By now, you’ve probably seen the latest internet sensation: asking your boyfriend how often he thinks about the Roman Empire. I’ll admit, the responses are pretty funny. With some thinking about the Roman Empire multiple times a day and others not at all, the question on everyone's minds is: why? Why are men still fascinated with a civilisation that fell centuries ago? Is TikTok simply united by a common interest in ancient history, or is there a darker fantasy at play?
Firstly, we must acknowledge that the Roman Empire has left lasting cultural footprints in today’s western world. Whether it be the Romans’ influence on money, education, language, or even their redefinition of geographical borders, the Roman Empire remains embedded in our everyday lives. In the UK education system, the Roman Empire is a part of the History curriculum taught to children as young as six years old. Countless plays, films, and books are set in Rome, with the Roman Empire creating the perfect dramatic backdrop for betrayal (think the classic tale of Julius Caesar), violence, and fantasies of power.
Like most historical drama settings, the Roman Empire sits perfectly on the line boundary between being exotic enough to allow for the fanciful reimagining of history, and still being recognisable enough to enable the audience to project themselves into the setting. It is worth noting that the historical fantasy genre sees a spike in popularity during periods of political or social uncertainty. As John Berger writes, “the fear of the present leads to mystification of the past” (Ways of Seeing, 1972). But what exactly are we afraid of? Often, the ways in which we “mystify” the past reveals what we are afraid of. In this case, Tiktok’s glorification of Empirical power plays off the current anxiety surrounding a lack of Western influence on the global stage and, on a more personal level, reveals insecurity in our own power and confidence. However, this mystification is not always negative. In many forms of media, “mystification of the past” presents as a sweet, nostalgic portrayal of the way things used to be – take ‘Call the Midwife’, for example. Alternatively, media may use the “mystification” of history to reflect current societal change or highlight stories previously overlooked – for example, ’Gentleman Jack’ or ’Victoria and Abdul’. In both cases, the historical fiction genre provides a backdrop to play out current politics. The internet’s obsession with the Roman Empire is no different.
However, unlike these examples, the vast majority of ‘Roman Empire’ content exists on social media, without the level of research or regulation that is present in TV and film formats. This has allowed for the trend to become increasingly adopted by the right wing. Edits glorifying famous Roman Emperors, armies, or wars glorify Ancient Rome and turn the city into a fantasy in which ‘traditional’ masculine traits – such as strength, domination, strategy, and a lack of emotion – are revered as aspirational. Very quickly, what started out as a funny, harmless trend becomes yet another online playground for patriarchal rhetoric. TikTok’s format of short, easy to watch videos, paired with its audience’s dwindling attention span, allows for historical context to be consistently ignored and historical figures to become entirely aggrandised in the audience’s perception. The danger, of course, is that we don’t question the traits portrayed as aspirational. These TikToks tend to present the aspirational figure as someone with the will to “conquer,” someone who is often a white, heterosexual male establishing control over others.
Whilst the Roman Empire trend is not inherently misogynistic, the subject matter is vulnerable to adoption by the right wing. So, how do we combat this mystification of the past and ensure that trends like these do not become co-opted by the online alt right? The answer may be education. Educating audiences to the reality of the Roman Empire, with all its massacres and political infighting, reduces the risk of the setting becoming centered around fantasies of power. Similarly, it may be appropriate to promote ‘good’ masculine role models within popular media, particularly those in positions of power, whose strength does not rely on the subjugation of others. Highlighting the value in traits not celebrated by the patriarchy allows for an alternative ideal of masculinity – one that focuses on individual freedom rather than the obtaining and maintaining of power.
Words+ Image: Bea Butterworth, she/her