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Men can’t stop thinking about the Roman Empire. It’s because of the masculinity polycrisis

ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images

It seems men can't stop thinking about the Roman Empire—or at least that's what the latest social media craze suggests. Over 1 billion people have viewed a TikTok video with the hashtag #RomanEmpire, encouraging women to ask the men in their lives how often they think about the subject—and it's shockingly often. Elon Musk, not one lately to let a viral conversation go uncommented upon, even tweeted recently about "late-stage civilization vibes." If it's true (and men aren't simply being prompted by peer pressure to overstate the frequency of their thoughts on the topic), it could be for good reason.

First of all, the Roman Empire's legacy is deeply entrenched in our politics, architecture, education, language, and laws. From the Capitol to the military, America has placed a Roman heritage at its foundation. You may not clock the multiple references to it that you see each day and the ubiquitous Latin words in your everyday speech (just look up the etymology for most words you can think of), but your subconscious mind does. However, there's nothing new there, going back to the founding of the United States itself.

What's new is the confluence (another word with Latin roots) of crises that western men are facing today—and the multiple ways they're signaling their distress. The world is in turmoil, and the men alive today are reeling because most of them have only known the most peaceful and prosperous times in history. The Columbia University economic historian Adam Tooze has been making the case since around the time of Russia's invasion of Ukraine that a "polycrisis" is gripping the world economy, a dynamic in which disparate shocks compound upon each other to create something greater and more profound than any one of them. Or, to paraphrase popular 1990s novelist Tom Clancy, the sum of all fears.

For men, life in the 2020s feels as if the world suddenly turned on them. The masculinity polycrisis explains the rise of figures such as Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson—"men's rights activists" who often refer to ancient philosophies in a bid for respectability. During a tense interview with the BBC in June, for instance, Tate defended himself by saying that he teaches young men "stoicism"—the ancient philosophy that empathizes discipline over pleasure-seeking.

Beyond seeking respectability, Tate is surfing on a rising wave. Stoics are making a comeback—and they have been for several years. From discussions among Silicon Valley elites to podcasts and newsletters, the school of thought that once flourished in ancient Greece and Rome has been seeing a revival in recent years. The pandemic supercharged this.

A true stoic, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, has been rising in popularity. In recent years, his Meditations has become a best-selling hit. The Roman emperor's thoughts on duty, the rejection of luxurious lifestyles, and remaining calm in the face of what you can't control have unsurprisingly attracted legions of modern-day readers who are struggling with anxiety in a changing world.

In 2012, the publisher sold 16,000 copies of the classic. In 2019, that figure increased to more than 100,000 copies. That growth continued through 2020, Penguin Random House told the Guardian.

And it's not just about pandemic-induced introspection—it's also about economics. While boys have been falling behind women for over a decade, tracing back to the Great Recession, the gulf is increasingly stark. No less a zeitgeist-spotter than Richard Reeves, the senior Brookings fellow, weighed in on the crisis of male underperformance with last year's "Of Boys and Men." (Before that, he eviscerated the upper middle class with 2017's "Dream Hoarders.") Although The Atlantic's Hanna Rosin got there earlier, with 2012's aply named "The End of Men (And the Rise of Women)."

As research consistently shows, men react poorly to loss of status. A 2005 study by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne found that men who experience downward mobility are four times more likely to suffer from depression—and although women are twice as likely to be downwardly mobile, they don't experience the same drop in well-being.

Compared to these uncertain times, the Roman era can seem like real prospera tempora for the male of the species.

The Roman Empire did not invent the patriarchy—but it did codify it into law. Pater familias was a legal status that gave the patriarch authority over the family and its estate, two status-granting privileges that contemporary men took for granted but may never achieve. Wealthy Roman citizens also had slaves (also from Latin), and they were in the all-encompassing care of the pater familias. Although slavery in ancient Rome was not established along racial lines, the precedent was used in America's antebellum South to justify the entitlement of slaveowners to the labor of their "dependents." Today's backlash against diversity and inclusion efforts can also be seen through this lens: a third leg of men's status being chopped off.

However, the fantasies about Roman civilization miss a key point: that it put us on the very path that led to our modern world. By regulating ancient traditions, Roman law gradually limited the powers of the patriarch.

The Roman legal concept of bonus pater familias, or diligens pater familias, became the benchmark for reasonable and diligent behavior when courts seek to establish negligence, from Spain to Canada. Status (and gender) no longer mattered. What matters is the behavior: Is it that of a proverbial good family father? This has become a stand-in for the standard of care required, underpinning how we may not all think of the Roman Empire all that often, but it's all around us.

In an age of crises, competence commands a premium—but what we're getting instead is misogyny, anger, and poor mental health. It is no wonder that men are vocally demanding to spend more time with their families—perhaps the most potent cure to these struggles. Stay-at-home dads are on the rise—a phenomenon that was previously restricted to sharp economic downturns.

Today, men are craving answers, purpose, and family. If that's unachievable, we can expect much worse than fantasies about bygone empires.

Mohamed El Aassar is Fortune's commentary editor.

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The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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