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How often should anyone think about the Roman empire?

24 September 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

It is more than a year since a Swedish influencer called Saskia Corte asked her followers on Instagram to question their partners about how often they thought about the Roman Empire. The answers ranged from ‘often’, ‘five times a day’, ‘when I see viaducts, bridges’ and proved popular in the Sweden – but it has taken until this August for the question to be posed in the Anglophone world. Rakewell can forgive the slow take-up: Rome, after all, was not built in a day. It was another Swede – a Roman re-enactor going by the name of Gaius Flavius –who rephrased the question as: ‘Ladies, many of you do not realize how often men think about the Roman Empire. Ask your husband/boyfriend/father/brother – you will be surprised by their answers.’ And now a thousand TikTok videos have bloomed, suggesting that men do indeed think about the Colosseum every now and then.

While Rakewell resents the gendered aspect of the whole question, we can let this pass for the moment. We can’t say that we are exactly surprised by the answers, but then your roving correspondent has been thinking about the Roman empire more than usual in recent weeks. I Claudius, the great BBC TV adaptation of Robert Graves’s novels about the Roman emperor recently landed on the iPlayer streaming service and Rakewell couldn’t be happier. Once you get over the late 1970s production values – characters age very poorly and ancient Rome seems to have been recreated on a very tight budget – the acting and the script more than hold their own. A generation of British thespians seem to be having the time of their lives, whether it’s Brian Blessed as Augustus (‘Is there anyone in Rome who has NOT slept with my daughter?), Sian Phillips playing a silkily poisonous Livia (‘By the way – don’t touch the figs’) or Patrick Stewart being utterly villainous as Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard. With hair!

There is however, an undeniably depressing aspect to I Claudius as, one by one, every decent character – which in Graves’s story is anyone one who wants to restore the Roman Republic – is bumped off to keep the Julio-Claudian dynasty in power. So when Rakewell thinks about the Roman Empire, at least when watching Derek Jacobi’s Claudius yearning to restore the Republic, it’s often with a sense of regret.

Meanwhile, it has also come to Rakewell’s attention that the University of Oxford is looking to appoint a new Camden Professor of Ancient History – a job for a historian of Rome, with previous holders including luminaries such as Ronald Syme (The Roman Revolution) and Fergus Millar (The Emperor in the Roman World). ‘How often do you think about the Roman empire’ isn’t the worst question a search committee could ask and, although no woman has held the post since it was created in 1622, there is a first time for everything, even when it comes to ancient Rome.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.