The Brain of a Man Who Is Always Thinking About Ancient Rome

Do you find yourself constantly closing your eyes and seeing marble? Do thoughts of Caesar and chariot races and a nascent republic punctuate your daily goings?

All roads lead to Rome—and apparently so do all male thoughts. Across social media, women have been encouraged to ask the men in their life how often they think about the Roman empire and to record the answer. To their surprise (recounted in videos posted all over TikTok, Instagram, and more), many men purport to think about the Roman empire quite a bit. One reveals that his iPhone background is Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, a painting depicting a Roman legend. “Men Are Thinking About the Roman Empire All the Time” has quickly become a meme of its own. Even those who don’t cop to this behavior still sometimes do it. “Probably not a lot, why?” one confused man replies when asked, before admitting that he thinks about the Romans three or four times a month. “The Roman empire was a very big part of history,” he says defensively.

Presumably some of this is performative, an attempt to project oneself as the sort of history bro who can mansplain Catullus. These men could surely learn something from Cullen Murphy. An Atlantic editor at large and the author of the 2007 book Are We Rome?, Murphy has spent decades thinking about the Roman empire. His work focuses on all of the analogies between ancient Rome and the modern United States, and what, if anything, the analogies portend. “The comparisons, of course, can be facile,” he wrote in a 2021 magazine story reopening the question. “Still, I am not immune to preoccupation with the Roman past.”

Over the phone this morning, he explained further: “Personally, I can’t get enough of it,” he said. “It’s just such a fascinating topic. One of the great things about having a bit of a fixation on this topic is that it makes me very easy to buy for.” We discussed why the Roman empire still matters, the appropriate amount of time we should be thinking about it, and his expansive collection of Roman artifacts.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: I wanted to start with the obvious question, which is: How often do you think about the Roman empire personally?

Cullen Murphy: I think about the Roman empire all the time, probably three or four times a day when something comes up, whether it’s in the news or something that I see. I’m definitely in the camp of people who can’t get it out of their minds.

The thing about the history of Rome is that it goes on for such a long period of time that you can find parallels for almost anything—even contradictory parallels. It’s a huge cornucopia of examples.

Let’s start with politics. If you’re reading The New York Times or The Washington Post about political infighting and backstabbing and scandal and so on, well, Rome is just full of that stuff. Also, there’s a lot of Rome that still survives; it’s all around us. The letters of our alphabet are Roman letters. A huge proportion of the words we use come from Latin. If you go to church, the building that you’re in often has a lot of resemblance to Roman buildings. If you’re in Washington, you can’t look around the city without thinking, Oh, I see, this was modeled on Rome. And every day brings some important anniversary. Just a few days ago was the anniversary of the battle of Teutoburg Forest, one of Rome’s greatest military defeats.

Nyce: What do you think the appropriate amount of time one should spend thinking about Rome is?

Murphy: Well …

Nyce: Are you a biased source on this question?

Murphy: Yes, I’m probably not a good person to ask. Personally, I can’t get enough of it. It’s just such a fascinating topic. One of the great things about having a bit of a fixation on this topic is that it makes me very easy to buy for.

Nyce: How much Roman paraphernalia do you have?

Murphy: A lot. People in my family used to say that I was very hard to buy for. But then I gently nudged them in the direction of thinking about Rome. And so now when there’s some significant event, like a birthday, friends and family will give me a Roman coin or a little piece of Roman sculpture or a terracotta oil lamp or the small bits of lead used in slings. I’m looking at my table right now. I just had a birthday, and my wife gave me a tiny Roman bust of Eros.

Nyce: Are you surprised by how many men purport to think about the Roman empire all the time?

Murphy: I am a little bit surprised. I’m not surprised that men are more likely to think about it than women, if that reporting is true.

Over time, this subject has been presented as gendered, though it is not inherently gendered. A lot of the best recent work about Rome has to do with diverse cultures and about women. But if you look at the broad sweep of historical writing, from ancient times onwards, most of it was done by men. Most of it is about men. And much of the subject matter is about military affairs, which has also historically been something that men have gravitated to more than women.

Nyce: If someone were to dedicate themselves to the daily practice of thinking about Rome, what aspects of Rome would you suggest they be thinking about?

Murphy: I’ll mention two things. The first one has to do with a very direct lesson for American society. And it goes back to a conversation that I had with an eminent historian of Rome named Ramsay McMullen. I asked him what I thought at the time was a silly question: If you had to sum up the history of Rome in one sentence, what would it be? And he said immediately, without having to think, “Fewer have more.” He was pointing to the enormous degree of inequality in every way, whether in terms of power or money or freedom, that existed in Rome. I’ve never forgotten that answer.

The second thing has to do with the way in which people talk about the fall of Rome. The wistfulness that you sometimes hear today is along the lines of “How unfortunate that this mighty empire collapsed!” But I don’t see it that way. Very few of us would be happy living in a world that was run the way Rome was run. Here is a society where slavery was baked into the social structure. There was nothing remotely like democracy or freedom as we know it, or rights as we understand them. We are living in a world that is fortunate that it is not Rome.

Nyce: If someone is not currently thinking about Rome all the time, what would go in your thinking-about-Rome starter pack?

Murphy: The historian Tacitus wrote histories of Rome at a certain period. His writing is like a combination of All the President’s Men, by Woodward and Bernstein, and The Last Days of Hitler, by Hugh Trevor-Roper. It’s just riveting, on-the-scene accounts of political warfare. Delicious to read.

Another good place to jump in is Suetonius, who wrote a book called The Twelve Caesars—mini-biographies of 12 emperors. They could have been written yesterday. They’re filled with anecdotes and sharp personality portraits and conversations.

If someone wanted to delve into Roman history from scratch, not reading original ancient sources but reading other books, it’s hard to rival Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, just because his style is so extraordinarily rich. For a much more modern take, try someone like Tom Holland; his new book, Pax, is the last volume of a trilogy. His books are beautifully written and great narrative history. For a different cup of tea, there’s Robert Harris. He has written a trilogy of novels all based on the life of Cicero. They are wonderful, wonderful books.

Nyce: Is there any part of you that thinks that our obsession with Rome is a little overblown, culturally? Or a little Eurocentric even? Have we written enough books on Rome?

Murphy: Well, sure. The world is a big place and history is a big place. And of course there are many, many other subjects that can profitably be explored. But I would say one thing: In some ways, the study of ancient times is hard to define narrowly as being simply Eurocentric, because the world that is being described is in fact a culture that we don’t know. It is as unfamiliar to an American as any existing culture in the world might be today.

Nyce: I imagine you talk about Rome with a lot of people.

Murphy: No, I think they’ve sort of stopped talking to me about it.

Nyce: Really? People avoid talking about it with you?

Murphy: No, I actually try to avoid talking about it myself. I don’t want to be a Rome bore. But sometimes I can’t help myself.

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