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How often do you think about the Roman empire? The question is currently trending on TikTok as women (mostly white, and from the western hemisphere) are astonished to find that their male partners (likewise) think about swords, gladiators and aqueducts a great deal of the time.
In the kind of revelation not seen since the publication of John Gray’s seminal Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus in 1992, the question has exposed a fundamental estrangement between the sexes in which it has been proven that men and women consider very different things. Women are mystified as to why anyone would think about a civilisation that found its fullest expression 2,000 years ago; men are baffled as to why you would think of other things.
“Let me get my list,” says one man, when prompted by TikTok user Billie Kay Asmus as to why exactly the ancient Romans float his boat. He then consults his phone: “Cement. Aqueducts, which is of course plumbing that we know. Sanitation. Roads — every time you’re on a road, you can thank a Roman. Social care, that was designed by the Romans. Obviously, the Julian calendar that we have come to know. Otherwise, some bits of surgery. Some of the modern legal system . . . ”
Others are more sanguine: they love the brute strength and mythic physicality of their ancient brothers — in short, they’ve still got the hots for Russell Crowe. One man thinks of the Romans every time he goes to the loo: “They sorted out all that stuff with sewers. The Romans just got that done.”
True results are now being skewed as the trend becomes more widespread and chaps can swot up on their response. But the majority of answers seem completely genuine. Mostly, men are in awe of all the Romans achieved. They marvel at their absolute dominion, their mastery of every strand of civilisation — and then how that power suddenly slipped away. Some see metaphorical comparisons: are we poised at the end of another epoch? Others think about the Stoics. Who knew Marcus Aurelius would be such an influencer? The millions of men who subscribe to apps daily offering his wisdoms, that’s who.
The last time I thought about the Romans was while standing in the Pantheon, in June. The former temple is such a feat of engineering, so accomplished, so divinely beautiful, that it made me wonder what the hell had we’d been doing for the past 2,000 years. To acknowledge any Roman achievement is to be overwhelmed by our own stunning mediocrity. The Romans gave us underfloor heating and the oculus; we offer crumbling concrete, microplastics and an avalanche of Nespresso pods.
How can we measure up to a civilisation that outstripped us in everything, from building works to fun? Is that what men are thinking when they think of Romans? Or are they simply indulging a red-blooded fantasy about all-powerful masculinity — albeit one that wears an armoured skirt?
TikTok has many theories, most of which seem balderdash. However, I do check in for an opinion from Dame Mary Beard, the rock star scholar of Ancient Rome. “I wonder if it is the safe way of allowing yourself to be a bit macho (after all it’s 2,000 years ago),” she writes back. “I think my job, as a woman who writes about Rome, is to make them see Rome’s softer side.”
The Roman empire trend is endearing and surprising. It’s charming to find a subject that unites boys — from age five to 85. One small chap describes his appreciation of an aqueduct to his mother with such gleeful competency that you cannot help but share in his delight. There’s also something very sweet in the coy admission by so many men that actually, they think about the Romans “only” — like it’s a guilty secret — “about two or three times a week”.
Beard is on the money. At a time when the politics of gender are explosive, the Roman empire question redraws ancient boundaries about “the differences” between the girls and boys, reinforcing ancient stereotypes and gendered behaviours in a safer, more benign, discussion space. Showing an outsize interest in violence, war and bloodsports is not really fashionable at this time. For those who feel their masculinity imperilled, the Roman empire is a portal through which men can bathe freely in pure testosterone. (If nothing else it bodes extremely well for the second instalment of Gladiator, starring a pneumatic Paul Mescal.)
On the flip side, it begs the question: what are the ladies mulling over while this is going on? Is there a subject on which women could be predicted to consider in any given week? The feminist in me would argue that the only thing women think about that often are issues regarding their fertility — perhaps if we weren’t worrying about our cycles or getting/being or staying pregnant, we would have far more time for the Stoics too. In truth though, I’m most likely thinking about the first world war, Princess Diana or a real-life murder — or some combination of the three.
Apparently, women are more likely to dwell on historic tragedies than on the glories of the past. But right now, I’m sitting on an aeroplane en route to Milan and thinking that my trousers are uncomfortably tight. Of course, the Romans solved the issues of cabin dressing some millennia ago. Instead of wearing jeans, I should have opted for a toga on my flight.
Email Jo at [email protected]
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Source: Financial Times