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Kenneth Scott

The Classical Journal, Vol. 27, No. 9. (Jun., 1932), pp. 645-657.

MUSSOLINI AND THE ROMAN EMPIRE

By KENNETHSCOTT

Western Reserve University

In his autobiography Benito Mussolini has written these words :

I have never, with closed eyes, accepted the thoughts of others when they were estimating events and realities either in the normal course of things or when the situation appeared exceptional. I have searched, to be sure, with a spirit of analysis the whole ancient and modern history of my country. I have drawn parallels because I wanted to explore to the depths, on the basis of historical fact, the profound sources of our national life and of our character, and to compare our capacities with those of other people.

The statement outlines the sane and reasoned course of a states- man who realizes that he is not a prophet to see the future by some divine gift. The words are those of one with the common sense to realize that past experience is the only weather gauge for what is to come, who has had the patience and the intellectual curiosity to listen to the teachings of men who in centuries gone by faced practically the same great problems with which the world is confronted today. In short the sentiment shows a frame of mind and a mentality strikingly different from that of a pro- fessor of pedagogy who recently inquired whether anything that happened before 1850 could have any possible value or interest for our present generation. The present premier of Italy has answered by word and deed the pedagogue's question, and the "parallels" which he has drawn between imperial Rome and modern Italy show that his study of the past has not been in vain. Ancient Rome had already aroused the admiration of the future leader of the blackshirts when on March 23, 1919, he assembled at Milan his first group of sixty- three men. Perhaps he recalled how in the darkest depths of the Middle Ages Cola di Rienzo, another Italian patriot and idealist,

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had for a breathless moment resuscitated the lifeless corpse of Rome with the magic appeal to the glorious past of the city on the Tiber. The historian Gregorovius has related in his inimitable style the mushroom prestige of Cola and his state, the dismay of pope and prince, all alike under the spell of the name of Rome. Did not the blacksmith's son from Forli know the story and know well besides that the spell has lost none of its magic with the lapse of centuries? He called to the remembrance of his little group of ex-soldiers the symbol of the Roman power, the fasces, the staves of the lictors. He gave them the ancient Roman salute and made for them a scheme of military and political organization on the model of the old Roman legions; his Fascisti were divided into principi and triari, into maniples, centuries, cohorts, legions; and when they were marching on Rome, he made this solemn affirma- tion to them at Civitavecchia: "I swear to lead our country once more in the paths of our ancient greatness." The ideal has always remained the same, for he says, "We represent the spirit which

once carried the legions of the consuls to the farthest limits of the earth," or again, "The example of Ancient Rome stands before the eyes of all of us, but the Colosseum, the Forum Romanum, only proclaim the glory of the past, and we have to found the glory of today and of tomorrow." Everywhere and always Rome of the past is the theme. In an address to the Fascists of Sicily he designates thus the transmis- sion of Italian power: "My journey means the strengthening of the Italian power which has descended from Ancient Rome." At Trieste he strikes the same chord: "Fascism's revived conscious- ness of the ancient glories of Italy, of the Roman Empire

the Fascisti struggle for a

continuation of this tradition by

new Imperial Rome." At Perugia on the fifth of October, 1926, the subject of his lecture is significant, "The Sea Power of Im- perial Rome." In the nationalist Politica appeared the manifesto :

"Everything calls Italy to the resumption of her imperial mission :

the tradition of Rome, of Venice, and of Genoa." And perhaps the most tangible, the most precious and symbolic possession which links new imperial Italy with the ancient empire i,s the capital of both. "Rome," writes Mussolini,

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Eternal City, catz~tmundi, has

two courts and two diplomacies. It has seen in the course of centuries imperial armies defeated under its walls. It has witnessed the decay of the strong and the rise of universal waves of civilization and of thought. Rome, the coveted goal of princes and leaders, the universal city, heir to the old Empire and the power of Christianity!

And again we find him expressing the same feeling of respect and reverence for the city :

I have given particular attention to the Capital. Rome is a universal city, dear to the hearts of Italians and of the whole world. It was great in the time of the Roman Empire and has conserved a universal light. It was the historical seat and the center of diffusion of Christianity. Rome is first of all a city with the aura of destiny and history. It is the capital of new Italy. It is the seat of Christianity. It has taught and will continue to teach law and art to the whole world.

He sees parallels again when, with reference to the present policy of extensive excavation of the remains of the ancient city, he says, "By isolating the monuments of Ancient Rome the rela- tion between the ancient Romans and the Italians is made more beautiful and suggestive." Significantly enough the new Fascist labor day is the one celebrated in antiquity as the Parilia. He writes: "I fixed on a gay and glorious date in Italian life, April 21, the birthday of Rome. Rome is the city which has given legislation to the world. The Roman law is still the text which governs the relations of civil life." "Rome," he says, "is destined to become once more the city which directs the civilization of the whole of Western Europe." So much for the ideal of the leader of Fascism! But is it only an ideal which he has gained from reading the past history of his country? I think not. He found in post-war Italy a land impover- ished, demoralized, dissonant, and torn by factious strife, weak in government, in national spirit, in foreign prestige, a land rapidly sinking into the abyss of communism. Where could he find a "parallel" for this situation in his perusal of Roman History? The answer is in the Italy that Augustus Caesar had to deal with after the Social and Civil Wars which had harried Italy and the empire for a century - with vast expenditure of life and wealth, collapse of business and trade, piracy on the high seas, social and

sharpened my sense of dedication. The

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political unrest at home, loss of prestige abroad (witness the standards lost to the Parthians by Crassus), discontent, and the decay of religious faith, incapacity and weakness of government. Everything called for drastic measures, with ruin as the alterna- tive. Octavian, best known by his later title of Augustus, took such measures, and Fortune was on his side. A boy of twenty years without any official position, he organized an army "at his own expense and at his own initiative" (the words are his own) ; and with this he helped the senate to crush Mark Antony's forces before Mutina in 43 B.C. When the ungrateful senate slighted its youthful benefactor, a march on Rome took place; and hemmed in by the swords of his veterans Octavian dictated terms to a cowed and helpless city. He was elected consul, head of the government, without more ado. How history repeats itself! From that day on the weak, corrupt, impotent Republican gov- ernment, whose fatal incapacity is all too plainly revealed in the last letters of its stanchest supporter and admirer, Marcus Tul- lius Cicero, was practically defunct. For a time a triumvirate of Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus governed the state; but the Roman world needed one master, not three, and the first to fall was Lepidus. Then in 32 B.C. Octavian organized what has been called a "gigantic conspiracy" or, as German scholars have desig- nated it, a Staatsstreiclz, which brought about the death struggle between Octavian and Antony, West with East, Rome with

The victory of Octavian was complete, but a greater

He must establish a government that

would function and could undertake the tremendous task of post- war reconstruction, as important in its moral and mental aspects as in its relation to the physical and materialistic welfare of Rome

and of the civilized world. Somehow, and it was only by careful planning and endless devotion and toil, Caesar Augustus remade the world of his day and brought forth from the travail of warfare and ruin a new creation, the Roman Empire, which functioned, and in the main well, for centuries after its founder's ashes had been laid away in the great mausoleum which he built for himself and his family upon the Field of Mars.

Egypt.

struggle lay before him.

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Two thousand years later a young intellectual, the son of a blacksmith from Forli, and, like Octavian, a leader of men and a lover of his country, was called by destiny as that other Italian had been so long before him. He has made warm friends and bitter enemies ; but few, if any, at home or abroad, are indifferent to the man and his policies, for the issues at stake are funda- mental. Italy was able to find no compromise between Bolshevism and Fascism, and who can say today that the rest of the world will be able to do otherwise? The rise of the Fascist state and the struggle it caused turned the attention of both camps to the ancient Roman state, which had gone through a long internal struggle in the course of its evolu- tion. The proletariat of ancient Rome had twice imposed its will upon the state by a general strike, by an act of secession, by withdrawing to the Aventine. In 1925 Mussolini's rebellious parliament left the seat of government and retired to the Aven- tine, a conscious and symbolic gesture, for they, too, somehow realized that the same old battle was being fought out once more. But this time they had to deal with a man who did not fear the method of striking and who furthermore knew how to deal with a strike, whether political or industrial. His only comment was, "If the Opposition wishes to remain on the Aventine, I will not be Maenius Agrippa to beg them to come back." On the Aventine they remained, and the work of reconstruction went on without them, while their secession remains but another indication of the magic influence of Roman history on modern Italy. One of the important features of Augustan legislation was the emphasis laid on the family as an institution, its promotion by the government, with special privileges for those who married and reared children, heavy taxation of bachelors, severe penalties for immorality, and the ius triz~rnliberorum, preferment and advance- ment in government service and in politics for the fathers of children. The same policy has been adopted by Mussolini, who in his speech to parliament on May 26, 1927, recommended in addi- tion to the bachelor's tax a possible tax on childless marriages and above all an effort to reruralize Italy. The attempt to reruralize Italy is no new one. The country has

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never been able to produce enough grain for its own needs, and Roman history records famine upon famine whenever communi- cations were interrupted with the Black Sea, with Asia, with Egypt, or with Africa, and wheat did not arrive punctually from overseas. The sea power of Sextus Pompey during the civil strife which followed the murder of Julius Caesar almost brought Rome to the point of starvation ; and Octavian, who had experienced this danger, initiated, like Mussolini, who had felt the same pinch of hunger during the World War, a battaglia del grano, a wheat battle quite as serious as any actual warfare. Caesar Augustus and his minister Maecenas are responsible for Vergil's composi- tion of the Georgics, an attempt to popularize agriculture and country life, to give publicity to their "back to the farm" move- ment. The present battaglia, the government encouragement of the production of wheat, the obligatory admixture of coarser cereal in wheat bread as a symbol of the battle to make Italy inde- pendent of imported wheat, are but a continuation of the propa- ganda of the Roman Empire. Now, as then, the purchase of quantities of foreign wheat necessitates a drain on the gold of Italy and an unfavorable balance of trade. There is a curious similarity in two gestures, one made by Mussolini a few years ago, and the other by the Emperor Do- mitian in the first century of the Christian era. Domitian, alarmed by the general shortage of grain, issued an edict calling for the cutting down of all the vineyards in Africa and Gaul in order to stimulate the production of grain instead of wine. In the face of popular outcry the edict was quickly revoked, but it doubtless had effect as a warning, and it may well have been intended merely to serve as such. In precisely the same way Mussolini recently threatened to reduce the acreage in vineyards in order to obtain more grain. It looks suspiciously like a move suggested by Do- mitian's edict. The writing of the Georgics as the result of political pressure and imperial suggestion is but an example of the general policy of literary patronage which was instituted by Augustus and which we see reflected in the writings of Vergil, Horace, and Propertius. "I1 Duce" has declared himself in favor of the same policy. "Art,"

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he says, "means individual prominence and talent, and the State has one duty with regard to it: to produce such conditions of life for artists that their wonderful qualities may flourish in their full splendor." It is, by the way, interesting to note that, when he would give high praise to a contemporary author, Mussolini thinks of imperial Rome - again a parallel from the past - and speaks of Alfredo Oriani as writing "in a concise style worthy of Tacitus, which alone would have sufficed to bring greatness to a writer." Interest in literature was manifested not only by Augustus' patronage of authors but also by his own literary endeavors, two books of epigrams, a poem called "Sicily," his letters, his auto- biography, and numerous political and official documents. He even tried his hand at drama; but realizing that his talents did not run to that form of art, he destroyed his play called Ajax and even joked good-naturedly with his friends about its imperfec- tions. It is an interesting coincidence that Italy's premier is a journalist, a master of language, in speech or written word, a dramatist, a man who in spite of manifold duties can find time to write an autobiography and memoirs of his experiences in the World War. He is carrying on a tradition not only of Augustus but of such emperors with literary talent as Claudius, Nero, Ha- drian, or Marcus Aurelius and Julian. The Roman emperors encouraged reading and were responsible for many libraries like the Greek and Latin ones which Augustus established on the Palatine. None of them, however, gave greater impetus to reading than has Mussolini, who made reading part of the duty of every Fascist with the famous definition: Libro e moschetto, fascista perfetto, "Book and musket, the perfect Fas- cist." Under his auspices has been instituted the annual Festa del Libro, the "Festival of the Book," during which a discount of ten per cent is given upon all Italian books, when the press and every possible means are employed to urge upon the public the value of books and reading, and when for a week an impressive display of Italian books is held - significantly enough - in the shops of the ancient market of Trajan at Rome, each publishing firm having a shop for displaying its productions. The fair is visited by thou-

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sands each spring, and it is an impressive sight to behold the enthusiasm and interest aroused in the visitors. A strong foreign policy formed an essential part of Augustus' program of reform, and its success was marked by the restoration of the Roman standards by the Parthians and by the increased prestige of Rome abroad and especially in the East. Like Au- gustus, Mussolini at once directed his attention to foreign affairs, and since the advent of Fascism Italy has taken an ever more important part among the great powers. The firmness of the new government made itself felt likewise in the Italian colony of Tripolitania, a vast tract in northern Africa which had been wrested from Turkey a short time before the outbreak of the World War. The weak and temporizing policy of the governments which preceded the march on Rome had fostered disorder and rebellion among the natives; and when the Fascist party came to power, Italy was holding with difficulty a few cities on the coast. A similar condition existed in Tripolitania, or Libya, as it was then called, under the early Roman Empire, and in Tacitus' Annales we find a graphic account of the methods employed by the Roman government to subdue the entire prov- ince. Three flying columns starting from an equal number of strategic points on the coast swept simultaneously into the interior, establishing forts and garrisons as they advanced and driving the dismayed enemy before them. Is it only a coincidence that the campaign which subdued the same district a few years ago started from the same bases, followed the same routes, and was conducted in the same fashion as the operations described in Tacitus ? Or had someone again been drawing parallels ? A great part of ancient Libya is now desert waste, though in Roman times it was highly productive, due to irrigation and scientific farming. When Horace would designate a man as enormously wealthy, he says that he has granaries in Libya. hloreover we know that the single city of Lepcis Magna once paid to Rome an annual tribute of one million pounds of olive oil. The past riches of Tripolitania are known to Mussolini, and with confidence that history may be made to repeat itself he has stated, "We can give value to two regions [Tripoli and the Cirenaica]

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which once were owned by Rome and which must grow to the greatness of their past." The internal government of Italy has been vastly changed, but the recent reforms have been made in much the same way as those of Augustus, who in creating the Empire claimed to be restoring the Republic and always vaunted his respect for constitutional government and for the institutions of the Republic. As a matter of fact he kept the form, the consuls and other magistrates, the senate, the popular assemblies, the courts ; but he transformed the spirit and shifted the emphasis so that the figure of the prince and his party dominated everything. A sort of dyarchy was set up, the rule of the prince and the senate, and together they transacted the business of the civilized world. The same tendency is appar- ent in the Fascist State, which has kept in general the form of the kingdom established in 1870, but which is really directed by the Duce and his party. The senate, which, like the ancient Roman one, consists of the most distinguished men of Italy, holding office for life, has acquired new prestige, just as it did under Augustus. The representative chamber of deputies is elective, but it is now based upon the corporation system, which is a "return to the guild system of the Middle Ages and the corporations of Ancient Rome." The reasons for the present change are much the same as those which brought the Empire into being. The governments which preceded the Fascists rose and fell with astonishing rapidity. They were too weak to govern. Their ideal seems to have been com- promise, and the parliament consisted of countless parties work- ing against one another and playing to the grandstand of popular favor and class hatred to catch votes. Certainly it would seem that something may be said for a parliament and cabinet whose purpose is not to wrangle, debate, scheme for votes, and sacrifice the interests of the nation to meet the selfish wishes of groups of constituents. A house or a government divided against itself is bound to fall and is not likely to accomplish very much. It is, of course, only human and natural that disappointed politi- cians, who suddenly found their careers closed, radicals who saw union with the Soviets snatched from them in their supposed

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hour of victory, and theorists who saw in governments such as that of Nitti not what they really were, but an ideal of Republican government, are still loud in their protests and accusations, and busy with their plotting, which usually takes the form of murder. We should not be surprised at this, for even Cicero was pleased when it was thought that he had instigated Octavian to murder Antony, and he boasted that he had "spurred a willing horse." Mussolini, with his reading of history and drawing of parallels, must have foreseen his personal danger when he took the reins of government. He must have read of the group of malcontents who for centuries tried to restore the Roman Republic and to murder the reigning emperor, of the attempts made upon the life of Augustus, quite as numerous as those made upon his own, and of the occasional success which attended the plotters in the case of some emperors. He had doubtless read the passage where Dio Cassius, the historian, tells of the overthrow of the Emperor Per- tinax: "Thus did Pertinax, who undertook to restore everything in a moment, come to his end. He failed to comprehend, though a man of wide practical experience, that one cannot with safety reform everything at once, and that the restoration of a state, in particular, requires both time and wisdom." Augustus and his successors deported dangerous political enemies and notorious criminals to the islands, and Mussolini, if he so desires, can cite this as a precedent for his own similar action. It is, by the way, to be noted that, though emperors were sometimes murdered, the Republic was never restored. The reason is simple: Had the Republic been able to fulfill the task of governing the Roman state efficiently, it would never have fallen in the first place, nor would the Empire have been brought into being. The Fascist party, however, has to deal with a Pontifex Max- imus who will offer strong opposition whenever he differs from the Fascists on a question of principle. Perhaps the chief stum- bling block in the way of harmonious relations is the fact that both church and state claim the right to educate the young. Mus- solini is like Augustus in seeing the importance of training the young. Augustus gave exceptional attention to the organization of the Clite of the Roman youth, whom he placed under the leader-

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ship of his own sons, the principw iz~zleatutis,the "princes of the youth." He saw the necessity of training them to continue his work and of making them loyal to the principles of his regime. He gave them military organization, and they had their drills and parades when they celebrated the Ludi Troiae before the eyes of the emperor. Mussolini has organized the balilla, the youthful Fascisti ; and he doubtless realizes, as did Augustus, that the con- tinuation of his work depends upon the sympathetic support of these young boys and men. Except for the educational question, however, it is hard to see why there should not be sympathy between Fascism and the Church, for Mussolini has consistently insisted upon respect for religion, upon morality, and upon sobriety. In his first speech to the parliament he startled that body by an appeal to the Almighty to aid him in the task before him. There has been legislation to improve morals, just as there was under Augustus, who never lost an occasion to preach to senate and to people and who passed severe sumptuary laws. There is a campaign against swearing in the name of God or country, and numerous bars and wine shops have been closed and publicly characterized by the Duce as "cheap vendors of ruinous felicity." It is not strange that around the personality of the leader of the new era in Italy, now in its ninth year, there has taken form a certain halo and hero worship. His rise to power, as startling as that of Napoleon, naturally appeals to the imagination. One political pamphlet compares Mussolini and St. Francis of Assisi and, to quote a recent writer on Fascism, "illustrates their com- mon love of animals by a reproduction on one page of Giotto's St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, while on the opposite page is reproduced a photograph of the Duce with derby hat and wing collar, laying a gloved hand on the back of his lioness in the zoo." Of the frequent representation of Mussolini with the lioness the German scholar Weinreich in his recent Studien zu Martial has remarked : Liiwen und Herrscher, d m gehiirt zusanzmen nuch fur die Caesaren Rows. Mussolini wit seifzem Liiwefz kopiert also altriimische Herrscheralluren, "Lions and rulers ! They also be- long together for the Caesars of Rome. Mussolini with his lion,

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then, is copying the manners of the ancient Roman emperor." Of course when a party is so thoroughly identified with an individual, one wonders what will happen when that dominating personality disappears from the stage. The question of succession was a paramount one for the Roman emperors. Augustus and his immediate successors kept the supreme power always within the family, and it often led to disaster. It is evident that Mussolini has no such intention, for his family is kept out of the press and removed from the public attention in a way scarcely paralleled in the career of any great statesman. One is tempted to wonder if he read and was influenced by Dio Cassius' account of the Em- peror Pertinax who "would not even bring up his little son in the palace, but on the very first day of his reign set aside everything that had belonged to himself previously and divided it between his children and ordered that they should live with their grand- father; there he visited them occasionally, but rather as their father than as emperor." Is it possible that the Duce will choose as his successor some capable and outstanding member of his party after the Stoic principle of selection which gave to the Roman Empire Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, perhaps the best government the world has ever seen? One often hears it asked how long Fascism will last. Perhaps the Roman Empire may give again a parallel or rather a sugges- tion. When Augustus came into power, the world craved peace above all and prosperity and work and food and happiness. He gave the world all these things ; the Pax Augzdsta was everywhere ; great public and private enterprises gave work and bread and comfort; trade revived with security and peace, and the munifi- cence of the emperor and of the wealthy gave to the public games and plays and wild-beast hunts and great baths and opportunities for pleasure and profit. The world was satisfied as long as the Empire provided panem et circenses, and so long did the Empire endure. Mussolini has said: "Italy has had enough of liberty for a while; what it needs now is law. The people want peace, work, bread, roads, and water." Fascism is giving these, and besides a national pride and sense of dignity and power. It is no wonder that more than one has seen in the new regime a restoration of

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imperial Rome. The leader of Fascist Italy has found a parallel for our own times, it seems, in the Italy of Augustus and of the Empire, and his deeds and words are a proof of his reading of Roman history and drawing of parallels. Symbols of the past and its significance for modern Italy are everywhere in Italian life

today- even on postage stamps, where we find Julius Caesar,

Augustus, and the wolf of the Capitoline. Perhaps Fascist theory

is correct, and the Roman Empire never really died but goes on in the New Italy and its premier.