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Leisure • Culture

Why Middle-Aged Men Think So Often About the Roman Empire

One of the most unexpected revelations bequeathed to us by the internet of late is the extent to which many men, in particular middle aged men, privately spend time reflecting on the progress and destiny of Ancient Rome. As often as twice a week, beneath the surface concerns of logistics managers, doctors or heating engineers, there are liable to be intense reflections on the evolution and retrenchment of the greatest empire the West has ever known. What might have been imagined as a niche interest is, it appears, a prime focus of the untrammelled male imagination. 

We may still be at the dawn of understanding quite what the men think about or indeed why, but we can hazard some generalisations nevertheless. Part of what detains and awes these men is naturally the spectacle of Rome in her heyday, the Rome of Trajan (53-117 A.D.) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A. D.), the Rome of 250,000 miles of impeccable roads that stretched from the highlands of Northern Britannia to the gates of Antioch on the Persian frontier; the Rome of aqueducts and baths, Stoic philosophers and civic minded generals, equitable laws and exhaustive libraries. When most of the surrounding world lived in huts and dressed in animal skins, these metropolitan Romans were laughing at ironic jokes at the theatre of Marcellus, relaxing their muscles in marble-lined tepidaria and hosting seven course dinner parties featuring stuffed sea urchins and wine from Frascati.

But the subject wouldn’t detain the middle aged men as it does were it not for a second element: the knowledge – never far away – of how it all ended: with the humiliating hurried retreat from Britain in 407, with the sack of the capital in 410 by Alaric’s savage Visigoths, with the destruction of Rome’s aqueducts in 537 by the malodorous Ostrogoths and with sheep grazing in the forum where proud legions had once paraded their eagles before departing to conquer Gaul and Hispania. 

 Nathaniel Hone, The Pont du Gard, 1850-1917

Yet we should not attribute to these men’s interests an unrealistic degree of scholarly detachment or abstraction. Whatever their ostensible commitment to historical accuracy, alongside their formal concerns, the Rome-focused men are also – always, in a manner they may not even realise – thinking of themselves. It is key sides of their own destinies that they unconsciously perceive as entwined with that of Rome, it is their own rise and fall that they read in the expansion and eventual ruination of the Empire. The story of Rome’s emergence and disappearance is at once a highly particular event in history and a part of every man’s journey from youth to old age, from reason to senility, from prominence to annihilation. Just like the Rome of Brutus and Coriolanus, we too are fated to move from adolescence towards mature command and authority and then on to humiliation and extinction. The story of Rome provides an ideal vantage point from which to contemplate, and under cover, with measured dignity, to learn to come to terms with some of the most painful aspects of being human.

Giovanni Piranesi, View of the Roman Forum, 1750

Rome is so useful in this process of catharsis because it is exceptionally rich in incidents and examples that can feel emotionally-relevant enough to engage the psyche but are not so pointed as to prove unbearably confronting. We can – via a well-written narrative or long weekend somewhere in the old Empire perhaps in the company of a patient spouse and restless children – feel sad about the pillaging of the temple of Vesta or the assassination of Emperor Valens and then continue our lives relatively composed, in a way we might not were we to have to take in the full truth about the upcoming decline in our cognitive powers or the steady, already well-advanced loss of our muscle strength. We can cry about the overthrow of the last child Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 as an alternative to weeping over our final days and can be moved by a fresco of Flora, goddess of spring, on the walls of a dining room in Pompeii instead of having to suffer agony at the sight of a photo of ourselves aged twenty, smiling at the beach with our friends, oblivious of the calamities to come.

The middle-aged Rome-focused men can be applauded for using history for what it is truly well suited: absorbing some of the poignancy and tragedy of our individual, unheroic lives. What should in the end surprise us is not how often some people think of Rome; but of how seldom the rest of us do.

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