A funny thing happened on the way to the online forum: people wouldn’t stop talking about the Roman Empire.
Over the past few days, a viral trend has swept through TikTok in which women asked their husbands and boyfriends how often they thought about the Roman Empire. A surprising number claimed to think about the ancient empire as often as “every day” or least every week or two. It became a meme (are you even in a relationship if she hasn’t asked you about the Roman Empire?), spread to other social media sites, then received serious news coverage in multiple outlets. Now it seems like it’s everywhere.
The whole experience has left me, a historian (I focus on medieval Europe, but like many professors have taught “from Plato to NATO”), a little bemused. There are any number of specific reasons why men might think a lot about the Roman Empire, to be sure, but in my experience, lots of people spend a lot of time thinking about history. People like history.
When it comes to the Roman Empire, there’s a gender bias here, and also a racial one. Lots of men in particular think Rome is cool, though it’s mostly just vibes combining mythic ideas around ancient Greece and Rome — about a thousand years’ worth of history! This popularity is evident in history classes, books, podcasts, TV shows, video games, movies and more, including Mike Duncan’s podcast, Mary Beard’s SPQR, or the TV show Rome, but also more lyrical pathways into the history such as Madeline Miller’s novels “Circe” and “Song of Achilles.”
There’s just a lot (in a fairly narrow band) of Greek and Roman history to easily consume. What’s more, a small selection of surviving primary sources for the late Roman Republic and early empire are fun to read, lurid in sex and violence and available in cheap paperback translations. Try Livy’s histories for the early stuff, or Tacitus’ Annals for a dose of political intrigue (and murder).
Pundits like to compare our present moment to a mostly false narrative about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, arguing that history justifies taking aggressive action against their pet concerns. In 1979, for example, an economics professor blamed welfare for the fall of Rome. The comparison tends to produce bad history.
But the pundits and politicians are in good company. People have been trying to use using bad history to try to claim the mythic legacy of Rome for centuries. Just look at our government buildings that claim to be “neo-classical” with their gleaming white columns—even though Rome was actually very colorful, it’s just that paint doesn’t last. More dangerously, there is a subset of people who are more seriously obsessed with an imagined past that they think supports a White supremacist narrative of history. It’s a notion that actual scholars of the incredibly complex and diverse ancient Mediterranean are pushing back against, because it’s both harmful and nonsense.
But the specifics of the ancient Mediterranean aside, it’s not surprising to me that people spend a lot of time thinking about their favorite histories. History is enthralling, and while access to sources is unequal for many reasons (what survives, what gets translated, what gets published cheaply), you can find fascinating stories from any place, time or topic.
And people do. Every time a stranger finds out that I’m a historian, like on an airplane, or at a bar or even recently at a gas station while I was filling up a leaking tire, they start telling me about their favorite history. It can be a red flag, like the Battle of Thermopylae or any time a White person in the South wants to talk to me about the Civil War, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s just someone who likes to think about the past. And if you asked them about it on video, they’d probably say they think about it almost every day.
I also see this from my students, including the many retirees who take advantage of a $10-a-credit program for Minnesotans over 62 to voluntarily come back to school and get a history major. They take classes. They write papers and exams. They do the reading. They do it for fun. It’s because people like history.
I keep asserting people’s love of history because we’re in a moment of professional collapse for those of us in the business of making new knowledge about the past. Enrollments in history classes and majors have been falling for years, and while the job market for professors has stabilized, it’s heavily skewed towards temporary positions and nowhere near as large as it was even a decade ago. The news is even worse for historians of the premodern world; American men may be low-level obsessed with ancient Rome, but only 8% of all of last year’s jobs focused on the history from the origins of humanity to the year 1500, according to the American Historical Association.
Some of that has happened because of shifting resources from the teaching of premodern Europe and ancient Greece and Rome to include more of the world — a necessary shift, it turns out, because the rest of the world also has fascinating, knowable, premodern history. I’ve never cared if anyone studies the areas of the world I study, but I do want students steeped in the past.
What to make of this disconnect in society? People love history, but the studying and teaching of history at the university level is slowly vanishing (I’m sure you could say similar things about the love for art and art history, love for literature and shrinking English departments, but I’m going to stick to what I know best). Students are told not to follow their interests, but to go to college to find a career, and are never told that strong humanities majors make more money than average business majors, or that history majors do just as well financially as majors like criminology or psychology.
The issues here aren’t easily solvable, but they start by recognizing that history and historians don’t have to be on the defensive about our topics. People want to learn about the past. We should make it easier for them in every way possible, and we need the public to make their love of history clear. Go on TikTok! Ask your boyfriend or girlfriend about history and share their answers. Make more history everywhere and in every way. There’s work to be done, and like Rome, we’re not going to build it in a day.