“I think men, at their core, are warriors,” a guy named Adam Woolard once told his fiancée in a video. Turns out his fiancée is a former ‘Bachelorette’ star Hannah Brown, who has 1.2 million followers on TikTok. In his next breath, he then asserted that the Roman Empire was about being combat-ready – just like modern men are. But is the measure of a man really based on ancient Rome?
Woolard is not the only one to dream of antiquity. In June, Elon Musk remarked on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “maybe we just need a modern Sulla», the Roman general. Musk’s comment came in response to a venture capitalist discuss allegations of corruption linked to President Joe Biden – and drawing parallels to ancient client kings’ relationships with Roman senators during the Roman Republic.
But the Roman references don’t stop there. Musk would also go on to say that in the proposed cage match he was seeking with Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg, the setting would be “Ancient Rome” and take place in the Eternal City. Only a few months have passed and the internet is already full of references to Rome and the big place the empire currently occupies in every guy’s head. This always begs the question: why is there a new cult of ancient Rome? Why now?
White men, from youth to the brothers of technology, reference figures like Sulla, Caesar or Marcus Aurelius to replace their own ambitions.
One way to understand an emerging cult is to look at its idols. For those not aware of their late republican insurgents, Sulla is not the model Roman statesman. Lucius Cornelius Sulla marched on the city of Rome in 88 BC and was a dictator. Far beyond his commitment solely to imperialism and the crushing of foreign kings, such as the African king Jugurtha, he also hammered the Roman republican infrastructure. In doing so, he also outlawed at least 520 of his enemies, thereby crowdsourcing them to death. Sulla was and still is a hypermasculine icon who, while celebrated by men like Musk, would be considered a treacherous war criminal by today’s standards. And yet he retired and faced no repercussions for his actions.
This lack of accountability stands in stark contrast to the world today. Conservatives today view America as too politically correct. And white men, from youth to the brothers of technology, reference figures like Sulla, Caesar or Marcus Aurelius, who replace their own ambitions. But this vision of Rome is often a mixture of historical documents and modern cinematic magic. During the Jan. 6 insurrection, for example, Trump appeared on a poster as Maximus from the movie “Gladiator.”
Rome has a long history of serving particularly aggressive men, and by the end of the Republic, public debate about imperialism, colonialism, and misogyny had little or no impact. Imperialism was rewarded with triumphal processions, and ancient literature written for an elite audience celebrated expansion and subjugation. Caesar paid the price for his desire for monarchy, not for the genocide he committed in Gaul. Roman “freedom” of speech was particularly extended to free men who were heads of households (a status called family father). Patriarchy was legally codified and had the power to punish children, wives, and slaves who transgressed the rules within the household. It is this inherent masculine power, combined with distorted representations of Rome in pop culture on television and in film, that have evoked a new culture of nostalgia for a Rome that never really existed for 99% of the population.
For historians, it is a story as old as time: a group of people rethink the past in order to serve their vision of the present. But these lessons are not taught by an old scholar who only thinks about ancient Greek philosophy. These days, instead of electives in dead languages or world history courses, the Internet’s unconventional intellectuals get their ancient history fix elsewhere. These days, the brothers reminisce about “Gladiator” and live out their fantasies of warmongering emperors and bloodthirsty descendants through fictional Hollywood characters.
A white man who dreams of grisly battlefield clashes might believe that in a lifetime 2,000 years ago he would have been born into a noble family somewhere in the Roman Empire. He would have had a British accent. It would have been possible to rise through the ranks to become a despotic war hero, thus earning his name in the annals of history. Perhaps he would even become part of an inbred political dynasty and take on his father’s warlord role, destroying barbarian legions and marrying his first cousin in order to advance the family line. After a day of slaughter, he decamped to his posh villa on a coast similar to that of Capri, where he devoured himself with natural wines and engaged in indescribable – but very debauched – sexual acts. Then he would wake up the next day and do it again.
But do us historians a favor and let’s talk statistics. In all likelihood, he would have come from much more modest origins. About 1 in 4 people in Roman Italy during the Roman imperial period were enslaved. Most of the others, if free, were rural peasants, artisans, or people freed from slavery. Harsh climates, ambient wars and decimating epidemics have dictated the lives of many people, which is perhaps the furthest thing from a cinematically sexy storyline that ends in a conflagration of blood, guts and glory .
Living under the Roman Empire doesn’t sound so appealing when you probably would have died of malnutrition.
More likely, the average Roman would have died as an unknown young farmer, laboriously plowing a wheat field somewhere in southern Italy. Living under the Roman Empire doesn’t sound so appealing when you probably would have died of malnutrition or a host of other illnesses. As Stanford historian Walter Scheidel noted, if the Romans lived past the age of 5 (a big if), they would likely die in their 40s.
To be honest, this selfish phenomenon is not original among 21st century brothers who are desperate for a war proxy. Spanish conquistadors used Roman historical parallels to fuel their imperialist goals in the Americas. And Benito Mussolini dreamed of bringing back the Augustan Roman Empire, while Adolph Hitler worked to bring back ancient Greece through events like the Olympics and propaganda films.
Lest we believe that TikToks and social media posts constitute a representative voice, many men may not think about the Roman Empire regularly. It’s probably not the case that the guy sitting next to you on the bus or the guy who held the door open for you at the coffee shop is fantasizing about entering the Colosseum.
But one thing is true: one of the enduring legacies of the Roman Empire is a fierce attachment to violence and masculinity. And the reality is that Rome was a diverse and brutal empire, with far more slaves, women, and poor farmers than emperors or soldiers. We all want to believe that we would have been the conqueror rather than the vanquished.