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What the Hell Happened: The Roman Empire Trend & Modern Masculinity

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
The Colosseum in Rome, Italy. By Courtesy of Diego Delso / Wikimedia Commons
By Giselle P. Acosta, Contributing Writer

Aqueducts. Stoicism. Emperors. What do all of these things have in common? They were all part of the Roman Empire, but if social media is to be believed, they also occupy the minds of men across America.

Recently, TikTok and Instagram users alike have been exposing this strange preoccupation as part of a viral trend. Its loose format involves women asking men how often they think about the Roman Empire. Yes, the same one that ended over 1,500 years ago. Typical responses have ranged from “once a week” to “all the time.” In one Instagram reel following this trend, a man laughs at the question and asks how often women think about Taylor Swift. That video highlights the unspoken truth of this phenomenon: Modern men consider the Roman Empire a shining paragon of masculinity. Unfortunately for them, that sentiment is far from the truth.

Many things about the Roman Empire, even the Roman Empire trend itself, don’t qualify as “manly" in a modern sense. The viral question was actually first posed by a woman, Saskia Cort, on her Instagram story. The trend only took off, though, when a man asked the same question. As of late September, the “Roman Empire” tag had over one million posts on Instagram and 1.3 billion views on TikTok.

Acclaimed Roman historian Mary Beard said in an interview with Fane Productions that the trend’s appeal lies in the persistent image of Rome as a “safe space to be macho.” Ironically, however, many norms in the Roman world were the antithesis of modern machismo. For one thing, the average Roman, male or female, wore skirts every day. Pants were commonly considered barbaric, and they were even outlawed for a while. The Eternal City was also accepting of queerness to a degree that would shock today’s “macho men.” One of Rome’s most lauded leaders, Julius Caesar, had a famous affair with a Bithynian king. The Romans’ eastern neighbors, the Greeks, were no different. One of their most elite fighting forces, the Sacred Band of Thebes, was predicated on the idea that queer love conquers all.

The fantasy of the Roman Empire further deviates from reality when one considers the role of women in the ancient world. Though restricted in many respects, a handful of women throughout Roman history have exercised just as much, if not more power than their male contemporaries. One such woman was Livia Drusilla, who was the wife of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. She wielded vast political power and eliminated many of her family's rivals. In fact, her impact on Roman history was so great, she was posthumously deified and nearly received the unprecedented title "Mother of the Fatherland." Men participating in this trend also seem unaware of powerful non-Roman women like Boudica, the British queen who killed killed tens of thousands of Romans as revenge for the rape of her daughters.

Granted, the Roman Empire wasn’t perfect. It was far from it actually, if a man’s ability to sell his wife into slavery was any indication. Even so, the version of Rome that men describe online omits these uncomfortable facts as well. By revering an idealized image of the empire, they commit the double offense of ignoring both its progressive accomplishments and prejudicial horrors.

Today, many women post their own contributions to the nominally male Roman Empire trend. Considering the aforementioned female history of Rome, their reclamation of the trend feels like cosmic justice. Under the caption “my Roman Empire,” women have celebrated femininity and mocked toxic masculinity by gushing about everything from the Romanov family to Tom Holland's drag performance on “Lip Sync Battle” as their Roman Empire.

People of color have also mocked the Roman Empire trend. One content creator, bri_xu, has argued that the trend doesn’t just seem predominantly white — it is predominantly white. Using graphs of Google searches, he points out that searches for “Roman Empire” have peaked the most in cities with higher-than-average white populations. Other creators have more casually poked fun at the trend’s racial homogeneity. In one video, a Black man acts baffled when asked the viral question. After the typical response is explained, he incredulously says, “Are these Black people that are being asked?” The woman behind the camera says with a laugh, “Few, but not many.”

If modern men considered all this evidence, they would realize the Roman Empire trend is a farce of masculinity. The actual Roman Empire was populated with female, queer, and – in a modern sense — gender-nonconforming people who defy the “good old days” image many men subscribe to. Rather than lament their mistake, men and the rest of America should take these facts as encouragement. If the Romans could build a great society despite their differences, we can too.

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