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Friday, April 12, 2024
Thinking about the Roman Empire

Et tu, Bucky: Why UW-Madison men think about the Roman Empire

“It's like a testimony to their testosterone," a UW-Madison student said.

In a trend that has swept through social media in recent weeks, women have posed a question to their male friends, boyfriends and husbands: How often do you think about the Roman Empire? 

To their surprise, most discovered that many men think about it every week — and sometimes daily.

Behind the entertaining aspect of the trend lie more profound sociological questions — why do men share a surprisingly consistent interest for this time period, and how do men and women differ in their relationship to history?

When asked how often they thought about the Roman Empire, most men agreed the frequency had increased since they heard about the trend.

“I would say, after everybody’s asked me this, it’s probably been like once or twice a week,” Sam Gabler, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained.

However, some men revealed that they did not think about it as often as others.

“I would say before [the trend], I think about [the Roman Empire] once a month, twice a month,” Skyler Sitzberger, a UW-Madison student said.

The frequency of Roman Empire thoughts varied, as did the reasoning. For several male students interviewed, historical knowledge about the empire and its legacies is shrouded in fiction and fantasy. 

Some admired Roman aesthetics and said Roman statues represented their dream bodies. Some discussed the thrill of epic combat scenes pictured in movies like “Gladiator.” Others evoked the simple desire to "walk around all day wearing sandals and a toga." 

Many admitted they fantasized about going back to that time period.

“I would say [I think about the Roman Empire] at least a couple times a week majorly because, one, my favorite movie is ‘Gladiator,’” UW-Madison student Ethan Myers said. “And second, I’m really interested in the philosophers during that time period.”

Gabler also agreed that the Roman Empire’s aesthetics were part of why he thought about it as much as he did. 

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Professor Marc Kleijwegt, an expert in Roman history, responded to this narrative by arguing that men who idealize the Roman Empire do so without looking at the drawbacks.

”Men who like the Roman Empire like it for the snippets that show triumph and victory...but have never looked at its downsides," Kleijwegt said. “Look, if you could travel back in time, you better belong to [the] 2% at the top, and even there, it’s not a really nice place for all of you.” 

He went on to note parts of the Roman Empire that many tend to forget — disease, lack of health services, starvation and more. He said men post many of their interests onto a fantastical and idealized version of Rome: glory, philosophy, war and violence.

"It's a perception of the Roman Empire that men are in love with," Kleijwegt said. 

On the other hand, female students interviewed on campus consistently said the Roman Empire rarely crosses their minds. 

Some suggested that the trend had everything to do with masculinity. 

"It's like a testimony to their testosterone," said Elise Dahlby, a student at UW-Madison.

Nicholas A. Pedriana, a sociology professor at UW-Madison, suggested that the social construct of masculinity was essential to understanding this trend. 

When we hear about the Roman Empire, whether it's in movies, documentaries or books, there is a disproportionate emphasis on generals, senators, soldiers and philosophers — positions exclusively occupied by men, he said. As a result, a certain definition of masculinity has bled into the meaning of the Roman Empire.

“I think there’s a big, disproportionate emphasis on what you might call hypermasculinity-type roles: generals, senators, soldiers, that kind of thing,” Pedriana said. “Those are all highly masculine-type roles.”

Dahlby explained how she believes men are often seen as more powerful than women, which leads them to this type of fantasy.

“When [men] think about that, they’re like, ‘I wish I could be valued in a different way and put on a pedestal,’” Dahlby said. 

Kleijwegt said there is nothing for women to fantasize about if they think about their roles in the Roman Empire. Women, if they were mentioned at all, were always characterized in a negative way in this time period, he said.

“There’s not a lot to be sympathetic about if [women] think about themselves in the Roman Empire,” Kleijwegt said. “Women are basically always characterized in a negative way because the people who wrote about women are men and not women. 

Pedriana gave insights into why women are quasi-absent from dominant historical narratives. He said history is a social construct that comes down to the nature of power relationships in a given society. 

He also explained how patriarchy has been the dominating manner of organizing societies. 

“History is almost completely dominated by a male narrative. The experiences of other people rarely find themselves into the dominant narratives, and some of that is to be expected because women and other groups simply didn't have access to that influence.”

Pedriana said most women probably have absorbed dominant masculine narratives of history — the idea that only men can aspire to have their name shape the course of the world.

“Men are more likely to think of history in terms of the male gaze, the male-dominated viewpoint,” Pedriana said. “But given how dominant that conventional wisdom has been, most women, I would guess, have assumed history in that way as well because that’s what they are offered.”

When considering the effects that the Roman Empire had on today's society, Daniel Kapust, a professor of political science and expert on the Roman Empire, noted that Ancient Rome's cultural influence is visible in today's America and the West in a variety of ways.

“You look at the architecture of the late 18th century and neoclassical architecture, [and] you can see quite a lot of Roman influence,” Kapust said. “Then, especially in the U.S., in Washington, D.C. — around the Capitol and in the Capitol — there’s a lot of Roman iconography as well.”

Historically and politically, subsequent powers have tended to measure themselves against Rome. Kapust explained that since America's independence, officials and state agents have used Roman references and imagery to characterize and understand the country. 

"From the beginning, there was this sense that once America declared itself independent and became a republic, it would look to Rome, and they did look to Rome,” Kapust said. “I mean, George Washington was sometimes depicted as a Cincinnatus figure for example.”

While some argue that the U.S. could be considered a “new Rome,” Kapust recognized that, done carefully, the comparison could be fruitful.

He also warned against the vagueness and subjectivity of the approach, though.

”They don't have political parties in Rome. They don't have elections quite like we do. They don't have nearly as inclusive and diverse electorate as we do. So you have to be very careful,” he said. 

“When people talk about these comparisons, they're almost always picking up on different things. So what aspect of Roman history is going to most illuminate our current moment?”

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