When I texted my dad to ask how often he thinks about the Roman Empire, he replied, “It isn’t never. The Romans had a good gig for a while. Until they abused it. Lessons to learn from (open eyed emoji).”
Lucky for my dad, if you’re a man who isn’t thinking about the Roman Empire on a semi-regular basis, it seems you’re the one who has the problem.
The Roman Empire trend, which encourages women to ask the men in their lives how often they think about the empire, has gone viral—with the hashtag #RomanEmpire garnering over 1 billion views. The responses have caught the masses off guard due to how often men seemingly reflect on, dream about, or obsess over the days of Marcus Aurelius and Julius Caesar.
Though the history of the Roman Empire dates back to 27 B.C.E., its contributions to Western civilization can still be observed today—in everything from the military, engineering, and architecture to philosophy and literature. And its wars and gladiator fights have been depicted in popular films that tend to glorify themes of dominance and power.
So when Scott Lyons, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and author of Addicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis and Chaos in Yourself and Others, heard about the trend, he immediately thought about the neuroscience underpinning it. The collective interest in and spread of trends—even as niche as men’s potential obsession with the Roman Empire—are never random, he tells Fortune.
“There’s always something more to it,” he says, adding it often has to do with associative memory where people pair two unrelated things in their brain and build an association oftentimes subconsciously. “The brain is pretty complex in that way.”
Something from our past triggers this association. For example, if we watched Gladiator growing up or learned about the Roman Empire in school or through popular culture, we might hold onto specific imagery and aesthetics.
“We don’t even know it,” Lyons says. “We don’t even recognize it.”
As with any online frenzy, though, blending in with the crowd is part of the appeal and Lyons believes some people may have overestimated in their responses.
However, if it really is a frequent thought, Lyons says it’s more often about idealization. We often become fascinated by a snapshot of something instead of the whole picture, and in many ways, Hollywood is to thank. It might not be the grim parts of history that stick in people’s minds, but rather, the fantasy of what could be.
“Memories are not perfect recordings of past events,” Smriti Joshi, chief psychologist at Wysa, a mental health technology company, tells Fortune. “They are reconstructed and influenced by various factors such as personal experiences, biases, and cultural context. Therefore, our perception of the past may be a blend of actual historical facts and our interpretations or reconstructions of those facts.”
This reconstruction and idealization can come up at any time in daily life.
“Every time I work out, and I think about getting bulkier or more defined, the image I’m holding, even though I don’t consciously know it, can be that image from the Hollywood movie 300, or Gladiator as what I’m trying to ascend to,” Lyons offers as an example. “That reminds me of this image of this idealized male I want to be or this idealized shape I want to be.”
Albeit surprised by the trend’s scale, Joshi, says there are many reasons why our brains think of the past. She remembers having a lesson on philosophy when training for her thesis in psychology. It referenced the morals and ethics of the ancient Romans. As we move through life, the brain compares now and then as a way to make sense of the world, even if we are going off curated knowledge. These thoughts can trigger the amygdala, or the emotional processing center of the brain, to help us hone in on those comparisons. The hippocampus, associated with memory and imagination, also lights up when thinking about the past to resurface those images, Joshi says.
“I think that kind of keeps you in touch with time, even if you’re living in a very different era,” she says. “This involves assessing and comparing aspects like technology, social structure, lifestyle, governance, and cultural norms.” For example, one TikTok Dad who was asked how often he thinks about the Roman Empire says it’s a lot because every time he sees a construction project like the building of a school, he thinks about how the Romans made buildings still standing today. Comparisons help us make meaning of life and reflect on where we are at.
“From a psychological perspective, it’s important to recognize that interests, including those related to historical periods like the Roman Empire, are influenced by a complex interplay of various factors, including personal preferences, cultural upbringing, education, societal norms, and individual experiences,” Joshi says.
On the other hand, these thoughts can also happen as a form of escapism, Joshi says, especially when we feel stressed about the current state of the world when ancient time periods are glorified in popular culture through film and television.
“When we look at the state of affairs today, we can often say back then things were so good and things were so perfect,” Joshi says.
Lyons further speculates the imagery and idealized themes of the time period underscore the masculine nature of the trend itself.
“Men are forward facing images. It was a very male-centric representation of that culture,” he says.
Still, he notes, “There’s a lot of things that are disturbing about that empire that we may not be thinking about.” It’s also known for slavery, corruption, and violence.
“They lived until 30?” he says. “What are we fantasizing about?”