Mussolini and the Misuse of History

by Lauren Song

When the Italian National Fascist Party rose to power under the leadership of Benito Mussolini in October 1922, they brought along with them the promise of a revitalised Roman Empire. Deliberately painted as the rightful successor to the ancient Romans, Mussolini heavily and systematically utilised the tradition of ‘Romanità’ (Roman-ness), to shape and manipulate the nationalistic sentiments of the Italian people. The fascist regime imitated classical architecture, appropriated Roman motifs and employed historical narratives to achieve their various social, cultural and political goals.

One of Mussolini’s biggest difficulties in establishing historical continuity between ancient Rome and fascist Italy is creating a clear link between the two opposing ideologies he wished to champion – ‘passatista Romanità’ (the Roman tradition) and the ‘uomo nuovo, stato nuovo’ (new man, new state). As the Kingdom of Italy, established merely decades prior in 1861, was a relatively new state, the fascist regime worked to foster a sense of national identity through pushing for the narrative of a glorious, ancient, shared history to promote political stability, patriotism, and public support. 

The integration of both the traditional and the contemporary is profoundly seen through fascist architecture and design. Building programs and styles of architecture were often employed by the Italian fascist regime to ignite Italian citizens’ pride and patriotism through appropriating classical designs. State-commissioned works of architecture often deliberately incorporated classical styles of building into more modern construction styles. Through this, fascist ideology aimed to combine a range of aesthetics to showcase a celebration of both the traditional and the modern, and the ability for the two contradictory styles of architecture to seemingly coexist. The usage of the old and the new works entwined the presence of Romanità into the culture of the modern city, penetrating into the public’s consciousness the historical greatness of Rome and its alleged surviving legacy in fascist Italy.

One of the most prominent examples of fascist architecture drawing on influences from ancient Rome is the Esposizione Universale Romana, or the EUR quarter, located in Southern Rome. The district was developed with the intention of holding the World Fair of 1942, a symbolic year for the Italian Fascist regime as it marks the twentieth anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome of 1922, a turning point signifying the beginning of the Fascist era. The architectural design of the EUR combined both ‘Roman imperial town planning’ with the ‘bombastic modernism’ of Italian rationalism, a prominent style adopted and commonly used by the Fascist regime. The construction of the EUR district plays a significant role in realising one of the most fundamental dreams of Italian fascist ideology: merging the themes of classical antiquity and modern developments to create and sustain historical continuity from ancient Rome to fascist Italy. This idea is best illustrated through Mussolini’s 1924 speech at the Capitoline, the historical centre of the city, where he stated that ‘Rome cannot and must not be only a modern city, […] it must be a city worthy of its glory’.

In particular, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, the most representative and iconic building of the EUR, embodies the merge of classical and modern architecture. Designed in 1937 by notable Italian architects of the time, the structure represents a ‘workable marriage [between] modernist architecture’ and the ‘ancient tradition of Imperial Rome’. The building, nicknamed the ‘Colosseo Quadrato’ (square colosseum), unmistakably imitates classical Roman design to present a clear link between the glorious architectural achievements of ancient Rome and the advancements of Mussolini’s fascist regime. Subtle details, such as the fact that the six arches in each column and nine arches of each row matches the number of letters in ‘Benito’ and ‘Mussolini’ respectively, serve as a solemn reminder of the dark historical context behind the building’s grand and impressive façade.

Moreover, symbolically important motifs from ancient Rome were deliberately and commonly incorporated into different aspects of daily life by the fascist regime. The most blatant example is the word ‘fascism’ itself, which originated from the symbol of the fasce, and was adopted as a defining symbol of Italian fascism. An emblem with roots in ancient Etruscan civilisation, the fasce was utilised to represent magistrate power, jurisdiction, absolute authority, strength, and unity in ancient Rome. By appropriating this symbol, Mussolini alluded to the power of disciplinary measures that were once enforced in Roman times. Employed as a symbol of the fascist state in 1926, the government made attempts to redesign the Italian national flag to incorporate the fasce. While attempts to redesign the flag were ultimately unsuccessful, the fasce nevertheless remained a historically and politically significant icon which was displayed in many other ways throughout Italy. Also known as the ‘fascio littorio’ (the fascist emblem), the fasce was adorned on everyday objects including Italian currency, stamps, badges, and medals. Furthermore, Mussolini passed a decree in December 1925 ordering the fasce to be displayed on all ministerial buildings, and the following year, all government infrastructures.

The decision to incorporate the fasce onto all Italian coins was especially significant in demonstrating Mussolini’s propagandistic intentions. Prior to the fascist government’s rise to power, Italy’s poor economy and the shortage of metal as a result of World War I had led to the issuing of low-quality paper notes which became unusable after a few years. Thus, the incorporation of the fasce onto faces of coins, a ‘regular vehicle of propaganda’, could be argued to symbolise an ultimate and permanent symbol of a prosperous and everlasting fascist government. The usage of coins as a propagandistic device also emulates the practice of ancient Roman times, where the faces of coins frequently portrayed symbolic events, with their wide circulation ensuring that the message would be received by all layers of society. Coins as a method of propaganda were readily used in ancient Roman times to detail military achievements or to legitimise one’s reign, a practice Mussolini exploited fully under his regime.

Additionally, the icon of the fasce was included in the design of the military uniform during fascist-era Italy, with the image of a fasce often embroidered on the cap and the left sleeve. The fasce is also often shown clutched in the claws of an eagle, otherwise known as an Aquila, yet another prominent symbol of ancient Rome. The Aquila was a principle standard of the ancient Roman legion, and its usage in the Italian military shows the fascist regime’s desire for Italian troops, the public, and other states to draw parallels between their army and the conquering strength of ancient Rome. 

Many other predominant elements of classical Rome were also integrated throughout Italian culture in the early twentieth century. For instance, the she-wolf of Rome, which played a crucial role in the foundation myth of the city as recounted by Livy, appeared in fascist-era coins and architecture designs; the acronym SPQR ‘Senatus Populusque Romanus’ (the senate and the people of Rome), was engraved onto monuments, statues, and even public utilities such as drains. The heavy usage of such imagery clearly illustrates the aim of the fascist government to promote a sense of historical progression and to foster a strong sense of Italian nationalism through highlighting the shared history of Italian citizens.

In politics and social policy, Mussolini’s fascist government significantly resembled those from ancient Roman times, specifically the politics of Augustus. Mussolini heavily emphasised the importance of marriage and family. One of his most influential and significant aspects of legislation was his May 1927 proposal that, in addition to a bachelor’s tax already implemented in Italy, a further tax on childless married couples was to be put into place. On the other hand, monetary rewards, advice, and maternity assistance would be provided for Italian mothers. Through these social policies, Mussolini championed the goal of boosting the Italian population to increase the demographic of middle- and working-class citizens. Drastically different to the radical approach of his contemporaries, such as the policies of mass extermination of non-Aryan peoples as with Adolf Hitler’s policy, Mussolini instead formulated his legislations with striking similarity to those enacted under Augustus in the first century AD. The practice of state subsidence for producing offspring was implemented by Augustus during his regime, which, as stated by Dio’s account, prescribed ‘heavier penalties for unmarried men and women’, while conversely instituting ‘rewards for marriage and producing children’. The fascist government’s decision to implement such measures not only championed domesticity and family, but also had pragmatic aims of boosting the working class population as a countermeasure to Italy’s weakening economy.

Mussolini also placed heavy emphasis on the agricultural tradition of ancient Rome, perpetuating the inclination towards a rural and agrarian society in modern day Italy. This is best illustrated through the ‘Battle of the Wheat’, a program initiated in 1925, which focused on the goal of increasing the state production levels of cereal. The ‘Battle of the Wheat’ signalled Mussolini advocating for a simple, pastoral, and rural lifestyle like those from Roman times. This is further emphasised through exploiting the icon of the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who, according to Mussolini, was ‘born in a furrow [due to his mother giving] birth in the fields’, thereby linking Virgil, a traditional figure tightly associated with ancient Rome, with nature, earth, and the land. Stamps from this period also helped spread the propaganda for a return to an agricultural state, incorporating images of pastoral and rural themes. Similar to Mussolini’s usage of coins for propaganda purposes, the wide circulation of stamps ensured the message of upholding agrarian traditions became a widespread view.

However, the message of a pacifist and agrarian lifestyle presented new difficulties in later years as Mussolini turned away from his initial policies of pacifism and agrarianism to embrace a militaristic and aggressive imperial foreign policy. As such, the fascist regime was forced to present not only the glories of their ancestors but also their juxtaposing actions and politics. Mussolini justified his hypocritical exploits through the Roman race, a ‘model [he] could opportunistically twist to any occasion’. Hence, the fascist account of the Romans was at times pacifist and rural, or else aggressively expansionist and imperialist.

The usage of the Roman past to support imperialist action is most notably seen through the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. The fascist government utilised their supposed Roman ancestry to justify their invasion of Ethiopia, portraying their sole intentions as wishing to reconquer land historically dominated by the ancient Romans. Mussolini’s imperial policy, as described by his speech from May 1922, stated that Italy would only be able to ‘carry the symbol and sign of the new order’ if it were ‘strong and powerful at sea’. Thus, Mussolini employed the myth of Rome as the basis for his foreign policy, as well as an ‘imperialistic vision of the modern world’.

Mussolini heavily utilised ancient sources with a wholly imperialist view, pushing the agenda that all expansionist actions were carried out under the fulfilment of Romanità. For example, Horace wrote of the glory of an empire that encompasses the known world and Virgil portrayed a Roman rule that would have no limit. The necessity of using ancient sources to support Mussolini’s agenda, far from demonstrating Italian imperial superiority, instead reveals the lack of support for expansion as Italians wished for domestic issues such as rising unemployment to be addressed first. This foreshadows the instability and weakness of a regime built on opposing historical narratives.

Ultimately, Mussolini’s myth of Romanità was an immensely troubled one marred by underlying flaws and unavoidable contradictions. The fascist state’s attempt at reconciliation between a pacifist yet imperialist government, a glorious yet economically crippling country, and an ancient yet newly founded nation all highlights the deep-rooted instability within the fascist regime which Mussolini desperately sought to conceal. The extensive usage of Roman symbols, while successful in achieving political, social, and cultural aims in the short-term, is unable to sustain a regime built on such shaky foundation in the long run. The failure to foresee the problematic consequences of a contradictory regime was one of Mussolini’s major weaknesses which eventually led to his downfall. 

Bibliography 

Barron, Benjamin, “A Mysterious Revival of Roman Passion: Mussolini’s Ambiguous and Opportunist Conception of Romanità” Ed.D., Georgetown University, 2009.

Bondanella, Peter. The Eternal City: Roman Images in the Modern World. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Dio, Cassius. The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus, Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. United Kingdom: Penguin Classics, 1987.

Follo, Valentina. “The Power of Images in the Age of Mussolini.” Ed.D., University of Pennsylvania, 2013.

Giardina, Andrea. “The Fascist Myth of Romanity.” Estudos Avancados 22, no. 62 (April 2008): 55-76

Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. Translated by John Conington. London: George Bell and Sons, 1882.

Lazzaro, Claudia and Roger J. Crum. Donatello Among the Blackshirts: History and Modernity in the Visual Culture of Fascist Italy. New York: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Nelis, Jan. “Constructing Fascist Identity: Benito Mussolini and the Myth of ‘Romanità’.” The Classical World 100, no. 4 (Summer 2007): 391-415

Scott, Kenneth. “Mussolini and the Roman Empire.” The Classical Journal 27, no. 9 (June 1932): 645-657.

Smith, Denis Mack. Mussolini. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by Theodore C. Williams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1910.

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