Within a few months, the question "How often do men think about the Roman Empire?" conquered Instagram and TikTok and countless group chats — and then morphed into something completely different.
In this episode of Endless Thread, we ask: what links the Roman Empire to the other memes of the moment? Do all roads lead to Rome... or is something else at the root of memes like the Roman Empire, girl math and girl dinner?
- Gaius Flavius on Instagram: "Ladies, you do not realize how often men think about the Roman Empire."
- CNN: "Panera jumps on a TikTok trend, adds ‘Roman Empire’ inspired menu"
- Cas Mazzuco on TikTok: "Justifying our purchases with girl math"
- YouTube: "Shannon Miller - 1996 Olympics EF - Balance Beam"
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Grace: Hi Amory. Hi Ben.
Amory: Hey Grace.
Ben: Hey Grace.
Grace: Um, okay. Ben, I have a question and it's just for you.
Ben: Okay, I'm ready.
Grace: Do you know what I'm going to ask?
Ben: I have a sense, but out with it.
Grace: Okay. How often do you think about the Roman Empire?
Ben: Sorry, what? I was just thinking about something.
Amory: Oh, you just know he's been, he's been planning to do that, Grace, don't you get that feeling? He's just been waiting for you to ask him that.
Ben: Only since five minutes ago.
Amory: He was rehearsing it in the mirror right before this.
Ben: I was like, how long, how long should I wait? How long should I wait? Do you want the real answer?
Grace: Yeah, no, I want the real answer. This is journalism.
Ben: The real answer is not since I took Latin in high school generally, but I did start watching the show Rome on HBO, which is a very old show. At the time it came out, I remember it kind of had a reputation for being like tawdry and X-rated and whatever.
And now when I watch it, I'm like, a) it's, it's not that bad. And b) it was pretty interesting. I have to admit, I did go to at least one Wiki article about a battle between Caesar and – Oh, God, the other guy. I clearly don't think about it that much. And the other guy who – he's like has this long rivalry with?
Ben: No, it's not Brutus. It's, it's not Pontius. It's you know, it's not Pygmalion. I don't know who it is.
Ben: No, no, no, no. It's the guy that he has this like rivalry with and there's this battle where Caesar is like outnumbered, like 15 to one or something like that. And I actually went and looked at the Wikipedia page about it. Cause I was like, wow, how did Caesar beat that?
Amory: Did you stay awake for that, Grace? I was fading a little bit.
Grace: I will say that this is not the first time that this has happened to me, where I ask someone, they say they don't think about it often, and then they at such length –
Amory: You're like, sorry I asked.
Ben: With so little information, at such length, with so little information about it.
Grace: So Amory, the reason I asked Ben and not you is not because I care more about how often Ben thinks about the Roman Empire or anything else, but because the trend on TikTok that we're here to talk about today is specifically asking men this question about how often they think about the Roman Empire.
[ (TikTok Sound): How many times, like a week, or just how many times in general do you think about the Roman Empire? What about the Roman Empire? Just anything about it. Probably not a lot. Why? Not a lot? When was the last time you thought about it? Maybe a week or two ago? The Roman Empire was a very big part of history!]
Amory: Oh gosh, maybe I'm confused about the origins of this. I thought it started on Twitter.
Ben: Well, it actually started in Italy. What is now Italy.
Grace: My understanding of how this started, and now it's become such a big thing, by the way, that Panera has literally added a Roman Empire section to their menu.
Grace: So, this has really spiraled out of control. But my understanding of where it started – last year, a Swedish influencer named Saskia Court posed this question on Instagram. This year, it went viral stateside when, a Roman reenactor who goes by the name of Gaius Flavius – I did not take Latin in high school, so I might be pronouncing that wrong – on Instagram posted an image of a video of some ruins with this instructive: “Ladies, many of you do not realize how often men think about the Roman Empire. Ask your husband, slash boyfriend, slash father, slash brother. You will be surprised by their answers.” And then it took off on TikTok, um, with lots and lots of videos of women pointing the camera at the men in their lives and asking them the question that I just asked Ben.
[(Sound from TikTok): How often do you think about the Roman Empire? A lot. Really? Yeah. Like, how often? At least once a day. Seriously? Absolutely. ]
Ben: Why men specifically is a question I have. Why is it so gendered, do we think?
Grace: Yeah. That's actually, that's exactly the question I have for you all. Because, like, even the original question from Gaius Flavius, is specifically, like, “Ladies. Ask the men in your life.” What is it about the experience of being a man that lends itself to thinking about the Roman Empire?
Ben: Well, I have a theory about this that I will get to eventually, and I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna say it right now because I don't think it's the time, but I do have a theory about this.
Amory: I would welcome our listeners to chime in on this, maybe in our, in our subreddit, in the comments. Because I only have one theory about that, and I don't, I, I can't really speak to its validity
Grace: That’s fair. Well, that was only stage one of this trend. But what do you think the next stage of this meme would be?
Ben: What did you, what did we all learn about before the Roman empire?
Amory: the Roman
Ben: The Greeks, the Greeks, baby, I'm going to say it got Greek. Did it go Greek?
Amory: Wait, wait. Can I guess? Before you reveal. My guess would be to ask the men in their life, whoever's filming, what they know about the Roman empire or like name, name your favorite thing about the Roman empire to see if they actually do know anything about it.
Grace: That would be a good one! I can tell you from experience that a lot of the men answer very enthusiastically about the cement. But no, the next phase of this trend has been OK, if men are thinking about the Roman Empire all of the time, what are women thinking about?
Amory: I don't know. I think a lot about, like, like women's gymnastics and how impressive women gymnasts are and how it's the best sport on the planet.
Ben: A sport that has been a thing since --
Amory: The Roman Empire.
Ben: The Roman Empire.
Amory: We've been flipping for centuries and centuries. No, I, I probably like waste way too much energy being afraid of people.
Grace: Well, I don't know if this is exactly what you mean, but when I first saw this, the second phase of this meme, what's women's Roman Empire, um, the first video I saw that I instantly shared to with a lot of people was our Roman Empire is thinking about our ex- best friends, but then ones that I quickly saw after that are our Roman Empire is trying to figure out what your body looks like, so body image. Our Roman Empire is getting kidnapped. So kind of like more, yeah, more like fear based.
Amory: That is what I was kind of hinting at.
Ben: Male stranger danger.
Grace: Yeah, and there are some versions of the second question, what are women thinking about all the time, that's kind of are going more for the history analogy, so ones I saw a lot were Anne Boleyn, which is also kind of like male stranger danger, right? Because she got her head cut off by her husband. Helen Keller, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the Donner Party. And these are all varied, but I'm wondering, is there like any kind of through line that you see?
Amory: Just like tragic, horrific deaths.
Ben: Of women.
Amory: That's not quite Helen Keller, but just like, yeah, it's like women, um, women who suffer.
Grace: Yeah, I think that that's a possible through line. I'd also say that these are all like the Roman Empire is just like this huge, I mean, spanning centuries, expansive idea. While all of these examples are like much more specific, and probably some of the interest would be like the social and interpersonal dynamics at play, like that's probably a little bit I think of what people are thinking about with a lot of these examples.
Amory: Makes sense.
Ben: That makes sense to me too. And I, I wanted to say it, but I was also afraid because if this whole conversation feels like a minefield for me,
Grace: Well Ben, I wonder if part of the reason you feel like this is like a landmine and it's because we are talking so much about stereotypes.
Ben: It’s not just one Grace. It's a whole – it’s a minefield.
Ben: It’s not just one landmine. That I could avoid.
Grace: I feel like part of the reason is this trend really feeds into this idea like men are from Mars, women are from Venus, like we're just so different, right?
Ben: Mars and Venus also connected to the Roman Empire. You see, I'm thinking about the Roman Empire.
Amory: Are those the Roman names or the Greek names? I never remember which.
Grace: Those are the Roman names. But this trend got me thinking about some other TikTok memes that feed into this idea of the gender binary. I’ll tell you more about those…after the break.
Grace: Okay, so are y'all familiar with the TikTok meme girl math?
Amory: Yes. Yes, I am. But I don't, I don't understand it as well as, like, the girl dinner, boy dinner thing.
Grace: Oh, which I'm going to get to that one, too. So I'm glad that you're already aware. I'm gonna send you a video of girl math.
[(TikTok sound) :
Girl 1: So I bought this purse for 38 dollars which means it was 30 dollars.
Girl 2: Round down, not up. Girl math.
Girl 1: I spent $200 at one store. But all of the other stores we walked into, I didn't buy anything. So when you spread it out — that was good.
Girl 2: You saved money.
Girl 1: I saved money. Because I didn't buy anything.
Girl 2: Girl math.]
Grace: Okay, so how would you explain this trend? What's the subtext here?
Amory: The subtext is, women spend too much money on things. And this, explains it away or rationalizes it.
Grace: Totally, and I'll admit when I first saw these videos, I laughed and I saw myself in them. Like, a very real example of girl math from my very own brain that I think about like a lot. It's my Roman Empire, if you will. I never get manicures, but I know a lot of women who do. So I'm always like, Oh, that's every month, like that's 60 dollars that I can spend on other things. I'm basically Warren Buffett, because I’m not getting manicures. And I know that that's not actually how math works, but I, I use that to justify purchases. Constantly.
Amory: I have CVS coupon math, I think, which is like, which is like if I, if I can save, you know, 10% on more, what would I get from CVS? Like, like, PureZzz's sleep gummies. This is not spon-con. If I can save 10% on more sleep gummies, then I will buy more sleep gummies, even if I just bought sleep gummies. Because I'm like, but I can save 10%. And I'm always going to need more sleep gummies, even though they're just going to keep feeding me those coupons
Grace: Girl math. Except for not really, because I'm pretty sure everyone does this.
Amory: Are you a coupon guy, Ben?
Ben: Oh man, let's not go there.
Amory: We're going there. Do you, do you, does girl math resonate with you at all? In this, in this video, in this particular video. Are you ever like, 38 round down to 30?
Ben: Yes. I don't love the takeaway of this video or what it feels like could be the takeaway of this video. And I also relate to it. I round down all the time. I do things with money that are very, like siloed in the way that I think about them. So that I'm not actually looking at the bigger picture and I'm just looking at the small thing and patting myself on the back while over here, I'm doing something completely ridiculous and like spending money in a way that is like very foolish and I'm defending it by this other thing that I do that is like supposedly smart, and that's that's not how money works.
Grace: Equal opportunity silly finances. And Amory, you mentioned girl dinner. Can you just like give a brief summary of that because that was also has been really big. Popeye's now has a girl dinner section of their menu, so it has also infiltrated the zeitgeist.
Amory: Well, my understanding, and maybe this is not totally correct, but at least this is how it feels in my life, is that girl dinner is a bunch of little snacks put together so that we don't have to cook ourselves a whole meal that only we might eat. But it's like, I'm going to have like an apple with almond butter, and I'm going to have some like, pistachios, and I think I have some popcorn somewhere, and that's girl dinner.
Grace: Yeah, I eat what would be called girl dinner pretty much every night. But I would say like on average, not totally, but a lot of the guys I know, I think are just a little bit more obsessed with like the idea of like having like a protein and a starch and a vegetable and like, don't understand something to be a meal unless it has those components, but not, hashtag, not all men. But, I think what I'm getting with, like, and again, with all these memes, like I saw the girl dinner one, I was like, that's funny, I relate, girl math, I relate, but I think what I've been building up to, though, and what we've actually been talking about the whole time, is there is this gender essentialization thing that does make me a little bit uncomfortable, this idea of men and women are just inherently different – because like we said, with the girl math thing, like it just kind of perpetuates the idea that like women are just a little bit silly when it comes to finances, and that's actually been used to oppress women a lot. So – I'm not saying that they're bad trends. Like I said, I've thought that they were really funny.
Ben: I just – I want to push back against that. Right? I mean, obviously you're not stating it as fact. You're stating it as this societal thing. Right? But I just wanted to say that, like, in my life, the women are much better with money than the men are. And the only reason that men earn more than women, um, uh, because society's fucked up.
Grace: No, totally. Like, these are stereotypes, but they're not actually real.
Ben: Yes. Well, they're real because we make them real. I mean, obviously not that, not the stereotype that women are bad with money, but that, but like the like earning power of men, I guess becomes a reality because we've made it a reality because we live in this like, you know, whatever we live in a society that where, I don't know what, what's the right word paternalistic or misogynist or both. I don't know.
Ben: Can I give you my theory of why men think about the Roman Empire?
Amory/Grace: Yeah. Please.
Ben: So my experience is that when I was a kid learning about civilization and society and democracy and all of these ideas that sort of underpin western society and civilization as we know it. The wa all those ideas get communicated to you when you’re a kid is basically through the history of the Roman Empire…and the Greeks a little too. So this is how you understand the beginnings of civilization whether it’s an aqueduct or…democracy or…
Amory: A political system, yeah.
Ben: A political system. This is the first and most important version of civilization we learn about. And maybe not shockingly…because of the ancient world AND the modern world… the contribution of women to civilization basically doesn’t exist in those teachings. With some notable exceptions. But overall the way that history is given to us is as a history of MEN. The battles of men, the conquests of men, the ideas of men. And as a boy I related to that storytelling. I see myself in the story of the Roman Empire. Which creates truth in the stereotype being meme’d. I’m invited to think about this stuff because that’s what our collective telling of history says I’m SUPPOSED to be thinking about. About empire, and philosophy, and battles. And on top of that I’m also thinking about American Empire and colonialism and so I relate it to the primordial story of Empire that I’m given in Western education, which is Roman, which is Greek, which is fundamentally WESTERN.
It gets reflected in the way we’re taught, in the way we think in the way we grow up. This idea of a man-centric universe of history. And THAT is why as a dude…I am always thinking about the Roman Empire.
Grace: Wow, that was so much deeper than the HBO show.
Ben: Does that make sense to you too?
Amory: I think that's beautiful, man. That that's why you would think of it. And I think, sadly, it might be more of the previous answer, the earlier answer that you gave, or how you started your answer, rather, about, it's just kind of like, getting shit done.
And, uh, women's role in that society being, erased but I don't know. I don't, that's, that's where we, we could be in our own minefield where, uh, you know, men might say, no, that's not it at all. It's that I have such great respect for the X, Y, Z, you know, I don't know.
Grace: That makes sense to me. And I do think that this meme actually has sparked some more insightful conversations like that, about how our gender identity affects our experience of the world and what we think about. But I could also see how these memes could be reinforcing these very simplistic ideas we have about men versus women in a time where I otherwise feel like we’re beginning to think more expansively about gender. I haven't heard anyone actually weaponize this meme like that, or girl math or girl dinner, but –
Ben: But it's totally being weaponized, right? Like we, it's obviously that's going to be weaponized that way. Cause of the--
Grace: Exactly. If you can weaponize something against a woman, it will be.
Well, that, that, this is my new Roman Empire. Thinking about... Gender and TikTok memes.
Ben: Thanks, Grace.
Amory: I would not have thought to connect the Roman Empire memes with girl dinner and boy dinner and girl math and boy math, and now I can't not. So thank you for that.
Ben: Also, I remembered the battle that I was talking about.
Grace: Good, cause we were dying to know.
Ben: I know, you guys. I was just thinking again about the Roman Empire. And I looked it up, and it is — Caesar, it's this battle between Caesar and Pompey, who's his, like, long time rival.
Grace: I thought Pompeii was a place.
Amory: Pompey was a person before it was a city?
Ben: Believe it or not!
Amory: Ancient, ancient Rome. yeah, and it was the Battle of Pharsalus, I think I want to say,
Grace: That sounds made up.
Ben: Yeah, it does, right?
Amory: Everything's made up. That's the thing about the world. Everything is made up.
Ben: Let's all go think about not the Roman Empire.
Amory: I, I recommend women's gymnastics. It's really... you should see what they can do. It's really something.
Ben: But like Roman-era women's gymnastics or current era.
Amory: No, honestly, like the seventies, if you watch an uneven bar routine from the seventies, your mind will be blown because it's completely different from the, from the uneven bar routines of today. Just trust me on this. I'll we'll drop a, we'll drop a link in the in the web piece that accompanies this episode. I'll put it in the subreddit too, because like, man, those bar routines.
Ben: They got bars? Bars got bars.
Amory: They've got, they've got bars.