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Why Rome?

Because, among other things, it’s cool.

Tourists visit the Colosseum Area, on September 15, 2023, in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Hi,

Greetings from the road. I’m in Utah right now. We drove from Portland in the new mobile kitchen with bed. The Sprinter is amazing, though we really haven’t had a chance to put it through all of its camping paces because we’ve got to make a wedding in Iowa. We have also learned the hard way that diesel is expensive these days. But I’ll save the travelogue stuff for when I have more travel to log.

Still, I’d say my wife and I have learned a lot about each other spending all this time on the road, but the truth is, having driven up and down and back and forth across this country (Alaska and Hawaii included) so many times, there’s not much left to learn about each other that can be learned on the road. Of course, writing that virtually guarantees that at the next truck stop a bunch of Hells Angels will yell, “Jessica! You have a lot of nerve showing your face around here.”

But Jessica did learn something about me that surprised her a bit. There’s this weird viral conversation going around where women ask their husbands or boyfriends how often they think about the Roman Empire. And it turns out that many men say it’s several times a week or even every day. 

I am one of those men. I said the Missus was surprised, not shocked. She knows I think about a lot of weird stuff. 

Still, the question is, “Why?” Not just for me, but for lots of, mostly male, people? I have theories. 

Except for that … What have the Romans done for us?

But before I get to my theories, I’d just like to point out something to the folks who rarely ruminate on the Roman Empire at all and think those of us who do are weird. You may not cast your gaze upon Rome, but Rome’s gaze looks deep into you. To borrow a phrase from the old Palmolive ads: All of you people looking down your noses at us Rome-noodlers, I’m here to tell you, “You’re soaking in it!

Whatever version of our Civilizational Operating System (C.O.S.) is up to, the Roman Empire (including the glorious days of the Republic) is very close to version 1.0. I mean, it’s not the first operating system—there was a lot of beta testing in biblical times and some important innovations in Ancient Greece. But Rome was a huge software upgrade, a near total reboot. And no matter how advanced you think we may be, a lot of that code remains in our C.O.S. 

Rome’s influence on Judaism and Christianity is so enormous and so obvious that I’m just going to skip recounting it all lest I seem condescending. If this is not apparent to you, check out the Wikipedia pages for such things as Hanukkah, Masada, the Western Wall, the Roman Catholic Church, and “Jesus.”

Our legal system rests largely on a Roman foundation. Habeas corpus, civil rights, trials by jury, property rights, legal wills, and trademarks all either begin with or were heavily influenced by Roman law. Our understanding of liberty and freedom doesn’t begin or end with Rome, but Rome’s influence on both is monumental.

Our political system rests on a Roman chassis. Discussion of democracy and republics began with the Ancient Greeks, but the Romans updated it massively. Our idea of checks and balances and a “mixed constitution” begins with Rome. We get the word “senator” from Rome (though perhaps not the concept—more on that in a minute).  

Speaking of words, the words dictator, editor, curator, triumph, salary, forum, circus, empire, century, decimate, patrician, urine, and hundreds of others come from Ancient Rome. Heck, your sense of time is bounded by the Julian calendar, and all the months have Roman names.

Even as so much Roman code continues to live on in our programming, it’s worth keeping in mind that lots of their original hardware still exists (it’s on display all over the place in Europe, Turkey, and North Africa). And if the old hardware doesn’t impress you, remember that a lot of the modern stuff we take for granted begins with Rome. 

So, yeah, Roman sewers aren’t as good as ours, but they were pioneers in their day. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Romans invented sewers, aqueducts, roads, central heating, concrete, etc. But they improved it all and implemented it at a scale that couldn’t be replicated for more than 1,000 years after the fall of the empire (in the West). 

All of this also leaves out the fact that the people and concepts we are more directly indebted to—say, the American Founders—were profoundly indebted to Roman history and concepts. Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, et al. were all standing on the shoulders of dudes in togas to one extent or another. If you fancy yourself as some high-minded fellow who doesn’t think about all that sword-and-sandal stuff but spends his wool-gathering time thinking of the American founding, you’re still thinking about dudes who spent a lot of their time thinking about the Roman Empire. They didn’t call George Washington the American Cincinnatus for nothing. 

Why Rome?

Now, I think about this kind of stuff a lot. But I don’t think this is why I think about Rome. This stuff is a partial answer to the question, “What do you think about when you think about Rome?” I also think about wars and gladiatorial fights, and the movies and TV shows about them. I loved the series Spartacus, but I’d be lying if I said it was because of all the highbrow Roman concepts being bandied about. Sword fights and Hawaiian Tropic models in togas have their appeal as well. 

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I think one of the reasons Rome intrudes—or is beckoned—into my thoughts so much is that it’s a prism for looking at modern society. As longtime readers know, one of my core beliefs is that human nature has no history. And the fascinating thing about Rome is that it’s somewhere between a modern civilization—laws, roads, sewers, contracts!—and … what? I’d say “barbaric” society, but barbaric is a Roman word, too. And the Barbarians weren’t necessarily as barbaric as the word today implies. 

I think I’m going to have to mix some metaphors to get at what I mean, in part because I think Ancient Rome is a kind of mixed metaphor. 

The updates to our civilization—most good, some not so much—are like new coats of paint on a fresco depicting human nature in all its aspects: good and evil, kind and cruel, refined and base, gentle and coarse, aspirational and reactionary. But there are so many layers of paint, it’s hard to see the details anymore. In Ancient Rome, the paint is very fresh, and because it’s so fresh—in many cases one or just two coats—you can see the full contours of human nature underneath the sophisticated forms.

For instance, I said the Romans invented the idea of the senate. Well, yes and no. Today we see the senate as a formal political institution. But it begins in Rome as a kind of council of aristocratic elder statesmen. Lots of societies had wise elders. Pretty much every tribe and city state had a bunch of prominent old coots who shared their opinions on stuff. What’s cool about Rome is you can see how the sort of near universal human organizations get transformed into more refined and sophisticated institutions that transcend the basic factory preset. 

Seymour Martin Lipset used to say that if you only know one country you don’t know any countries. It’s the comparison that lets us understand what is unique or distinct and what is universal or common. There’s something about thinking about Ancient Rome that helps me think about today. 

I should say that some of this intellectual rationalization. Working on my last book, and thinking about our current problems, has made Rome seem more relevant for me in recent years. But if you asked me a decade ago why I think about Rome so often, I might have said, “Because it’s cool.”

On a recent episode of National Review’s Editors podcast, Charlie Cooke said he doesn’t think much about Rome at all, which surprised me. He said he thinks about the Founders a lot, which didn’t surprise me. Again there’s a certain amount of thinking-about-Rome-by-proxy there. But then I read this confessional about why he’s so addicted to (American) football. 

Now, I have no idea if this is true of Charlie, and I think sports and Roman history are very different things in all of the obvious ways. But I think the part of the (male) brain that gets pulled into the Roman past is not very far from the part of the brain that obsesses about football. The Roman concept of virtue was much, much more masculine than the modern understanding. It implied courage, strength, glory, and other desirable attributes of a warrior. That’s a good example of what I mean by the paint being thin enough to see human nature in its rawer form. 

It’s funny, no one thinks it’s a mystery why most men think about sex many times a day. “That’s just human nature,” people respond, correctly. Well, while sex is high on our instinctual impulses, it’s not alone. 

I think a lot of men care about glory—an old-fashioned way of describing a certain kind of earned success or status—more than they care about wealth. Of course, for lots of people, wealth is a way to achieve a kind of glory. While that can be bad, I’d rather live in a society where glory-seekers pursue wealth instead of slaughtering Gauls. And I also prefer to live in a society where virtue means something more than mere male alpha dog B.S. But those instincts remain even in such a society, even if we suppress, channel, or compensate for them. 

And I think football is one of the tools we use to do just that. I don’t want to go all anthropologist or George Carlin on you, but pretty much everyone understands that football taps into a lot of our feelings about war—and not just because of all those military flyovers. It’s not war. However violent it is, it’s not remotely as violent as actual war. It’s also not remotely as violent as the gladiatorial contests of Ancient Rome, but its purpose is not all that different. I don’t say this as a criticism of football, but as a partial explanation for why it’s so “sticky” for our brains. We like sweets because our brains were formed at a time when sweets were both rare and a huge caloric and nutritional bonanza. Men—not all men, and not in every permutation—like war stuff for similar reasons. There’s something very sticky about it. Few men say outright, “I love war,” not least because one of those civilizational improvements I mentioned is the realization that literal war is pretty terrible, even if sometimes necessary. But boy do men have a sweet tooth for war and war-like things. It can be satisfied by video games, professional wrestling, Civil War history, paintball, politics, literature, movies, or a thousand other things, including some aspects of ancient Rome.

And for most men, if you ask them why they like that stuff, they’ll probably answer, “I don’t know. I think it’s cool.”

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.