How often do you think about the Roman Empire?
That query was all the rage on TikTok throughout September. CBS, The Washington Post, Forbes, and other major news services all published stories featuring the trend, which ridicules men who appear overly-enthralled with ancient Rome because of a supposed masculine attachment to military might. But interest in the Classical Era empire should not be regarded with disdain.
Some are entranced by the Roman Empire’s dominance and adept military. Others find the empire’s impact on the modern world most interesting—after all, the pre-Empire Republican government serves as a partial basis for the modern United States, and our modern calendar features two months named for Caesars.
More people still are fascinated by the everyday lives of Romans. As Latin Teacher Dr. Andrew Fenton remarked to me recently, the Romans were really weird, but they were also just like us. He noted elements of Roman culture with which people sometimes connect, but that also seem unthinkably strange. He proposed a Roman ham-shaped sundial as an example. While a fascination with pigs might not resonate with your everyday human in 2023, Dr. Fenton compared the ham-shaped sundial to a hamburger-shaped telephone that his sister had while growing up. The two devices are not really that different.
So, how often do I think about the Roman Empire? Every day. Granted, I’m in Latin class every other day, and I have homework on the days I’m not in class. My Latin ponderings are not necessarily self-created, as those expressed on TikTok are. But my Latin studies have created a perspective on an Empire that is more than a long-fallen civilization—it is a case study in human culture.
When selecting a language to study at the end of sixth grade, many of my classmates fell into two camps: studying Spanish, a language you can use in your international travels, or studying Latin, a language that some claim helps students on SATs and other standardized tests. I struggled to choose (a fact reflected in my decision to take both languages in upper school) but I settled on Latin —probably because I loved Rick Riordan’s mythological fantasy novels.
I am now in my sixth year studying Latin, and I’ve found the subject invaluable. I am frequently asked why I am so interested, so passionate, and so dedicated to studying a “dead” language. I always answer that Latin class is a lot more than grammar and vocabulary that became obsolete hundreds of years ago. A lot more.
To me, Latin at Haverford is an exercise in exploring many aspects of humanity. Deep dives into the Punic Wars—conflict over lands between bitter allies—are not that different from deep dives into modern warfare. Disregarding Roman historian Eutropius’s detailed accounts of numbers of troops and supplies, his Breviarium Historiae Romanae is much like a modern news report. Discussions about literary and rhetorical devices in the context of Roman politics apply directly to modern American politics—there’s a reason Cicero is considered one of the greatest orators in history.
My classmates and I have become acquainted with Roman religion, performing sacrifice ceremonies. We’ve wrestled with the role of religion in Roman lives as well as our own. And, on top of all of that, we are learning a language.
One can associate aspects of Latin class with elements of any society’s culture. Language, literature, religion, and politics are all just as integral to our modern society as they are to Rome and the ancient world. Latin gives its students a unique insight into the daily lives of Romans.
Becoming versed in the nuance of the Latin language not only serves to strengthen critical-thinking skills and sharpen expository analysis, but it also creates a new appreciation for Roman society. The ability to understand minor aspects of everyday Roman lives that relate to modern society directly connect us with distant history.
Recognizing similarities between our cultures, whether in nasty, rude Roman graffiti or in a ham-shaped sundial, helps us recognize larger patterns and trends throughout history. They bring us greater appreciation for the genius of Vergil’s poetry and Cicero’s prose. For Roman architecture and art. For the beautiful oddity of an ancient world culture.
Rome’s power lay not just in its strength, but in the diverse human experiences it represents to the modern world.
Beyond the importance of exploring humanity, society, culture, and historical patterns, Rome’s military prowess—one of the most popular reasons, according to TikTok, that many think about the Empire—is tied to its cultural landscape.
Rome’s power lay not just in its strength, but in the diverse human experiences it represents to the modern world. The value of a study of Rome and of thinking about the Roman Empire is not to bask in its former glory but to understand the dynamics of a civilization that has had such great influence in the past and in the present, and to recognize that Romans (and numerous other ancient world cultures) share much in common with modern society.
I do not condone obsession with Rome—TikTok has proven that is not socially acceptable—nor do I believe Rome to be the be-all and end-all of history. But I do advocate for the value of a classics education.
Latin expands our thought processes and exposes us to new facets of humanity. It truly is a critical aspect of any education… and an asset to this school.