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What men are thinking about when they think about the Roman Empire

Is the measure of a man really based on ancient Rome? 
 A performer in the Roman centurion costume talks to spectators
People who imagine themselves back in the Roman Empire, like this German in a Roman centurion costume, don't choose the more common role of young, unknown farmer, laboriously tilling a wheat field in southern Italy.Lino Mirgeler / picture-alliance / dpa / AP file

“Men, to our core, I think are warriors,” some guy called Adam Woolard once stated to his betrothed on video. As it turns out, his fiancée is former “Bachelorette” star Hannah Brown, who has 1.2 million followers on TikTok. In his next breath, he then claimed that the Roman Empire was all about being ready for battle — as are modern men. But is the measure of a man really based on ancient Rome? 

Woolard isn’t the only man dreaming of antiquity. In June, Elon Musk remarked on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “perhaps we just need a modern Sulla,” the Roman general. Musk’s comment came in response to a venture capitalist discussing corruption allegations tied to President Joe Biden — and drawing a parallel with ancient client kings’ relationships with Roman senators during the Roman Republic. 

But the Roman references didn’t stop there. Musk would also go on to say that in the proposed cage match he was seeking with Meta head Mark Zuckerberg, the decor would be “ancient Rome” and take place in the Eternal City. Only a few months have passed, and the internet is already ablaze with references to Rome and the large amount of space that the empire presently takes up in every dudebro’s head. It still begs the question: Why is there a new cult following of ancient Rome? Why now?

White men, from youth on up to tech bros, reference figures like Sulla, Caesar or Marcus Aurelius as stand-ins for their own ambitions.

One way to unpack an emerging cult is to look at its idols. For those not up on their late Republican insurrectionists, Sulla is not the model Roman statesman. Lucius Cornelius Sulla marched on the city of Rome in 88 B.C. and was a dictator. Far beyond engaging solely in imperialism and the crushing of foreign kings, like the African king Jugurtha, he also took a hammer to the Roman Republican infrastructure. In the process, he also proscribed at least 520 of his enemies, effectively sentencing them to death via crowdsourcing. Sulla was and is a hypermasculine icon who, while celebrated by men like Musk, would be considered a treasonous war criminal by today’s standards. And yet he retired and faced no repercussions for his actions.

This lack of accountability is in stark contrast to the current world. America today is cast by conservatives as too politically correct. And white men, from youth on up to tech bros, reference figures like Sulla, Caesar or Marcus Aurelius as stand-ins for their own ambitions. But this vision of Rome is often a mix of historical record and modern movie magic. During the Jan. 6 insurrection, for instance, Trump was cast on a poster as Maximus from the movie "Gladiator."

Rome has a long history that served particularly aggressive men, and in the late Republic there were little to no consequences for public discussion of imperialism, colonialism and misogyny. Imperialism was rewarded with triumphal processions, and ancient literature written for elite audiences celebrated expansion and subjugation. Caesar paid the price for longing for a monarchy, not for committing genocide in Gaul. Roman “freedom” of speech was extended especially to free men who served as heads of their family (a status called the pater familias). The patriarchy was legally codified and came with the power to punish children, wives and enslaved persons who stepped out of line in the household. It is this inherent male power, combined with distorted pop culture portrayals of Rome in television and film, that have conjured a new nostalgia culture for a Rome that never truly existed for 99% of the populace.

For historians, this is a tale as old as time: A group of people reconceives the past in order to serve their vision of the present. But these lessons aren’t taught by a fuddy-duddy old scholar who only thinks about ancient Greek philosophy. These days, instead of dead-language electives or world history lectures, the unconventional intellectuals of the internet get their ancient history fix elsewhere. These days, bros are reminiscing about "Gladiator" and living their fantasies as warmongering emperors and bloodthirsty scions through fictional personages from Hollywood.

A white man who dreams of grisly showdowns on the battlefield might believe that, in some 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, earning his name-check in the annals of history. Perhaps he would even be part of an inbred political dynasty and take on the mantle of his warlord father, destroying barbaric legions and marrying his first cousin in order to further the family line. After a day of slaughter, he would decamp to his swanky villa on a Capri-like coast, where he would get sloshed on natural wines and engage in unspeakable — but very debauched — sex acts. Then he would wake up the next day and do it all over again. 

But humor us historians, and let’s talk statistics. In all likelihood, he would have come from much humbler origins. Around 1 in 4 people in Roman Italy during the Roman imperial period was enslaved. Most others, if they were free, were rural peasants, artisans or people manumitted from slavery. Harsh climates, ambient warfare and decimating plagues dictated the life of many, which is possibly the furthest thing from a cinematically sexy storyline that ends in a blaze of blood, guts and glory.

Living during the Roman Empire doesn’t seem so appealing when you would have likely died from malnutrition.

More probably, the average Roman would have died as a young, unknown farmer, laboriously tilling a wheat field somewhere in southern Italy. Living during the Roman Empire doesn’t seem so appealing when you would have likely died from malnutrition or a host of other ills. As Stanford historian Walter Scheidel has noted, if Romans even made it past the age of 5 (a big if), they would likely die in their 40s.

To be fair, this egotistical phenomenon is not original to 21st-century bros searching desperately for a war proxy. Spanish conquistadors used Roman historical parallels to fuel their imperialist aims in the Americas. And Benito Mussolini dreamed of bringing back the Roman Empire of Augustus, all 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 comprise a representative voice, it’s possible that many men don’t actually think about the Roman Empire on a regular basis. It’s probably not the case that the guy sitting next to you on the bus or the dude who held the door open for you at the coffee shop is fantasizing about walking into 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 impoverished farmers than emperors or soldiers. We all want to believe that we would have been the conqueror, rather than the conquered.