Carl Icahn thought the inflation of 2022 was just like the fall of the Roman Empire. He’s not the only billionaire with ancient Rome on the mind

Have you heard that men think about ancient Rome a lot? There’s a new viral Tik Tok trend where women ask the men in their lives how often they think about the Roman Empire. The answers are pretty surprising, with some men admitting that they think about the influence and breadth of the ancient state multiple times per week, or even multiple times per day

The trend is now so popular that the #RomanEmpire hashtag on TikTok has surpassed 1.2 billion views. And as it happens, billionaires aren’t immune from the charm of reminiscing about the days of gladiatorial combat and chariot races, either. Just take a look at Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, who has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Augustus, one of the ancient world’s greatest dictators, and also the first emperor of Rome after Julius Caesar’s assassination. 

“Not sure if I think about the Roman Empire too much. I wonder what my daughters Maxima, August and Aurelia think,” the billionaire posted on Threads Tuesday, leaning into the recent Roman empire TikTok trend.

But other billionaires seem to be thinking more about the downfall of the Roman Empire than the empire itself. Carl Icahn, the billionaire founder of Icahn Enterprises who rose to fame as the archetypal “corporate raider” in the 1980s, even warned last year that the rise of U.S. inflation during the pandemic looked a lot like what was seen during the fall of the Roman Empire. “The worst is yet to come,” Icahn told MarketWatch at the Best New Ideas in Money Festival last September. “Inflation is a terrible thing. You can’t cure it.”

Ray Dalio, the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, is another billionaire with an uncannily similar diagnosis. Dalio, who published a book about the rise and fall of empires in 2021 called Principles for Dealing with The Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail, explained in a June 2022 episode of the Financial Times’ Rachman Review podcast that the Federal Reserve’s expansion of the U.S. money supply during the pandemic mirrored what was seen during the fall of the Roman empire.

“When countries don’t have enough money historically, then they print money, and that goes back to the Roman Empire,” he said.

The Roman Empire famously experienced hyperinflation after a series of emperors lowered the silver content in their currency, the denarius, in an attempt to bolster state funds. It began after the so-called Great Fire destroyed half of Rome in 64 AD, leading emperor Nero to search for a quick fix method of gaining the money required to rebuild the city. Roman emperors’ currency debasement eventually led to an inflation rate of 15,000% between A.D. 200 and 300, according to estimates by some historians.

Dalio, who gave up control of Bridgewater in 2022 but has reportedly begun a struggle to regain his status at the firm, has alluded to the idea that the federal government’s decision to finance spending programs via debt throughout the pandemic could be the beginning of a repeat of this torrid history.

“For my whole life, it’s a classic dynamic that we see all the time, but it is also the basis behind the rises and declines of currencies,” he told the Financial Times.

Marc Andreessen, the billionaire entrepreneur and programmer who co-founded the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has also recently referenced the fall of the Roman Empire, comparing his experience in California to living in the “ruins of a once great society” in a social media post last October. “Like Rome in maybe 250 A.D., we live amidst an enormous flowering of culture and creativity, but the roads are becoming unsafe and nobody is quite sure why,” he wrote.

While it’s difficult to generalize about the history-reading trends of a class of billionaires, let alone the entire male gender, there is precedent for a fixation on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire among the ultrawealthy—hundreds of years of it. Edward Gibbon, who was ultimately elected to the UK Parliament, was born into a propertied English family that had lost most of its fortune in the South Sea Bubble of the 1720s but later regained it. He’s known to history as a key figure from the Enlightenment, largely thanks to his epic multi-volume work of history, the aptly named “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” The book has been in personal libraries ever since, and may even be in the possession of Icahn, Dalio, et al. His thesis did not touch on hyperinflation and is widely considered problematic today, however, as he argued that the Empire’s embrace of Christianity ultimately fatally weakened its civic virtue, and his criticisms of religion have brought latter-day accusations of antisemitism. (Gibbon’s anti-Catholic leanings were a hallmark of Enlightenment thought in general, it’s worth noting.)

The fixation of the fall of the Roman Empire among the ultrawealthy may also be tied to the rise of economic competitors to the U.S. after World War II. After that war ended, the U.S. economy represented roughly 50% of global GDP. But in 2022, after years of development in emerging markets and recoveries in other advanced economies, that number has fallen to just 13.5%. Cue the decline and fall narrative.

In 1992, the Harvard Business Review first discussed a new trend that touched on this point, which it called American “declinism,” noting that prognosticators, elites, and even many members of the general public had begun to fear that something was “fundamentally wrong” with the U.S. amid rising economic competition. Those fears may be warranted, but they could also simply be a reflection of the changing position of the U.S. on the world stage, rather than the collapse of an economic “empire.” But it is funny how, throughout history, things often come back to the Romans, on the minds of men everywhere, be they billionaire or not.