If the question hasn’t hit your For You page or Twitter feed (or group chat) yet, it will: How often do you think about the Roman Empire? The provenance of the query is a little blurry, but it started with this tweet (which also references an Instagram Reel) or possibly this TikTok. Or this one. The point is, everyone is trying to figure out how often the men in their lives think about the Roman Empire.
According to one of those ur-TikToks posted by @paige.elysee earlier this week, you will be “shocked with their responses.” And if my friend group—and the WIRED Culture Slack—are any indication, the responses are … interesting? When I sent the question to group chats yesterday, most of the responses came back along the lines of, “Is this that Twitter poll? lol” or “I got asked this last night. Truly never.” In other words, the responses weren’t shocking but were definitely amusing. Some colleagues generously interjected with “My brain: ‘The Roman Empire is to men what girl dinner is to women’” and “My theory is that it’s because that Daily Stoic podcast is so popular.” WIRED legend Steven Levy responded, “Every time I write about Mark Zuckerberg.” But according to people who aren’t my friends, the answer is more along the lines of “every single day” or once a week or “a few times a month.”
I decided to poll WIRED colleagues. Now, I’m of the opinion that it’s kind of ridiculous to gender this question—people of all genders can be history buffs, y’all!—but maybe that’s an argument for another time. As of this writing, answers are still pouring in on the impromptu Google Form I set up, but in a group that consists of a good balance of men and women, about a fifth answered that they “never” think about the Roman Empire. “Never” was tied with “weekly,” followed by “monthly” at about 15 percent of respondents.
In my deep, morning-long investigation, there were also more than a few responses that pointed to the Cold War or Pompeii or the 1920s as time periods more worthy of contemplation. This, ultimately, led me to a theory: Dudes/people don’t think about the Roman Empire a lot, they think about media about the Roman Empire. Video games set in the Roman Colosseum, old films like Cleopatra, roughly a million History Channel docuseries, Monty Python’s Life of Brian—these things are burned into our memories. Jay-Z was able to put Russell Crowe’s “Are you not entertained?” at the beginning of “What More Can I Say” because Gladiator was so popular. My own ponderings of Ancient Rome tend to hover around the persecution of Christians and the empire’s conversion to Christianity after Constantine. Then I think of Keanu Reeves. One of my former editors responded to my group text query by noting that she’d recently watched HBO’s Rome concurrently with Amazon Prime Video’s Domina to “contrast the characterizations of Octavian’s wife during the Second Triumverate.” Then I Googled this and went down a rabbit hole of my own.
This is what media consumption is like these days. Hollywood, hungry to adapt any story it can, has turned history into IP—shows and movies that we now watch with phones in hand and laptops open to delve into whatever new tidbit shows up onscreen. Who amongst us hasn’t lost hours on the KGB Wikipedia page after a binge-watch of The Americans or sought to fact-check The Trial of Chicago 7? Fire up any streaming service and there are hours of content about World War II. I once dedicated nearly a month of reporting to Alan Turing’s “Bombe” code-breaking machine after I saw The Imitation Game. Frankly, Turing is probably my Roman Empire. (Ask me about the Apple logo in the comments.)
As the cliché goes, history is always written by the victors. But in modern times, it often gets translated by screenwriters and then “punched-up” by studio notes. People tend to be obsessed with the past. The longer my text and Slack threads stretched, the more respondents tried to figure out why anyone was even talking about dudes and the Roman Empire in the first place. It devolved into questions about why humans are obsessed with war, the collective fascination with powerful men, and on and on and on. No one ever figured out why the meme went viral—or whether men really do think about the Roman Empire all the time, or more than people of other genders. But we were entertained.