Friday, October 6, 2023

The Roman Empire may have peaked about 2,000 years ago, but many men can’t stop thinking about it—at least according to a recent TikTok trend that has generated more than 1.6 billion views.

In videos that began trending in early September, women asked the men in their lives how often they think about the Roman Empire. The startling frequency with which boyfriends, husbands, or fathers confess to contemplating ancient Rome drew renewed attention to a historical topic that, thanks to films, books, and TV shows, has endured in pop culture.

The trend was so pervasive that “my Roman Empire” has become shorthand for any unexpected obsession and has a hashtag all its own, generating nearly 30 million views for videos about everything from Harry Styles to the film “The Notebook.”

Sarah Bond, the Erling B. “Jack” Holtsmark Associate Professor of Classics at Iowa who also is a renowned historian of the ancient world, says she welcomes the attention with a few caveats.

Bond sheds light on this social media trend and how it dovetails with her own efforts to broaden the appeal of ancient history. Her current book project, a history of unions in Rome, is expected to be released in late 2024.

Q: What do you think about the Roman Empire being a trending topic?

A: Ancient Rome remains a cultural touchstone and an important area of research, even for people who aren’t on social media, and I love it when people are interested in an area that I teach, especially in a world where we are constantly seeing articles about a “crisis in the humanities.” Anything that can help bring people to critically think about the humanities, we want to encourage.

What a colleague and I pointed out in a recent op-ed is that a lot of people are getting content from Reddit or TikTok or social media and that’s not always trustworthy. It’s also oftentimes cherry-picked to be distorted. The popularized version of the Roman Empire on social media is predominantly history from above—people seeing themselves as emperors and as conquerors.

The reality is, that about a quarter of the Roman population was slaves and most of the rest died young of malnutrition or other ills while working in the fields. You think you're going to be Marcus Aurelius, but the actual reality is you'd be Epictetus, another Stoic who was a slave.

Q: What is being missed in the popularized view of antiquity on social media?

A: First of all, the ancient world is global. It is not the Mediterranean alone just because our study of classics is predicated on Greece and Rome. The ancient world was bigger. It goes to ancient Peru, America, and Cahokia. It goes to Japan and China and South Asia.

While I get the humor in these TikTok videos —it’s funny that women didn’t realize their husbands or boyfriends were thinking about it this much—you then get to the question of why women aren’t.

I would say of the academics in my field about 75% to 80% are white men and the rest of us are women and people of color. The classics has the lowest number of people of color of any field in the humanities—it hovers around 1% to 2%.

So why aren’t people of color and women attracted to this? I think it’s because we don’t see ourselves in it very often. The fact that Rosemary Moore, (UI distinguished associate professor of history instruction) and I are both historians of this topic at an R1 university like Iowa is just not common. When I go to the women’s bathrooms at ancient history conferences, I don’t have to wait, but the men’s bathroom has a line down the hall like it’s a football game.

Q: How are you trying to change this perspective of ancient history?

A: I study history from below, which means that I am predominantly looking at artisans, merchants, enslaved people, and women. I take an upstairs-downstairs approach to history – encompassing both Cesar and regular people living as slaves. The two narratives are not mutually exclusive.

Since I started writing public history in 2011, I’ve always stood against inequality. Recently I started a Substack called Pasts Imperfect that is really trying to lift up and support emerging writers, to encourage professors and academics and graduate students to learn how to write for the public.

Q: What’s the value of learning history?

A: The value is not in ‘Oh, will we repeat history if we don't learn it?’ I would love to burn that approach to history. History is about creating empathy for other people, and it is about therapy for ourselves in the present and creating a space where we can critically think about sources.

We shouldn’t just think of gladiators as people who were combatants in the arena. Instead, we can reflect on the fact that most gladiators were slaves because about 93% were. That’s where empathy comes in.

The second thing is therapy for ourselves in the present. For example, Greek tragedy can help us with grief now or we can find the humor in the ancient Roman novel. 

Lastly, we have to be critical of sources. As a result, teaching the humanities is instructing people how to evaluate any primary source and any secondary source for truth or bias. It allows students to be incredulous in a world of ChatGPT and QAnon theories. 

I'm not telling them what to read. I'm not teaching them what to say. I'm teaching them how to stress-test it and to really understand if this is true or if this is false or if it falls on a spectrum of truth. And then we’re learning how to write, because we are the writing university. We really are.

Q: Besides your recent editorial, you also write broadly on pop culture, including the use of Greek in the John Wick films. Why do you think it’s important for academics to engage with the public/pop culture?

A: I think speaking to the public about things they care about is important—whether it is TikTok or whether it is labor strikes.

One of the biggest critiques against us as professors, which is oftentimes true, is that we don't engage with the public frequently enough. I’d like to get to the point where public humanities is a dialogue rather than a monologue. I want to encourage academics who study the ancient world to speak less to themselves and more to the public.

Engaging with these media and formats, it doesn't degrade us as historians. I can still write a book, which I have done, and speak about TikTok. It doesn't turn me into a lesser academic because I speak to regular people.