the glitz and glamour of that decadent era replete with its music, dancing, food and of course costumes. However, through fictionalisation and fantasy the horrific racial and gender attitudes of the actual historical period are cast into the abyss, allowing the watcher to enjoy the experience devoid of guilt.
While I write this piece, as I mentioned at the beginning, much as the ideological power of the Roman Empire transferred itself to the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the trend is already transforming into a new shape. Instead, now women are posting that “X is my Roman Empire’’ with selections once again as varied as the other Tom Holland (yes, the Spiderman one) lip sync dancing to Rhianna’s “Umbrella”, to the ongoing media storm around Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift.
While a great man once asked the question “what have the Romans ever done for us?”, it seems that the contributions of the Roman Empire to our own society aren’t stopping anytime soon.
Illustration: Holly Ward