Rebuilding the Roman Empire One TikTok at a Time

Dr. James Townshend, a classical studies professor at Loyola and expert on Roman history, said the trend may run much deeper than a series of social media posts. 

Julius Caesar may have died in 44 B.C., but the Roman Empire is more alive than ever.

Winning the chariot race to virality is a TikTok trend in which users ask men how often they think about the antiquarian society. The trend has revealed gladiator fights and stoic heroism are often on the minds of many men, who disclose in lighthearted videos that they think about the Roman Empire frequently. 

Dr. James Townshend, a classical studies professor at Loyola and expert on Roman history, said the trend may run much deeper than a series of social media posts. 

“What begins as almost a joke offers us a potentially much deeper look into our collective cultural subconscious,” Townshend said.

Townshend said movies such as Ridley Scott’s 2000 film “Gladiator”— which has a sequel slated for November 2024 — can paint a media image of the Roman Empire contributing to public perception of the ancient society. He believes the Roman Empire is likely appealing to young men because of its pop culture representation. 

The popularized image of Rome is “potentially a very masculine, violent place,” which contributes to the cultural gender dynamics of today, according to Townshend.

Despite the antiquity of the empire and the 23-year gap between now and when “Gladiator” was released, Townshend said fascinations with ancient Rome are always relevant. 

“What I think the trend reveals is that it may have exploded at this moment, but it is somehow always just floating under the surface,” Townshend said. “It never really goes away, we just stop talking about it.”  

Dr. Leslie Dossey, a history professor who specializes in the fall of the empire, said it’s a good thing so many people are talking about it now. 

“I think that we need to do some escapism,” Dossey said. “The Romans seem fun. The movies about them are fun. I think escapism into history is a good thing and is a lot less harmful than other forms of escapism.” 

Though the trend centers around men, classical studies professor Dr. Jacqueline Long, who specializes in both Roman history and women and gender in the classical world, said she doesn’t think the Roman Empire is a strictly masculine topic. 

Long said her interest in the Roman Empire stemmed from her love for the Latin language, which led her to think about how people saw the world in different ways. 

“I know a lot of female classicists who find plenty to do within the classical world,” Long said. “Sappho, for example, is a figure of tremendous importance throughout antiquity. Here’s a woman who practiced lyric poetry as her primary artistic form, was widely read, widely renowned and taken as a model for lyric poetry by male poets just because she was really good.”

While classical studies and history professors are paid to think and talk about the Roman Empire every day, some students share their curiosity. Claudia Breed, a second-year student, said she has constantly seen the trend on TikTok. Like most responses that have fueled this phenomenon, Breed has topics that consume her daily thoughts. 

“I have this urge to read and know everything,” Breed said. “What I’m thinking about all the time is what to read next, what to watch next. But I also feel like my personal Roman Empire is the Roman Empire.” 

Breed, whose father is a classical studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the recent fascination with ancient Rome may be connected to the influence of Greek and Roman mythology. She said there is likely more interest in this topic because the current generation of young adults grew up with books like “Percy Jackson,” a best-selling series about the son of a Greek god which gives insight into ancient history and myths.

The English major said even though the trend is associated with a strong sense of toxic masculinity, she ultimately believes it’s just a joke.

Caroline Fawcett, a first-year student, said she doesn’t believe men genuinely think about the Roman Empire every day, but she does love seeing the jokes about it, including women’s take on the trend. 

In turn, many versions of one’s “Roman Empire” have emerged on TikTok, representing bizarre happenings that people think about regularly. 

Fawcett may be skeptical about the honesty of responses, but Seamus Chiles Troutman, a second-year student, said he thinks about the Roman Empire regularly. 

Aside from having to think about it for a history class on the fall of the empire, Chiles Troutman said the ancient civilization is on his mind approximately 4 times a week — but he can’t keep track.

“I like history for the stories, and I feel like the Roman Empire is just packed with insane stuff,” Troutman said. “I mean, it’s like 500 years of just craziness.” 

While Chiles Troutman said he was fascinated by the Roman Empire long before it became a social media phenomenon, the trend itself is linked to a viral video posted on Instagram by Artur Hulu, according to The Washington Post.

Hulu, who posted his video under the account name Gaius Flavius — a common name in the Roman Empire — is a Swedish reenactor of the ancient civilization. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, Hulu said he has always been fascinated by the Roman Empire. His interests were sparked by his father, who encouraged him to engage with ancient history. Through comic book series like “Asterix and Obelix” and movies like “Gladiator,” Hulu’s interest in the Roman Empire crystallized. 

Once establishing his social media presence, Hulu said he started experimenting with Instagram Reels and TikToks. After finding comedy skits were more likely to become popular than an informational format, Hulu posted something he knew to be true, and fascinating, about the Roman Empire — men think about it. Often. 

He said he had seen memes, Reddit threads and had witnessed a similar trend take place in Sweden a year ago. So, he shared his ideas and prompted the now-famous question. 

“I had no plans that it would blow up like this, of course, and start an international, global trend,” Hulu said. “But that’s the thing with virality, I don’t control it.”

As the trend continues to take over For You pages and garner countless responses, Hulu believes the Roman Empire is just as important now as it was centuries ago. 

“It’s just such a big foundation of the Western world, in terms of our democracy, our art and just the heritage, as well,” Hulu said. “It just ties everyone together.”

Featured image by Ryan Pittman / The Phoenix

Natalie Pitluck

Natalie Pitluck