Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Roman Legacy in Royal Italy

Today, Italy is so familiar to people all around the world (being one of the most easily recognizable countries anywhere) that it is easy to forget that before the unification of the Kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy, the Italian peninsula had not known unity under a single government since the time of the Roman Empire. Given that fact, it is perfectly natural that the glory days of ancient Rome were at the forefront of the mind of every Italian patriot from the time of unification throughout the life of the Kingdom of Italy. At the time, many countries were quick to ridicule this fascination with ancient Rome and treat the Italians with condescension, as if this newborn country was wrong to aspire to the Roman legacy. Yet, this was arrogance of the worst kind; unjustifiable arrogance. After all, many other countries had already tried to lay claim to the old Roman legacy. The Germans had with their Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which lasted, in name at least, for quite some time. More recently there had been the French Empire of Napoleon which had adopted the Roman eagle, the laurel crown, even Roman styles of fashion and furnishings. Even the British were not immune from portraying their empire as ancient Rome reborn and then surpassed. From the Iberian peninsula to Russia others had been claiming the Roman legacy as their own for centuries and with unification the Italians finally came together to reclaim their own history.

That was one thing which all of the otherwise diverse factions among Italian nationalists had in common. Even at a time when they were often at odds, it was what drove Giuseppe Garibaldi and King Vittorio Emanuele II to agree that Italy must be one and must be united from Rome. Turin or Florence, lovely as they might be, simply could not take the place of the “Eternal City” which had been the seat of power for the Caesars. Even the republican Giuseppe Mazzini who tried to claim the Roman legacy while at the same time deriding the history of the great Roman Empire, saying that the world had seen the Rome of the Caesar’s and the Rome of the Pope’s but he would bring about the people’s Rome. That, of course, put him squarely at odds with the most prominent living relic of ancient Rome; the Roman Catholic Church whose organization, titles and even vestments and language were all Roman in origin. When Mazzini drove the Pope out of Rome and established his short-lived Roman Republic he won only a temporary victory against the Church which was soon back and in control thanks to the French army sent by another man trying to reclaim an imperial legacy; Louis Napoleon Bonaparte.

The ideal of Cavour of a “free Church in a free State” was moderate enough to attract a large following even if it still mean a stand-off with the Church since, unlike the situation in the old Roman Empire, the Pope was intent on filling the role of Caesar as well as Vicar of Christ, at least as far as Rome and central Italy was concerned. Fortunately, it was a standoff that was ultimately resolved, though it robbed the early years of the Kingdom of Italy, the formative years, of much Catholic influence which most would have expected as being only natural. However, in every walk of life, memories of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire permeated all levels of society in the Kingdom of Italy. It was seen in very grand, impressive ways such as the architecture of the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument down to small ways such as in certain office titles, ranks and military insignia. During World War I, for example, the Arditi, the elite trench-raiding units of the Italian army displayed as their unit badge a wreathed roman short sword bearing the motto of the House of Savoy.

It is also no surprise that Imperial Rome was on the mind of every Italian when it came to the subject of colonial expansion. The first Italian overseas colony, Eritrea, received its name from the old Roman term for the Red Sea. Likewise, when Italy gained the north African provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan from the Ottoman Empire they revived the old Roman name for the region; Libya. And, even before the colonial period, King Vittorio Emanuele II had envisioned the House of Savoy presiding over a revived Roman Empire by providing monarchs for formerly Roman countries such Greece and Spain, though nothing came of the first effort and the second did not last for long. When the first King of Italy departed this life he was laid to rest in one of the most visible remnants of Imperial Rome; the Church of St Mary and the Martyrs, also known as the Pantheon, which had originally been built by Marcus Agrippa as a pagan temple and later rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian. When the King was entombed a large Imperial Roman eagle was used to decorate the resting place.

The areas of “Unredeemed Italy” were, for the most part, the lands of Venice which had been taken by France during the Napoleonic Wars and then handed over to Austria, however, all had also been originally Roman and that fact was never lost on zealous Italian nationalists. Even Albania was an area that had been settled by the Romans even before the northern extremes of the Italian peninsula had been. The Roman legacy was never far from the thoughts of those advocating expansion and this was tied in with the former territories of the maritime republics such as Genoa and Venice. During World War I, in 1915, when expansion into Ottoman Turkey by the Allies seemed a real possibility, Luigi Medici del Vascello famously said, “Remember, gentlemen, that Constantinople was built by a Roman Caesar on the gorgeous banks of the Bosphorus, … and, while the call of the Muezzin rocks the Turk in his fatal torpor, the Galata tower sighs imploringly still to its Genoa: come back Italy!” Such stirring words were fairly common in bridging the gaps between the Roman Empire, Renaissance Italy and the Kingdom of Italy which was still making a place for itself in the world.

Of course, and this is somewhat unfortunate, the memory of Imperial Rome was never greater or more emphasized than during the Fascist era. This was rather different than what had gone before though in that this was somewhat artificial, it was not a natural expression but something imposed from the top down. Mussolini wanted to mimic ancient Rome as much as possible and so there was the symbol of the fasces everywhere, the Roman salute, Roman style flags, the Fascist militia was organized into legions, centuries, cohorts, maniples and so on. Mussolini liked to portray himself as a new Caesar and many propaganda pieces of art did this, sometimes including the King but more often than not the Fascists tried to ignore him as much as possible. Latin inscriptions began to appear on the walls and buildings of Rome, Roman relics were excavated and Roman styles began to influence architecture again, though in a more simplified, modernist fashion more in keeping with the Fascist conceit of being the ‘way of the future’. Mussolini also, of course, boasted that he would restore the “glory that was Rome” by dominating the Mediterranean basin and forging the Second (or Third) Roman Empire.

There actually was some very beneficial archaeological and historical preservation work done during the Fascist era because of the fascination Mussolini had with recapturing Roman glory. However, it was also extremely unfortunate in that, for the post-war generations, it has to a large extent tainted the Roman legacy because so many now associate anything Roman with the misdeeds and bad reputation of the National Fascist Party and the actions of other parties in other countries which were influenced by the Fascists of Italy. That is too bad as the Roman legacy is something every Italian should be proud of. It represented the peak of civilization in the ancient world and it established the foundation upon which almost everything in all of subsequent European history has been built.


  1. I've looked all over the internet to buy this poster. Do you have a link of where you found it or can you point me in the direction of where I could buy a copy? Thanks in advance

    1. I assume you mean the one at the top; I think I ordered it from Amazon but there were lots of places selling it. I don't know why it would suddenly disappear.