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Why Are Men Contemplating Ancient Rome?

Let’s navigate the complex waters of modern male psychology.

Key points

  • Many men are struggling with the changing definition of masculinity in contemporary culture.
  • This confusion can lead to men retreating into fantasy worlds, such as Ancient Rome or Stoic philosophy.
  • Men need to acknowledge the flaws of traditional masculinity.
  • They also can develop a healthier, more compassionate understanding of what it means to be a man.
pierrma pietro marini / Pexels
Source: pierrma pietro marini / Pexels

In a recent Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch, a woman worries about her husband because he seems adrift as he stares blankly into space. Is he having an affair? No, he daydreams about Ancient Rome—gladiators, Julius Caesar and the Visigoths.

Like all great humour, this gag tugs at something real at the heart of contemporary gender and gender relations. As a clinician who works with a large number of male clients, the sketch reminds me of many of the conversations and work that I do with men of all ages, particularly as it concerns a generalized challenge to what it means to be a man in modern culture, and how to digest and metabolize the various critiques of masculinity in the culture at large.

When I see the men on SNL drifting into Roman fantasy, in other words, it makes me think of a "freeze" action in response to low-grade and generalized anxiety about masculinity and male gender roles in the current era. This anxiety is temporarily relieved by images of Roman gladiators fighting and bathing in a seemingly less complicated era.

Many of my male clients speak about being between a rock and a hard place: Recognizing and often feeling guilty for historic male behaviours or even their own, but not having a clear model or path forward. When it is hard to see a path or road in the present or the future, it is tempting to look to the past for clues or models like the Romans and Roman masculinity in particular.

It is no coincidence that there is also a rise in thinking about the Roman Stoics online as well since they represent a self-contained and self-oriented model of masculinity. The Stoics seem to solve the problem of this lack of masculine cultural roadmaps. If there is no ready-made model of masculinity, then I can at least go inward, create practices and self-discipline, and become self-sufficient and self-contained like the Stoics.

These fantasies do not mean that men are unaware of the problems of historical masculinity. Men in my practice recognize some of the key problems in masculinity, such as a historical lack of emotional attunement or emotional availability, which has caused relational problems and depression, among others. Many men desperately want to work on these issues as ways of improving their relationship with themselves and their loved ones but struggle with a lack of experience or roadmap to get there.

On top of this, they often experience the culture as telling them that they are "toxic" and the root of many social problems, which compounds the guilt and shame they feel. While a little bit of guilt can spur change, introspection, and positive interpersonal efforts, too much guilt can transform into a shame spiral populated by nasty self-talk, such as 'You're not good enough," "You're a failure," or "You'll never be loved."

The effects of these compounding thoughts can lead to reactivity, anger, and cultural resentments. What do men do with these self-hating feelings? It is easy nowadays to search online and find answers or supposed diagnoses for the anger they are feeling, and there is no shortage of snake oil salesmen selling easy solutions. One often peddled solution is to turn back the clock to the "good old days" when men had purpose, meaning, and defined roles.

Here again is where the memes and videos about Ancient Rome fit in, as a cultural daydream about a romantic past where men had defined roles and purpose and, most importantly, didn't have to wrestle with the meaning of masculinity; it was given and unquestioned. The current age is challenging precisely because there are no certainties around gender roles and certainly masculinity.

Like the SNL video, this confusion and seeming unsolvability can lead to anxiety, which can lead to drifting and daydreaming. Fantasy is an easy mental way out of the deadlocks and conundrums of modern life. Why else would we dive into fantasy novels or video games where we get to assume absolute power in a dramatic and realizable quest?

Unfortunately, psychology has no easy answer for these modern challenges except to help us build spaces to contain and narrate these feelings and thoughts of confusion and sit with a reasonable degree of sadness, what the psychologist Melanie Klein called "the depressive position."

It is only once we can acknowledge and sit with the sadness experienced due to our perceived lack of purpose or power and not split off into reactive anger that real healing can take place for men.

More from Nicholas Balaisis Ph.D., RP
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