Friends, Romans, countrymen: Lend me your eyeballs for a few minutes.
If you’re not aware of the TikTok trend of the moment, ask your kids. It involves women asking men the frequency with which they think about, of all things, the Roman Empire. The catch is that it’s always far more often than the women would have suspected, and this has caused people to wonder why or to speculate that men have some kind of strange obsession with said empire.
If I’m honest, I find these answers encouraging. With all of the fluff and nonsense filling the feeble minds of people today, I hope it’s true that men (and maybe more women than we think) contemplate history’s lessons.
In fact, I want to make the case that we should give some thought to the Roman Empire. Here are three reasons.
In order of importance, spiritual things first. It was under the rule of the Roman Empire that the Messiah entered the world. Even non-believers are reminded every Christmas that the Gospel of Luke (2:1) says that “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Thus did the most significant human life in history experience his birth and gruesome death in the shadow of imperial Rome. It was a Roman governor who “washed his hands” of the sham trial and let the mob condemn him. It was a uniquely terrible and distinctly Roman form of execution that Jesus of Nazareth endured.
The crucial early history of the Christian movement was in this same Roman context. Its greatest apostle and theologian happened to be a Roman citizen, whom we know mostly by his official Roman name (or cognomen) “Paul” rather than his given Hebrew name “Saul.” When Roman soldiers arrested him and were going to flog him, he exercised his rights and recourse as a citizen and made his appeal to the emperor (Acts 25). This is why he ended up under house arrest in Rome, where he met his end by way of the executioner’s axe (the comparatively ‘humane’ death by beheading was yet another privilege, if you can call it that, of citizenship).
And as we know, the early Church thrived and grew in the teeth of outright persecutions enacted by emperors with names like Nero, Domitian, Trajan and Diocletian, to name a few. It was a Christian emperor — Constantine, of course — who first relieved the pressure of this ongoing persecution. Meanwhile the church that gathered in the world headquarters of Rome started to take more prominence, with its leader eventually gaining more and more status. This is the evolution of the papacy.
All of this significant history, including the initial codifying of doctrines, the earliest credal statements, the debates about what is heresy, the frantic copying of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, the founding of historic churches both east and west (the Greek-speaking Byzantine empire [and Orthodox Church] was, after all, an outpost of the Roman empire) — ALL of it was during this period that we call the Roman Empire. The great significance of Christianity makes the Roman world significant.
The Roman Empire followed the Roman Republic, which followed the Hellenistic (Greek) domination of what we can call the Western world at the time. If you’re a ‘Westerner’ (e.g., Europe, the Americas, Russia, Australia, etc.) and you’ve ever stopped to wonder how the world as you know it came to be — including the sciences, languages, the arts, customs, values, politics and culture — you should take a good look at the Greco-Roman period. It’s the cradle of your civilization.
Along with the Hebrew-Christian influence of the Bible, the influence of the Greeks, followed by the Romans, can’t be overstated. Western Civilization has remained at the top of the civilizational heap since this period expressly because of this period. The Greek and Roman poets, architects, philosophers, playwrights, military strategists, engineers, mathematicians, astronomers, political theorists, historians — you name it — represent the pioneering launch of the civilization Europe (and later, others) enjoyed for generations thereafter.
And they KNEW it. Ever since that period, Europeans kept trying to bring it back, revive it, return to it. It’s why they tried to reinaugurate a “Holy Roman Empire” in the Middle Ages. The founding of Europe’s great universities was in a context of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas. Who do you suppose was most influential in shaping the enormous mind of this theologian? The answer is Aristotle. Much of Christian theology and philosophy will always be variations on things written during the late Roman Empire by men like Augustine.
While we’re at it, the Renaissance was a “re-birth” of what exactly? Just look at the painting, sculptures and buildings, and it’s obvious. The Romantic movement in England was similar (Can you hear the root of the word “Romantic”? Ditto for “Romanesque”). It’s not surprising that Shakespeare wanted to retell stories from the Roman period (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra). In the same way Hollywood has followed suit. From Ben Hur and Spartacus to the more recent Gladiator and several other movies/shows depicting Roman times, we can never get enough. “Are you not entertained?”
Lessons to Learn
Maybe this is yet another reason people tend to think about the Roman Empire. It was a world power, once a republic with a senate, then evolved into an even greater imperial power. And as everyone knows, its eventual fall was not because a greater power arose to supplant it. Rome deteriorated and collapsed. Its implosion was more like death by disease than conquest. The city that wasn’t built in a day was also not destroyed in a day. The leaders of Roman society were not suddenly overtaken by a sleeping military giant from afar. They were busy watching cruel and gory spectacles in the arena or engaging in debauchery at the bathhouses.
I don’t blame people for giving consideration to the causes of Rome’s demise and wondering if we need to learn from past mistakes. It is the nature of powerful governments to grow and expand. It is normal for leaders of such powers to succumb to inevitable temptations and corruption. When our political overlords increasingly desire that “all the world should be taxed,” when our society is lulled by increasingly depraved entertainments, when our military prowess is weakened by misplaced focus and neglect, should we not consider history’s tendency to repeat itself?
To conclude, we have a lot of good reasons to look back at this period and examine it from all the angles necessary to gain perspective on our lives today. So go ahead, be a man (or woman for that matter). By all means, think about the Roman Empire. Join the apparently mostly masculine movement. After all, when in Rome …
Clint Roberts is an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene University.
Originally published a Clint’s Substack “Fallacy Fight Club.” Reprinted with permission.