How Mussolini Used the Legend of the Roman Empire to Create Fascist Italy

During Mussolini’s rise to power, he used propaganda to create a precise image and identity for fascism. Through speeches, posters, films, and much more, Mussolini used the tools of propaganda to gain the influence and support of the Italian people. As we were learning about the rise of fascism and fascist identity in Italy, I noticed that Mussolini often invoked images, phrases, and memories of the Roman empire in order to gain legitimacy and establish his identity as a powerful leader. Historians and scholars have used the terms “romanita” to describe people who attempt to emulate Roman values or ways of life in the modern age. Mussolini used “romanita” to establish the fascist party and I found this very interesting because it showed how political leadership can use a country’s collective memory and identity to its own advantage. Mussolini used Italy’s glorification and pride of the Roman Empire to his own favor in order to gain power and fascist control of the country. In this essay, I want to examine how Mussolini used language and imagery reminiscent of the Roman Empire in propaganda and popular communication to grow and cement his power as a leader. 

Mussolini’s use of the Latin language is one of the main ways he incorporated Roman tradition into propaganda. One of the most widely known ways Mussolini incorporated Latin into fascist propaganda was through his nickname “Il Duce”. By calling himself Il Duce, which means “the leader” in Latin, Mussolini was deeply instilling the ties between fascism and the Roman Empire within the Italian people. Il Duce’s use of a Latin nickname was just one of the ways he tried to create a new chapter of Roman history. Mussolini was obsessed with Ceasar and the great accomplishments of the Roman Empire, and he saw himself and the fascist party as restoring the greatness of the Roman Empire. On May 9, 1936, Mussolini gave one of his most famous and well-known speeches after Italy has the second Italo-Ethiopian war. After winning the war the king of Italy was now also the king of Ethiopia, which Mussolini saw as the restoration of the new Roman Empire (Lamers, 2016). Mussolini gave an impassioned speech from his balcony in Rome, claiming “Italy finally has its empire. It is a fascist empire, an empire of peace, an empire of civilization and humanity”. To Mussolini and the fascist party, imperialist rule over Ethiopia was confirmation that fascism has successfully revived and brought back the greatness of the Roman Empire (Lamers, 2016). Imperialistic control of other countries meant that Mussolini was spreading Fascist ideas and influence across the world, much like Romans had spread their ideas and influence across their empire. Two weeks after his famous speech, Mussolini had Latin translations of quotes from the speech published in magazines and newspapers across the country. The Latin quotes had to be published alongside an Italian translation, but Mussolini felt that using the language of his Roman ancestors strengthened fascism’s connection to the great empire of antiquity (Lamers, 2016). 

Mussolini used propaganda and Roman imagery to consistently to the Italian people that fascism would restore and revive the greatness of Rome.  This can be seen clearly in the national symbol for fascism which incorporated the Roman icon of the fasces. During the time of the Roman Empire, the fasces was a bundle of reeds bound together with an ax carried by Roman officials as a symbol of authority. In the early 20th century, it became one of the most important icons of the new political climate. The symbol represented the concept of strength through unity and discipline. In 1926, the fasces was adopted as the official emblem of the Fascist Party (Doordan). In the images below, you can see how the Eagle of fascism is perched on the bundle of reeds, representing how fascism is building off of the traditions of the Roman Empire. 

In addition to the emblem of the party, there were many other elements of the fascist party that were directly based on Roman tradition. Members of the party greeted each other with a Roman salute instead of a handshake (Visser, 1992). The traditional greeting is a gesture where the arm is fully extended and the palm is facing down. The gesture is most often associated with the Nazi party in Germany, but it began with the fascist party in Italy. The gesture was popularized as an alternative to the traditional handshake because it was seen as a show of strength and it was perceived as more hygienic (Visser, 1992). In the images below, you can see how the gesture was adopted from traditional Roman artwork.

After gaining power and instituting fascist rule, Mussolini began to use architecture as a form of propaganda and a way to communicate the power of the fascist party. Fascist architecture is easily recognizable and many of the structures are reminiscent of Roman architecture, with a few noticeable differences. Fascist architecture is known for emulating Roman design without the grandeur and extravagance, and instead making the designs more modern, simplistic, and symmetrical. The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana exemplifies how fascist architecture co-opted the original designs of Roman architecture to reflect the beliefs of the fascist party. The building draws inspiration from the colosseum, with rows and columns of symmetrical roman arches on all sides of the building. The is a strong cube shape with sharp angles and intense symmetry, which makes it significantly different from the colosseum and traditional Roman architecture. The strong lines and imposing structure give the building an imposing presence and communicate a feeling of power to anyone looking at the building (Tucci, 2020). Fascist architecture was designed as a vehicle of propaganda to both emulate the greatness of the past and Roman accomplishment, while also communicating the strong and promising future of the fascist party. The buildings were designed to broadcast the imperial power of the fascist party and the greatness of Mussolini (Tucci, 2020). In the images below, it is clear how fascist architecture incorporated traditional Roman architectural images.   

In addition to incorporating Roman techniques in a new form of fascist architecture, Mussolini also used iconic Roman structures to display his cult of personality and power. One of the best examples of this is the Mussolini obelisk and the Foro Italico. The Foro Italico is a sports complex in Rome built between 1928 and 1938 and was originally called “Foro Mussolini” or Mussolini’s forum. The complex was heavily inspired by traditional Roman forums and displays many of the same principles and ideas of fascist architecture that are present in The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (Visser, 1992). One specific structure from the Forum that I want to focus on is Mussolini’s obelisk. Obelisks originated in Ancient Egypt but were imported and used to decorate Rome by the Emporer Augustus Caesar in 10 a.d. Since they were first imported to Rome, obelisks have signified the power and strength of individual rulers and emperors. In 1932, Mussolini ordered the creation of this obelisk in honor of himself and the fascist party. The statue exemplifies how Mussolini used Roman iconography and art in propaganda creations to bolster his self-image (Tucci, 2020). Even though the obelisk is a simple geometric form, Mussolini’s iteration is noticeably different and has elements of fascism in the design. There is a more complex base structure and Latin inscriptions on the side, rather than Egyptian hieroglyphics. By recreating Roman architectural tradition in his own honor, Mussolini is using the statue as a form of propaganda to associate himself with the greatness of the Roman empire. 

During Mussolini’s rise to power and his time in control of fascist Italy, he used propaganda through the form of posters, language, architecture, and more to impose fascist beliefs and ideals on the people of Italy. One of the main ways Mussolini legitimized himself and communicated his power was through the use and incorporation of Roman symbols, language, and traditions. By aligning himself with the greatness of the Roman Empire, Mussolini used propaganda to attempt to write himself into history alongside emperors, kings, and great leaders. Mussolini incorporated the Latin language and Roman architecture throughout fascist Italy as propaganda to convince Italy and the world of his greatness. More than 100 years later, history does not look kindly on fascism and Mussolini’s propaganda represents an era of hatred and cruelty. 

Citations 

Cheles, Luciano. (2016). Iconic images in propaganda. Modern Italy : Journal of the Association for the Study of Modern Italy, 21(4), 453–478. https://doi.org/10.1017/mit.2016.55

Dennis P. Doordan. (1997). In the Shadow of the Fasces: Political Design in Fascist Italy. Design Issues, 13(1), 39-52.

Corduwener, Pepijn. (2014). Fascist past, present and future? The multiple usages of the Roman Empire in Mussolini’s Italy. Incontri (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 29(1), 136. https://doi.org/10.18352/incontri.9790

Lamers, Han, & Reitz-Joosse, Bettina. (2016). Lingua Lictoria: The Latin Literature of Italian Fascism. Classical Receptions Journal, 8(2), 216-252.

Romke Visser. (1992). Fascist Doctrine and the Cult of the Romanita. Journal of Contemporary History, 27(1), 5-22. 

Tucci, Pier Luigi. (2020). EPHEMERAL ARCHITECTURE AND ROMANITÀ IN THE FASCIST ERA: A ROYAL-IMPERIAL TRIBUNE FOR HITLER AND MUSSOLINI IN ROME. Papers of the British School at Rome, 1-45.

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