The Glory of Rome: How Often Do You Think About It?
There’s a brand new craze that’s sweeping the nation: women asking their husbands, fathers, or brothers how often they think about the Roman empire. The trend began on TikTok, where mostly female users would post videos of themselves asking the men in their lives how often they think about the Roman empire. Many women were surprised to learn that the golden age of imperium occurs to loved ones at least a few times a week, and in some cases even daily.
The explosive trend has caused many — both men and women — to ask why so many men think so often of the long-gone Roman empire. Countless answers have been proffered, including Hollywood portrayals of Rome as a masculine culture, the inventions the ancient Romans pioneered, and the majestic might the empire represented and exercised. I would suggest the answer may be far simpler, and may even be summarized in a single word: order.
The great conservative author and philosopher Russell Kirk once wrote, “Order is the first need of the soul.” To many men, the Roman empire represents a sense of order the modern world is sorely lacking. Of course, women need order too, but the way men need order and the way women need order is different.
It is the sacred duty of men to create and sustain order, as laid forth by God Himself. In the Garden of Eden, God created order. Part of that order was entrusting to man (Adam) the responsibility of caring for and preserving that order. Woman (Eve) was to be his solace and his helpmate in that duty. Both were given dominion over all creatures. But when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, at the behest of a creature (the serpent), they reversed the order God had created, placing the creature at the peak, where God belonged, and making man subject to woman. In short, because man abdicated his duty to protect and preserve order, order itself was undone. God Himself makes this clear in rebuking Adam and Eve:
“To the woman He said: ‘I shall give you intense pain in childbearing, you will give birth to your children in pain. Your yearning will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.’ To the man he said, ‘Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat, accursed be the soil because of you! Painfully will you get your food from it as long as you live. It will yield you brambles and thistles, as you eat the produce of the land. By the sweat of your face will you earn your food, until you return to the ground, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return.’” (Genesis 3:16-19)
Here, God lays out the differences between a man’s need for order and a woman’s, the differences He Himself created and has breathed into the soul of every human being to have ever walked the face of the earth. In fact, God’s rebuke is rather a remedy: chaos has entered the world in the form of sin, and if it is to be expunged, if order is to be restored, then suffering is necessary. Both the necessity of suffering and the essential roles of both man and woman are made clear in what God designates as suffering. Woman is to be the beneficiary of order, which is necessary, of course, if she is to raise children and order their minds and souls aright. Her essential role is the bearing and raising of children, as made evident by God cursing her with a painful childbirth.
It is the duty of man to forge and to sustain order, to succeed where he failed in Eden, in protecting his beloved and stewarding for her and for their children an ordered world. Man’s sin is double — nay, triple! — that of his wife. While Eve subjected herself to the creature and disobeyed God, Adam failed in his duty as the first head of the first household, in addition to subjecting himself (by proxy, as it were) to the creature and disobeying God.
Thus, his suffering is triplicate: man is cursed with restoring the order he failed to preserve, toiling miserably his whole life long to provide for his wife and children, and finally dying. This last is necessary for both man and woman, as man and woman are both a body and a soul, so when sin infects the one, it naturally infects the other. If sin is to be expunged from the immortal soul, the body must at some point be separated from it, or else the two will continue living in a united state of sin for all eternity.
In summation: woman is meant to benefit from order, which man is tasked with cultivating and preserving. Got it? Good, now on to Rome.
The Roman empire holds a special appeal for men because it is a prime example of the cultivation and curation of order — and it’s real! Fictitious depictions of order — no matter how beautiful (I’m thinking here of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic creation of Middle Earth) — will only appeal to some, and usually the more creative and imaginative, not the more austere pragmatists, whereas the glory of Rome can captivate the mind of any man. It’s easy to point to Tolkien’s Minas Tirith as an example of order holding chaos at bay, but Rome actually existed, that empire actually stretched its mighty hand across essentially the entire known world and subjected nations and kingdoms and islands to order.
Obviously, films like “Gladiator” and “Spartacus” and television shows like HBO’s “Rome” have done a lot in the past few years to bolster the image of Rome as a patriarchal image of virility and strength. What man doesn’t want to be like “Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, and loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, who will have his vengeance, in this life or the next?” What man doesn’t want a brotherhood built on self-sacrifice, like that in “Spartacus”? And what man isn’t just the littlest bit awed by the sight of Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar, riding his noble white steed at the head of a Roman legion?
Such narratives and images may be what critical theorists would describe as “male-coded,” but what each of them has in common is an evoking of order. Maximus has ordered his love so that his family and his nation come above all else and has ordered his body and mind to become the most brilliant general and the most skilled gladiator Rome has ever seen; Spartacus and his compatriots have devoted themselves to the order of fraternal love as Christ Himself ordained, “No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13); and Julius Caesar was a real-life emperor who put his armies in order and rooted out corruption in his nation’s senate.
But the order of the Roman empire is deeper than mere military might and tactical prowess. The Roman empire is also a symbol of political, intellectual, and (eventually) spiritual order. Its political and intellectual order are closely intertwined but can still be (somewhat) parsed. While the Greeks may have pioneered democracy, the Romans truly perfected the republic. For centuries, nations were ruled over by kings, tribes were ruled over by chieftains, but Rome introduced the notion of not only giving men responsibility for themselves but putting safeguards in place so that one freeman didn’t use his freedom and responsibility to abuse another. “Freeman,” of course, calls to mind Rome’s use of slaves, but even here, the Roman sense of order was such that the human spirit reigned above even class divisions and political hierarchy, and slaves were very often offered a way to earn their freedom.
America’s Founding Fathers clearly thought about Rome a lot, and often referenced the Roman republic and cited some of its greatest thinkers, orators, and politicians. In fact, the Founding Fathers thought about Rome so often (in an age long before Russell Crowe donned that iconic spiked helmet or Ciaran Hinds made it clear Batman wasn’t the only one who looked cool wearing a cape) that they based a substantial portion of America’s governmental system on Rome’s.
While the enlightenment-era philosopher John Locke is usually given the lion’s share of credit for inspiring the Founding Fathers, America’s progenitors also read from and quoted the ancients, like Brutus, Cato, Livy, Plutarch, Polybius, Tacitus, Thucydides, and the great Cicero, just to name a few.
The Founding Fathers — most especially presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — often turned to Roman wisdom in seeking the best way forward for our fledgling nation. In fact, scholar Thomas E. Ricks even explains in his book “First Principles” that Washington based many of his Revolutionary War military tactics on both Julius Caesar and the great general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, who fought against the Carthaginian leader Hannibal during the Second Punic War. Washington’s admiration for Fabius is telling, as Fabius was one of the greatest figures of Rome’s republican era, when the empire really rose to prominence, before civil war culminated in the rise of the emperors.
Rome’s philosophers were also a great influence on the Founding Fathers and have proven to be an influence on much of the rest of the Western world’s intellectual growth, no matter what era. Perhaps one of Roman philosophy’s most important contributions has been stoicism. Aristotelean ethics and stoicism were really the only two schools of philosophy (until Christianity came along, but more on that later) which attempted to bring order to the question of virtue. Sure, big names like Socrates and Plato asked what virtue is, but it was really Aristotle and the stoics who proffered any kind of concrete answer to those questions. Romans like Seneca, Cato, Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote extensively on stoicism, advocating mastering one’s passions and (in a manner perhaps preparing Rome to embrace Christianity) embracing suffering as a means of spiritual growth.
While stoicism is ultimately incompatible with Christianity (since it advocates complete reliance on the self and leaves no room for God or His mercy), its prevalence did perhaps prepare Rome to accept Christianity. Rome was, of course, far from perfect, and its initial treatment of Christianity is more than ample evidence of the fact. Emperors like Nero and Diocletian would mercilessly persecute the first few centuries of Christians, famously feeding them to lions in the Coliseum and, less famously, dousing them in oil, lighting them on fire, and impaling them still alive on spikes to serve as lampposts along Roman roads.
Some emperors were more tolerant of Christianity, but the horrors of persecution didn’t come to an end until the 4th century emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. His Edict of Milan in A.D. 313 essentially decriminalized Christianity and allowed Christians to practice and preach their faith free of persecution. Less than 70 years later, the Edict of Thessalonica made Christianity the empire’s state religion.
There are, of course, many reasons that anyone might think of the Roman empire at any given time. Perhaps flushing the toilet makes one grateful for the Roman aqueducts, perhaps driving on paved roads causes one to reflect on Rome’s own famous road system — whatever the reason, the latest TikTok trend has revealed that men think about the Roman empire a lot, certainly more than the women in their lives had perhaps anticipated.
Although the reasons for this may be myriad, the chief reason men are drawn to the Roman empire is its representation of order. Men have been entrusted by God, from the Fall of our first parents, with a sacred and a solemn duty to act in His image and bring order out of chaos. It is our duty to provide order for our wives, children, sisters, and mothers. For all its faults, the Roman empire still stands across the centuries as a towering example of men who cultivated that order, and thinking of it should inspire us to do the same today.
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.