Should You Think About the Roman Empire?

Heritage Explains

Should You Think About the Roman Empire?

Heritage Vice President Roger Severino explains why you should care. 

There is a trend on the internet of women asking the men in their lives a historical question: How often do you think about the Roman Empire? They’re surprised by the answer. Heritage Vice President Roger Severino explains why you should care. 

John Popp: From The Heritage Foundation, this is Heritage Explains.

Mark Guiney: Over the last few weeks, a strange fad has been sweeping the internet. Women are asking the men in their lives, their husbands, brothers, fathers, significant others, a very particular historical question.

Clip 1: How often do you think about the Roman Empire?

Clip 2: How often do you think about the Roman Empire?

Clip 3: How often do you think about the Roman Empire?

Clip 4: How often do you think about the Roman Empire?

Guiney: This line of questioning seems to stem from a post made by Instagram user, @gaiusflavius, a historical Roman re-enactor, a few weeks ago. In his Instagram story, he said, “Ladies, many of you do not realize how often men think about the Roman Empire. Ask your husband/boyfriend/father/brother, you will be surprised by their answers.”

Women usually are surprised by the responses that men give, which are some variation of often way more than they were expecting. It turns out that men tend to think about the Roman Empire a lot.

Clip 1: A few times a week, I’d say.

Clip 2: A few times a week?

Clip 3: Like two or three times a week.

Clip 4: But I probably don’t think about it every day, probably every other day maybe. Well, if I was to say on average, half the days.

Clip 5: Probably two or three times a day, yeah, maybe. The same as everyone else, really. A lot.

Clip 6: Weekly.

Clip 7: Why? Why are you thinking about the Roman Empire?

Guiney: Normally here on Heritage Explains, we’re talking about issues of public policy, digging into the nitty-gritty of law and government. And so, you might ask, why are we talking about this somewhat silly fad that seems to have gotten its 15 minutes of fame on the internet? Well, these small moments often point to real and substantive ideas that are moving and acting within the culture. This conversation about the Roman Empire is one such moment.

Here at The Heritage Foundation, we noticed one of our own Vice Presidents, Roger Severino, who heads up Domestic Policy, posting about this very topic on X. We sat down with him to talk about what’s going on and why it matters. Roger Severino, welcome to Heritage Explains.

Roger Severino: Glad to be on.

Guiney: So, you are the Vice President for Domestic Policy here at Heritage. You’re also the former Director of Healthy Human Services at the Office of Civil Rights under the Trump Administration. And prior to that, you were at the Department of Justice as a civil rights attorney. So, you could have gone many different directions in the legal field, but you chose civil rights. Why?

Severino: Yes, I did. It’s one of those fundamental questions about human worth and dignity. It really cuts to the quick.

Our founding was based on a notion of equality, which actually touches on our topic today of the Roman Empire, where that idea came from. And how we treat each other, in terms of how government assesses our equality as citizens, as individuals, is one of these central questions.

And it’s at the heart of the Declaration of Independence: we’re all created equal and have certain unalienable rights, and that will lead you to civil rights in one way or another. And my career was very explicit at DOJ, the Department of Justice, as well as the head of a civil rights office at HHS.

It all ties together on human dignity, it ties into the pro-life notion, with racial reconciliation. It’s fascinating and it’s something that affects all of us, so that’s what drew me to it.

Guiney: Last week, you tweeted on Twitter, now we would say you posted on X, the following in regards to all of this. You said, “Do I ever think about the Roman Empire? Yes, all the time. Been through the entire History of Rome podcast, 45 episodes, going through the History of Byzantium series now. The question should be, who doesn’t think about the Roman Empire?” Clearly, you would support having knowledge of the Roman Empire. Why?

Severino: Indeed. It’s part of our Western patrimony, which we have to reconnect with, we have to learn, we have to understand. And you think about the three sources of the Western culture and identity. First, there is such a thing, and we have to acknowledge. It’s an intellectual tradition, a philosophical tradition, a religious tradition.

And you think about Athens, Rome and Jerusalem as the three main pillars of the West. With Athens, we had the philosophy, the love of knowledge, the elevation of reason. With Jerusalem, of course you have the Judeo-Christian tradition. You have the 10 Commandments, through the new covenant of Jesus Christ. Of course, I would prioritize that as the central arc of history, the linchpin, is Christ coming to earth? God is man.

But we also have Rome, and that is the law. The notion that rulers are under the law, and that has its own independent force, with the democratic notions from Greece law from Rome and all of that under God. That’s a tradition from Jerusalem. And those ideas, I think, are crucial to our understanding of the West, and the genius of the West, of putting all those three traditions together. And that’s what we owe so much of our civilization to.

You walk around this town, Washington, DC, you have the Greek and Roman pillars, everywhere. And that harkens back to that tradition. And the Roman tradition of the rule of law, the significance of being a citizen of part of a state and a nation state, those came from Rome. And it is to our peril if we forget where our institutions come from.

Guiney: Why do you think that this conversation just took off now? Every so often we seem to hit these flashpoints in the public conversation. This was one of them. Why do you think?

Severino: It’s fascinating, because it’s something that is in front of everybody’s faces that you don’t think about. That is what becomes suddenly profound, is when you discover these things that we all know, we think about, it’s just under the surface.

When you take a step back and you just ask the simple question, “How often do you think about the Roman Empire?” You’d be amazed by how many people actually say, “All the time.” And it turns out that I’m one of those people. Because, as you mentioned in the opening, I’ve listened to the entire podcast series of Mike Duncan on History of Rome, and now going through Byzantium, to reconnect with that history.

And our founders were absolutely dedicated to knowing all they could about our ancestors in Greece, Rome and Jerusalem. Those pillars did form our nation. And the Roman Empire, the Roman Senate, for example, is the direct model for our Senate, as the greatest deliberative body in the world. And it’s in our architecture, it’s in our speeches. So much of what we take for granted can be traced back to Rome.

Now of course, there is something to be said about the allure of a powerful empire that reached these incredible heights. And the power in itself is interesting in its own, and the history and the battles, et cetera. So, it makes great movies. It’s always there.

Just like westerns, we’ll always have westerns as a motif, as part of the American identity. Roman movies, of gladiators and Julius Caesar and Sparta, even going back to Greece, all of those harken to a mythology that’s based in a reality that so informs us today.

Guiney: Is fascination with Rome also partly a cautionary tale?

Severino: It depends. So, the Roman Empire had all sorts of blemishes to it, and with the power came abuses. Some of their first, what we would call modern day genocides, were actually perpetrated by the Roman Empire, their fight against the Gauls, to try to exterminate them rather literally. But that came out of abuses of centralizing of power and authority with the Caesars, and the tragic history of what happens when you lose the Democratic principles.

But something I found quite fascinating with things like the parades that they would host for the conquering heroes, the triumphs they’re called, they actually built arches of triumphs that would memorialize victories of campaign seasons. As the Caesar is, or the general, is being paraded literally through the streets of Rome, he would have somebody, either a servant or possibly even a slave, again, another cautionary tale of Rome, whispering in his ear, “Remember, you are mortal. Remember you are mortal.”

And I find that absolutely fascinating, that you have folks at the pinnacle of their power having a basic sense of humility, where somebody is whispering in their ear, the entire parade, “Remember you are mortal.” And that’s an important tradition, these little nuggets that we shouldn’t forget, because they inform us; they are part of our history, they’re part of our identity. We can learn the good, and we could also learn a lot from the bad of the Roman experience, through history.

Guiney: You’ve worked a lot with domestic policy and with family policy, and there seems to be an interesting dimension to this question of women, maybe thinking in a new dimension, that these men in their lives have an intellectual life going on inside. They’re thinking about history, they’re thinking about art. And that seems to be a dimension of masculinity that we have kind of lost. Did you have a similar thought when you heard about this trend?

Severino: Yeah. Well, on average, men and women do have some different interests, and that’s something that should be recognized as a good thing. We’re complements to each other.

So, the meme has been that women are surprised by how much men actually think about the Roman Empire, but it shouldn’t be surprising that men and women could, on average, have different interests. And again, it kind of surprised me, because it was something I had not thought of. It sounded like a bit of a ridiculous question at first, that men tend to think about the Roman Empire so much. It turns out I fall into that camp, like, wow.

And it’s one of those things where, with comedians, when they uncover an unexpected truth, it makes you laugh. And this is kind of similar to that. It’s like, “Wow, that’s funny. I never thought of it that way.” And then, what’s being uncovered by this is that men tend to, on average, think a fair bit about the Roman Empire. Who would’ve thunk it?

But with a moment’s reflection, you could see that, yeah, there are good reasons why we would, because it’s a lot of the foundations of who we are. Rome, of course, had elevated the marshal virtues in that sort of ruggedness and manliness, and being the folks who were exalted most.

Cincinnatus, of stepping down and not taking power when he could have become a tyrant. And that was a model for George Washington, the new Cincinnatus, those sorts of things. It’s always so good to remember these little details, because they’re still relevant today.

Guiney: Are there any other areas of history that you would recommend learning about for a conscientious American?

Severino: Yeah. I’m going through the second half of the Roman Empire. So, most people think that with the invasion of the Vandals and Goths and barbarians from the north that ended the Roman Empire, it ended the Western Roman Empire. You’ve got another almost thousand years of the Eastern Roman Empire, which was the weight of Christianity, right? All the major councils were led in the east and done in Greek.

And then you had a fight with Islam, as Islam became the growing force, and that was a major challenge to what was still called the Roman Empire. Once Rome fell, the Byzantines called themselves Romans; they did not call themselves Byzantines. They called themselves Romans, because they continued that Roman identity on that side of the Empire.

And it’s something that’s been forgotten that really should be rediscovered, Rome persisted. It was the new Rome, and that was Constantinople, now Istanbul. But for another good thousand years, the Roman Empire persisted.

Guiney: For folks who are interested in learning more about this topic, you had a good experience, obviously, with Mike Duncan’s podcast on Rome.

Severino: Yes.

Guiney: Would you recommend that, or would you recommend other resources for folks?

Severino: Mike Duncan is amazing, a wonderful storyteller. The History of Byzantium podcast is great as well.

If you really like the sort of sword-and-sandal type fights and the battles, then Hardcore History is another excellent one, which focuses on the military side of it, which again, you’ll get more men latching onto the military history side of the battles. Hardcore History is fantastic for that.

Guiney: Excellent. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Severino: Great. History is one of those things where, if you don’t learn from it, you’re condemned to repeat it. Let’s avoid some of the mistakes of their Empire of Rome that fell; even though it was so good at so many things, it fell under its own weight. It wasn’t conquered from without, it was conquered from within, so we have a lot of lessons to learn from that. We might be facing some similar challenges today.

Guiney: Roger Severino, thank you very much.

Severino: Thank you very much.

Guiney: Thank you to Roger Severino for contributing to today’s episode. You can find him on X, @RogerSeverino_.

We’ll include a link to Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome podcast, as well as a link to an article by our own Tyler O’Neill, managing editor of The Daily Signal, entitled: Of Course I Think About The Roman Empire Daily. You Don’t? I highly recommend, it’s a great read.

And thank you, as always, for listening to Heritage Explains. If you have any thoughts, feedback or suggestions for future episodes, send them our way at [email protected]. Thanks for listening, and remember, Caesar, you are mortal. See you next week.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It’s written and produced by Mark GuineyLauren Evans, and John Popp.