Have you heard about the Roman empire meme? It was hot on TikTok recently.
It’s a simple one; women approach the men in their life and ask how often they think about the Roman Empire. Clips of boyfriends, husbands, dads, and brothers who have never stepped foot in Italy casually admitting that they think about the Roman Empire often, even multiple times per day, have gone viral on the video-sharing platform, with female creators often expressing complete bewilderment at the shared obsession.
I had to think about that — I took several history courses on Rome in college, so I have invested some time in the subject, I’ve seen several popular movies with a Roman history themes, I’ve read books by Mary Beard and Colleen McCullough. But I struggled to remember when I last “thought about the Roman empire” — it just isn’t a frequent unprompted consideration. You know it’s all just spiders in my head.
I think it’s more a matter of being primed. It’s the converse of the “try not to think of an elephant” idea — when triggered, you start retroactively reviewing all the times you thought of the subject. Those men are just playing along with something they were asked by a woman, making it a kind of mansplaining exercise.
Although there may be an alternative explanation: maybe all these men are all advocates of the authoritarian “Red Caesar” idea.
For the last three years, parts of the American right have advocated a theory called Caesarism as an authoritarian solution to the claimed collapse of the US republic in conference rooms, podcasts and the house organs of the extreme right, especially those associated with the Claremont Institute thinktank.
Though on the surface this discussion might seem esoteric, experts who track extremism in the US say that due to their influence on the Republican party, the rightwing intellectuals who espouse these ideas about the attractions of autocracy present a profound threat to American democracy.
Their calls for a “red Caesar” are now only growing louder as Donald Trump, whose supporters attempted to violently halt the election of Joe Biden in 2020, has assumed dominant frontrunner status in the 2024 Republican nomination race. Trump, who also faces multiple criminal indictments, has spoken openly of attacking the free press in the US and having little regard for American constitutional norms should he win the White House again.
These are authoritarian times, maybe that’s what has some people thinking about tyrants and empires. I don’t see how you can look at Trump and even imagine there’s a Julius Caesar in there — he’s not even a Sulla. Maybe a Vitellius.
Look, this subject got me thinking about the Roman empire. Now you’re all going to think about it, too.
I dare you to not think about the Roman empire.