It’s a meme-tier social phenomenon that has quietly existed in the background for years, but after a viral TikTok, the truth has gained mainstream traction — we men think about the Roman Empire on a hilariously regular basis.
It ranks up there with other default-guy thoughts, including:
- World War II (nothing specific, just WWII in general)
- The Mongol Empire, for those of us who are Asiatically inclined (I dream of reclaiming the steppes for my greatest ancestor on horseback)
- That recurring fantasy in which we singlehandedly save our high school from a hostage situation (I surely can’t be the only one)
But what is it about the glory of “The Republic” that makes it an endless source of fascination for the male brain? Why is it so damn universal? And what does it tell us about the 21st-century man?
The Resurgence of Classic Masculinity
Within specific corners of the internet — wedged snugly between those on their “Sigma Grindset” and bodybuilding fanatic culture — there has been a steady increase in the uptake of stoicism. Though keep in mind: these neighbouring hubs aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, whether through irony or sincerity, the Venn diagram so often resembles a circle.
For the uninitiated, this Hellenistic school of philosophy promotes mastery of the self, moral excellence, perseverance, logic, and — while the misguided have wrongfully assumed otherwise — kindness as well as positive emotions (not their suppression) to maximise your quality of life. All noble traits, of course.
While stoicism’s origins are in Ancient Greece, it was a pivotal system of philosophical thought in Ancient Rome; with notable proponents ranging from Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who penned the definitive stoic text Meditations) to statesman and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (often referred to simply as “Seneca”).
Now here’s the explainer: at a time when masculinity is constantly being redefined and there’s clearly a large demographic of the male population who are desperately in search of an identity, you can understand why we’d gravitate towards concepts as concrete as the idealised portrait of a man — and the historical era with which it’s practically synonymous.
The Decline of Modern Empires
The second prong of the “Reject Modernity, Embrace Tradition” pitchfork has everything to do with the view that our modern empires are in a late-stage decline (particularly those who live in the Land of the Free/Home of the Brave).
Between the endless anxiety-inducing news cycle; f***ing microplastics; and the ongoing inflation crisis; along with the idealisation of what a man should be, there seems to be a romantic yearning for the “good ol’ days” of Imperial Rome.
It’s easy to compare our present situation, however dire, to the very height of a vaunted civilisation celebrated for its architectural, cultural, and political achievements; and instantly decide which meadow sports the greener grass.
Keep in mind there are also more than a few hard-learned lessons from Rome’s fall we can (and should) take into account in order to mitigate the current s**tshow we’re currently enduring.
And of course… Gladiator (2000)
There really isn’t a sophisticated dissection of the third and final prong.
Ever since Ridley Scott’s historical epic premiered at the turn of the millennium, as a species, we’ve been championing the virtues of Russell Crowe’s general-turned-slave fighter Maximus Decimus Meridius; fantasised about swinging a sword in sandals; and vowed to exact our entirely hypothetical vengeance in this life or the next.
We’re also patiently awaiting the forthcoming release of Gladiator II starring Paul Mescal, Barry Keoghan, and Denzel Washington, which will make the hype around Barbenheimer look like a country town school fair by sheer comparison. But I digress…
Paired alongside a childhood informed by video games such as Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Rome: Total War; and you have yourself a full-blown escapism cocktail. Plain and simple.
An Expert Weighs In
Australia National University’s Associate Professor of Classics and Head of the Centre for Classical Studies, Caillan Davenport, recently spoke to ABC Australia about the relationship between men and the Roman Empire.
“There is so much to Ancient Rome ― literature and beautiful poetry, but that actually isn’t what’s copping up [in the trend],” explained Davenport; outlining “sport, armies, and sex” as common themes.
“I think [the men] are thinking of, you know, gladiators who were like sports stars. They’re not envisaging themselves as enslaved people.”
He added: “Some of the TikToks talking about, you know… Rome was the best. But you must also think about the terrible effects of conquest and colonisation.”