Recently, a video appeared on my TikTok For You Page that got an immediate send into the group chat: A woman, speaking to camera, tells the viewer to ask the men in their lives — partners, fathers, brothers, whoever — how often they think of the Roman Empire. At first, I laughed. Then, I asked my boyfriend.
We’re both New Jersey Italians, so it’s not that uncommon for the Roman Empire to cross our minds every once in a while — I’m sure either of us could even make a compelling case that MTV’s Jersey Shore is a direct result of Caesar’s reign, but that’s a topic for a different day. After I asked the initial question, my boyfriend responded with an innocent text that sent me into a spiral: “Somehow I feel like it comes up every day.”
Every day. Every day?! And I wasn’t alone in this realization. Other people started posting their own Roman Empire experiences, with the men and mascs in their lives stating they think about the ancient civilization monthly, weekly, and yes, even daily. Of course they think about the Roman Empire, they said. Just look at the world around us that they’ve influenced: religion, architecture, plumbing, government, language. And then, suddenly, the Roman Empire was everywhere.
In fact, it exploded. A perfect, unexplainable storm has to brew for a topic to reach this kind of virality. Beyond the original videos posted to TikTok, memes have started circulating, it was discussed on daytime talk show The View, written about in The New York Times, and has permeated into our work Slacks and Google Chats. But what about this period of time, this particular historical moment, has embedded itself so deeply into our memories? And why did we think it was just the people in our lives, our small circles, that think of the Roman Empire more often than average?
We tend to believe that we’re one of one, and that each passing thought we have is unequivocally ours, no matter how broad it may be. “Although we like to think that our life is unique and no one else knows what our experiences are like, the fact of the matter is really that all of us lead quite ordinary lives that aren’t all that different from other people in our culture,” David Ludden, PhD, professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College, previously told Refinery29. And that includes how often our partners, fathers, brothers, or whoever, thinks about the Roman Empire.
As much as half of our memories are shared globally across people, according to Wilma Bainbridge, cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. The other half is based on our individual environments, experiences, and personalities. “You’d think we are all individuals, we all have our own unique experiences, so we should all have different memories, but our work has found that there are these surprising similarities across people and their memory,” Bainbride tells Refinery29. “It's important that we think of ourselves as unique individuals, but it's easy to forget that there's actually this nice commonality across everyone.”
Emma Dench, professor of Classics and Ancient History at Harvard University, isn’t so convinced that people are thinking this much about the Roman Empire. “There’s historically been a lot of interest in the Roman Empire because many states, empires, and individuals have claimed to be ‘the new Roman Empire’ or ‘Caesar,’” she tells Refinery29. “That’s done a great deal to perpetuate the ‘brand’ of the Roman Empire.”
And that brand has notably infiltrated The United States, a country that has often been compared to the Roman Empire, and our patriotism (which is arguably destructive) can be compared to how the ancient Romans felt about Rome, or at least how it was taught to us. According to a 2007 story in The Atlantic, Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, says there are six areas that create a compelling argument that ancient Rome and the U.S. are alike: “an exaggerated sense of self importance coupled with a myopic view of the world; a military overstretched and alienated from civilian society; an imprudent rush toward the privatization of public services; a mounting struggle to police borders; and, finally, the inherent impossibility of managing an environment of such burgeoning complexity.”
These six areas feel intrinsically tied to whiteness. Bainbridge says that in the work she does, the groups you belong to influence your memory. She mentions something called the own-race bias (ORB), which is a phenomenon where own-race faces are better recognized. This bias has the opportunity to play into other areas of lives like our actions and yes, memories. “These sorts of biases are not necessarily you choosing to follow what your group does, but more, what have you been exposed to as being part of that group?” Bainbridge says. White men are often the most significant fans of the whitewashed Roman history and ancient Rome, meaning that, if you’re a white, cisgender man or you’re hanging out with a lot of white, cisgender men, you’ll likely remember things that those men tend to discuss.
The way we learned about that period of time may have an effect on how we remember it, too. “I believe kids in the U.S. usually learn about the Roman Empire in quite an early grade, and pretty superficially, so that might contribute to the quite narrow range of associations with the Roman Empire people are citing on TikTok,” Dench says. Our memories are also easily influenced by outside information, and there have also been plenty of influences beyond history class, such as 300, The Gladiator, and Ben-Hur that may have shaped our ways of thinking.
They say if we don’t remember history, we’re condemned to repeat it. And while many do appear to remember the Roman Empire, maybe remembering it beyond the stereotypes is our next step in reclaiming it.