How often do you think about the Roman Empire? It’s the question on everyone’s lips.
If you’re not familiar with the trend making the rounds on social media right now, it originates from a Roman re-enactor who posted a video on his Instagram with the caption: “Ladies, many of you do not realise how often men think about the Roman Empire. Ask your husband/boyfriend/father/brother—you will be surprised by their answers.” People started to take him up on the suggestion, and the responses were, as he’d promised, shocking. The answers ranged from once a month to as many as multiple times each day.
But perhaps the most unpredictable part wasn’t just the frequency with which men think about the Roman Empire, but how normal they seem to believe such constant thoughts are. I’ve now watched hundreds of videos of women asking men this question, and, in many of them, the responses start with a qualifier—“the same as everyone else”—followed by a ludicrously high number, like, five times a day.
Now, I think I’m a fairly average person, and I can safely say that I almost never think about the Roman Empire. I think about it as much as I do the Ottoman Empire or the Empire State Building or The Empire Strikes Back—as in, only when something immediately relevant is happening. So what’s the reasoning of these men who constantly think about the Roman Empire?
I think about the Roman Empire as much as I do the Ottoman Empire or the Empire State Building or The Empire Strikes Back—as in, only when something immediately relevant is happening.
According to a number of them, they’re reminded of the Empire every time they see something started by the Romans. And here, I’ll admit, the impact is large. That famous Monty Python scene comes to mind—“Apart from medicine, irrigation, health, roads, cheese and education, baths and the Circus Maximus, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
“The thing about the history of Rome is that it goes on for such a long period of time that you can find parallels for almost anything,” said Cullen Murphy, an editor at large at The Atlantic and author of Are We Rome? (2007), in a recent interview with that magazine. “The letters of our alphabet are Roman letters. A huge proportion of the words we use come from Latin.... If you’re in Washington, you can’t look around the city without thinking, Oh, I see, this was modeled on Rome.”
Greg James, the BBC Radio presenter, said he thought of the Romans “every time he saw a straight road.” One social-media boyfriend said it was every time he saw concrete (something the Romans invented); another, every time he looked at a Julian calendar (July and August are named after Julius and Augustus Caesar). One TikToker’s father even helpfully shared: “Every time i poop I think about sewers and how the Romans invented the modern-day sewage system.” So, at least twice a day if things are working correctly.
But while the Romans’ impact is undeniable, this can’t quite be the sole reason behind the phenomenon, because I doubt these people are thinking about Edison every time they turn on a light or thanking the Han dynasty every time they jot down notes on a piece of paper.
I would go so far as to say most of these people have no idea what the Romans even did. See Paris Hilton’s recent TikTok, where she films her husband, the venture capitalist Carter Reum:
“Hey, honey, how often do you think about the Roman Empire?”
“Uhhh … all the time?”
“What do you think about it?”
“I think about … togas.”
(The rest of the video—Reum: “and the Colosseum.” Hilton: “Is that where we went in Greece?”—is a story for another time.)
Besides, there must be a reason why this Roman Empire thing seems to be more common among men than among women. Dr. Joel Wong, a professor of counseling psychology at Indiana University, points to the fact that men are more likely to be drawn to symbols of power. “The Roman Empire is associated with power and glory, and men who feel disempowered might be looking to the Roman Empire for inspiration or solace to reclaim symbolic power,” he tells me.
This theory could explain why Americans in particular are so dominant in the trend—“there are masculine norms in the U.S. that are concerned with dominance and status,” Wong says.
I would go so far as to say most of these people have no idea what the Romans even did.
But it’s not just America.Tom Holland, the British author and historian, mentions the Roman Empire constantly on The Rest Is History, his popular podcast with Dominic Sandbrook. And Kwasi Kwarteng, the British M.P., historian, and author, admitted to thinking about it “all the time.” Kwarteng believes it’s the Romans’ superfluity that resonates with so many people today. “The Roman Empire has everything to excess,” he tells me. “Politics, money, power, treachery, ambition, madness, sex—everything to almost limitless excess.”
In his view, modern politics may also be reminding people of the Romans more than usual. “I think of the Roman Empire whenever I read about Trump,” Kwarteng says. “He always seemed to me to be from that time.”
The American actor Peter Gallagher (American Beauty, The O.C.) holds a similar opinion. Apparently, he thinks about the Roman Empire “all the time” because, as he told his daughter in a recent video, “it feels like we are on the verge of a civilization collapse and you understand how it happened to Rome and all their great learning was nearly lost.”
“I think of the Roman Empire whenever I read about Trump. He always seemed to me to be from that time.”
Or could the answer be simpler—that men are just more likely to idolize this period of history? To view it as a time in which they might have thrived without the complexities of modern society? The same cannot be said for women, whose part in the Roman Empire—non-voting, second-class citizens—is harder to sensationalize.
There is at least one woman, however, who thinks about the Roman Empire more than any other man involved in this trend: Mary Beard, Britain’s favorite historian, who famously debated Boris Johnson on the merits of the Greek versus Roman empires. (She was, needless to say, pro-Rome.) At 68 years old, and having published 68 books—many of them about the Roman Empire, with the latest, Emperor of Rome, publishing next month—the world is finally coming around to her obsession.
(When asked about the trend in a recent interview, Beard said, “In some ways, [ancient Rome] is kind of a safe space to be macho. Rome is a very long time ago, and you can kind of be Julius Caesar or you can really get interested in stoicism and Marcus Aurelius in a kind of happy protected area of the ancient world.” She added: “Caesar was not a great conqueror, he was a genocidal maniac.”)
Mary Beard is just one woman, and the rest of us have spent the days since the Roman Empire trend blew up thinking about what the female equivalent might be. The Tudors, Princess Diana, your ex–best friend, and Hellen Keller have all been offered as suggestions.
Now “This is my Roman Empire” is quickly becoming the go-to comment or caption for anything that women can’t stop thinking about, be it the latest Prada runway show (according to the French-English fashion influencer Camille Charrière, the Candace Bushnell of these times); Barney’s going out of business (according to a popular Instagram meme account); Taylor Swift’s appearance at a Kansas City Chiefs game (according to, well, anyone with a TikTok account); and Sophie Turner’s recent dinner date (ditto).
Even after talking to expert psychologists, reading whole volumes by popular historians, and watching hours upon hours of viral TikToks, I still don’t totally understand why so many men think about the Roman Empire so often. I can tell you, though: I personally have never thought about it more.
Flora Gill is a London-based writer