There are very few people who know more about the history of ancient Rome than Mike Duncan. The creator and host of the tremendously popular History of Rome podcast, which first aired between 2007 and 2012, Duncan has essentially devoted his career to studying the inner workings of the Roman empire, also writing a book, The Storm Before the Storm, which appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List, on the topic.
So when a trend started circulating on TikTok of women asking their husbands and boyfriends how often they think about the Roman empire, only for them to immediately respond that they think about it on a daily basis, Duncan seemed like the perfect person to weigh in. As he told Rolling Stone on Friday, “the trend is so potent it pulled me back onto Twitter for the first time in months. I’m getting tagged by everyone about everything.”
Rolling Stone spoke with Duncan by phone to discuss ancient Rome, why men love it so much, and which celebrities think about it on a daily basis. (Mark Zuckerberg? Yes. Beyonce? Not so much.)
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How did you first hear about this TikTok trend?
While I am not much on Twitter anymore, I started getting all kinds of tags and notifications about this one TikTok that was a woman saying that she asked her husband if he thought about the Roman Empire every day and without missing a beat, he said, “Yes, absolutely.” Which flabbergasted her and then has just sort of spread now throughout TikTok. [The] other thing is, in response to all of these, I’m being both tongue-in-cheek blamed for a lot of this, because a lot of people saying, “I think about the Roman Empire every day,” do so because they listened to the History of Rome, or are presently listening to The History of Rome. And so among a certain generation of podcast listeners, I’m quite a gateway drug to thinking about the Roman empire once per day.
You mentioned that the woman in the TikTok was flabbergasted that her husband thought about the history of ancient Rome that much. Were you flabbergasted by how quickly he responded to that question?
No, I laughed, of course, because it’s great stuff. The fact that you know, just without even missing a beat. The only thing that is surprising about it is that usually when guys think about something like the Roman Empire once per day, they often feel compelled to share the fact that they’re thinking about the Roman Empire. So it is a little funny to me that the women and their wives didn’t know that they were thinking about the Roman Empire.
That’s what’s so funny to me about it. It’s not even so much the answer as it is the fact that none of these men are surprised by the question at all. It’s like they’ve been waiting their entire lives to be asked this.
Oh, yeah. I mean, I’ve joked with friends of mine that the words that every man wants to hear is “what does SPQR mean?”
What does it mean?
“The Senate and the people of Rome.” And it’s the kind of thing that would be emblazoned on armor and helmets that the Romans are carrying around. You still see it every place in Italy.
What was your general reaction to the trend?
A couple of things. One is I think that people can conflate the the idea that somebody would think about the Roman empire once per day with the idea that the men in their lives are only thinking about the Roman Empire every day, that we’re sort of obsessively thinking about it nonstop. I think the Roman Empire is a historical topic, a hobby or an interest, that we all think about like the various other little hobbies and interests that we have in our lives at least once per day. I certainly have non-Roman things that I think about at least once per day. I’m a baseball fan, so I’m usually thinking about baseball at least once a day, I’m sure you have little things that are of interest to you to you think about once per day that aren’t all-consuming obsessions, but are just things that you’re interested in. It’s totally valid to be interested in the Roman Empire, and to study it and think about it. You have to be a real sicko like me to think about it constantly, every day, which is what happened to me when I started making the podcast and then write books about it.
The other thing is that I have a lot of women in my life and female fans, who themselves really love the Roman Empire and think about the Roman Empire. And so to have a lot of this be so thoroughly genderized — we all understand that if you were going to do a sample of who’s really into Roman history, it’s going to skew male. But you guys should ask the women in your life if they’re thinking about the Roman Empire, because more than a few of them are gonna say, “Yes, the Roman Empire is actually really, really interesting and fascinating.” And it shouldn’t just be the boys club that everybody perceives it to be.
Well, I guess the million-dollar question here is, why do men obsess over the ancient Roman empire so much?
Well, I think this is true of the demographics of the people who listen to my show, and the people who buy my books, is that it does tend to be more male-heavy. And I think a lot of it probably can come back to a Roman history becoming equivalent to military history, and military history is definitely something that is always going to be more of interest to men than women, just on a practical level. It’s a lot of stuff about battles, and armies, and generals. It’s for the same reasons that we see a lot of dads getting super into World War II, or the Civil War, or the Napoleonic era — there is something that draws men to those kinds of military stuff. The Roman Empire was also an incredibly patriarchal society. If you do dive into those sources, and you start reading about it, it can be fascinating, but everywhere you’re looking, you’re just talking about men doing this, and men doing that. We’re not really ever talking about what the women were doing, or how women were living. If you’re sort of glancing around looking for something to get into, it’s like, well, the Roman Empire is a lot of men doing war. And if that’s not your jam, then the Roman Empire is not going to be of interest to you.
There was another TikTok I saw around the same time that I saw this trend surfacing that was this woman talking about how, if you want to compliment a straight man in your life, you tell him that you think he would have done great during the invasion of Normandy. Is there a similar thing going on with the obsession with ancient Rome?
Oh, yes. 100 percent. There’s a really strong tendency to associate yourself mentally with the senatorial aristocracy of Rome, which was this incredibly small population inside the Empire. I mean, you’re talking about a couple of dozens of families who are doing very, very well. Everybody else has an incredibly short lifespan. You’re dying of various diseases. There’s no health care. You’re doing subsistence agricultural labor. And so a lot of the people who try to romanticize what the Roman Empire was and putting themselves into the Roman Empire imagine themselves being, you know, the senator in the fine toga laying on the side, being hand-fed grapes. Whereas more likely than not, they would have died at the age of 28 because of an undiagnosed kidney stone while they were trying to plow their lands. We would’ve all been the common people.
This is so fascinating to me, because, as a woman, I can tell you, I have never once thought about what my life would be like in any period of history, because my immediate answer is that it would have been terrible.
You could’ve been Catherine the Great.
Yeah, but then people would’ve thought I just had sex with a horse for centuries. That’s her primary legacy.
Yeah, OK. (Laughs)
So why do you think this is so male-specific, this tendency to project yourself into these eras and see whether you can prove your mettle?
I mean, I think it probably comes down to a bit of the representation matters thing. As men, we can always look past and see men who were poor, men who were middle-aged, men who were smart, men who were dumb, men who were emperors. Every available option is available to us if we’re doing historical fantasizing. And if you want to get into it, you probably were reading about those great people, because they’re the ones who left records. And there’s the ones that we know about. And so you get into a mindset. And you can imagine yourself in that role, like, “If I wanted to, yeah, I could definitely sit down and imagine what would I do if I was a Roman emperor,” which is impossible for a woman to do. A woman who was studying Roman history could see herself in Livia, or Agrippina, or some of the other sort of great women who were wives and mothers of the Emperor’s and the great generals in the great statesman of the Roman Empire, but it’s always going to be behind the scenes, you know. “I’m going to work my powerful magic, but in ways that are not readily apparent to everybody.” There were lots of powerful women alive in the Roman Empire, but then the Roman sources, and the Greek sources that wind up writing about those women are incredibly mean spirited, because to be an ambitious woman is to open yourself up to all kinds of attacks. She’s a shrew, you know, she’s a monster, she’s sexually rapacious. This is what gets said about people like Livia and Agrippina. If you do a plain surface reading of the text, the women that are depicted in Roman sources often come off in very unappealing ways, because the men who are writing about them are very threatened by the idea of these women being powerful. So it does, I think, become very difficult to cross that fantasy divide of putting yourself in this time and place.
Do you think there’s an element of like, “This is a time where men could really be men,” that’s appealing to men about this?
I think that’s probably true to some extent. And I certainly feel like there are people in my own fan base who listen to my shows and read my books and are in that right wing and anti-woke-adjacent crowd, who probably feel like, “I feel stifled by this contemporary life where men are the only people that can be attacked, and women have all the advantages in the world.” This is their words, not mine. So they retreat to what they think of as the ancient world, and it’s a complete Fantasyland. But I know many, many more Roman history fans where it’s not about that stuff at all. It’s not about trying to retreat from an egalitarian society into something that is far more aggressively patriarchal. Most of our culture today comes from Roman origins, or at least had a Roman phase, if you’re talking about the history of Syria, or Britain, or Morocco, or Spain. The laws, the politics, the structures, all of these things that informed Roman society now presently inform our own society. And if we want to understand the world that we’re living in right now, the Roman Empire is something that should be studied.
What is the appeal for you? Why are you so obsessed with ancient Roman history?
I got into it because I started reading the ancient sources after I got out of college. I was reading Livy, I was reading Plutarch, and what I discovered more than anything else, because I’m fundamentally a storyteller at heart, is that the stories about these people, the things that they did, the things that happened to them, the ways that they interacted with each other, are as fascinating and as entertaining as anything that I’ve seen in a movie or a TV show. Take the late Roman Republic, for example, and these battles between people like Cicero and Mark Antony and Caesar. You read speeches from somebody like Cicero, who’s attacking Mark Antony, and the speeches are funny, they’re hilarious. You’re like, “Oh, these are just human beings trying to get one up on each other.” And the whole thing is incredibly dramatic. [The] deeper, richer, cultural and personal lives of all these people — that’s the thing that grabbed me, from the get go.
Is there a particular era of ancient Rome that reminds you of contemporary America?
Yes. My first book, The Storm Before the Storm, is about the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic, which is when the Republic which had been going on for about 500 years started to fall apart as a result of people ditching political norms, as a result of growing economic inequality that was deeply affecting how politics worked, and how the economics of the Republic work. I wrote about a very specific 50 year period. That is about two generations before Julius Caesar, because I was really interested in how a society that has a functioning Republican democratic system slowly by degrees collapses into autocracy. And when I pitched the book, I was like, “there’s a lot of parallels here to things that I see happening, not just in the United States, but also everything is happening over in the European Union right now. They’re very similar things.” And I hoped that this would be like, a warning for the future. And then of course, I was writing the book in 2016, when events started spiraling very quickly out of control. And history here in the present-day started moving much faster than I would have preferred. Because obviously, we are now dealing with with a severe authoritarian threat to our Republican democratic system.
How often do you think Trump thinks about the Roman Empire?
I can’t imagine that. Donald Trump thinks about much of anything but himself. I think he’s just on a loop thinking about Donald Trump and how great Donald Trump is. But let me think about this. Maybe once a week? Because there’s lots of memes from what used to be the alt-right, where people would Photoshop his head onto Julius Caesar’s body. And those kinds of fans from sort of the fascist wing of Roman history, are always going to be trying to make him look like this great imperial conqueror. If he sees those memes that come along, [he does]. I doubt it’s everyday though. I do not think that Trump is an everyday Roman historian.
What about Elon Musk?
I will say Elon Musk is a huge fan of the Revolutions podcast, which is the other one that I do. I think he has listened to that entire series. And if he’s done that, then maybe he’s gotten into The History of Rome. I don’t really know how much Elon Musk thinks about the past anyway. He seems to be somebody who lives in the present and is facing a kind of fantasy future instead of living in the present and imagining a fantasy past for him to live in. [I] can guarantee Mark Zuckerberg thinks about ancient Rome multiple times a day.
How do you know that?
He’s talked about it in interviews. Like his haircut. Have you seen his haircut? That’s a Roman haircut. It’s very much his attitude: him being into like MMA and being a fighter. I think he’s even maybe trained with legionary weaponry. I think maybe I saw a video about this. He’s deeply, deeply steeped in Roman mythology, and believes himself to be somebody who is sort of walking in Augustus’s footpath, which isn’t great. Because just for the record, Augustus was kind of a sociopathic murderer.
What about Beyonce?
I don’t know about Beyonce. I don’t want to comment on Beyonce’s inner life. It seems reasonable that she does not think about the Roman Empire every day. I think she has probably a different slate of interests. But I will bet that there’s something that Beyonce thinks about every single day, because we all have things that we are interested in that we think about at least once per day.
What about you? How often do you think about ancient Rome?
I think about the Roman Empire every single day. There’s no getting away from it. I’m coming up on 20 years now that I’ve definitely thought about it every day. And then for lots of time, it’s one of the only things I’m thinking about. My next book will be another Roman history book, so I’m already back in. You know, if I look at my bookshelf right now, it’s mostly Roman history books that I’m pulling down and reading. So I’m even further gone than once per day. I’m like, several hours every single day.
Are there certain times of day when you think about it?
It could pop into my head at any point. I could be on a walk, I could be taking a shower, I could be doing the dishes, I could be talking to somebody. We have these trains of thought in our head, and there’s a couple of things that we happen to return to that we think about more than other things. So yeah, the Roman Empire choo choo train comes around, usually more than once per day.