Roman Salute

Italian Fascism

The Roman salute (Saluto Romano) is a gesture in which the arm is held out forward straight, with palm down, and fingers touching. In some versions, the arm is raised upward at an angle; in others, it is held out parallel to the ground. The former is a well known symbol of fascism that is commonly perceived to be based on a custom in ancient Rome. However, no Roman text gives this description and the Roman works of art that display gestures of salutation bear little resemblance to the modern Roman salute.

Jacques-Louis David’s painting ‘The Oath of the Horatii’ (1784) provided the starting point for the gesture that became later known as the Roman salute. The gesture and its identification with Roman culture was further developed in other French neoclassic artworks.

This was further elaborated upon in popular culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in plays and films that portrayed the salute as an ancient Roman custom. These included a 1914 film called ‘Cabiria’ based upon a screenplay by the Italian nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio. In 1919, d’Annunzio adopted the cinematographically depicted salute as a neo-imperial ritual when he led the occupation of Fiume (in present day Croatia). Through d’Annunzio’s influence, the gesture became part of the Italian Fascist movement’s symbolic repertoire. In 1923 the salute was gradually adopted by the Italian Fascist regime. It was made compulsory within the Nazi party in 1926, and adopted by the German state when the Nazis took power in 1933. It was also adopted by other fascist movements. Since World War II, the salute has been a criminal offense in Germany and Austria. Legal restrictions on its use in Italy are more nuanced and controversial. The gesture and its variations continue to be used in neo-fascist contexts.

‘The Oath of the Horatii’ shows the three sons of Horatius swear on their swords, held by their father, that they will defend Rome to the death. It is based on an historical event described by Livy and elaborated by Dionysius in ‘Roman Antiquities.’ However, the moment depicted in David’s painting is his own creation. Neither Livy nor Dionysius mention any oath taking episode. Dionysius, the more detailed source, reports that the father had left to his sons the decision to fight then raised his hands to the heavens to thank the gods. Dominating the center of the painting is the brothers’ father, facing left. He has both hands raised. His left hand is holding three swords, while his right hand is empty, with fingers stretched but not touching. The brother closest to the viewer is holding his arm almost horizontally. The brother on the left is holding his arm slightly higher, while the third brother holds his hand higher still. While the first brother extends his right arm, the other two are extending their left arms.

The succession of arms raised progressively higher leads to a gesture closely approximating the style used by fascists in the 20th century in Italy, albeit with the ‘wrong’ arms. Art historian Albert Boime provides the following analysis: ‘The brothers stretch out their arms in a salute that has since become associated with tyranny. The ‘Hail Caesar’ of antiquity (although at the time of the Horatti a Caesar had yet to be born) was transformed into the ‘Heil Hitler’ of the modern period. The fraternal intimacy brought about by the Horatii’s dedication to absolute principles of victory or death … is closely related to the establishment of the fraternal order … In the total commitment or blind obedience of a single, exclusive group lies the potentiality of the authoritarian state.’

After the French Revolution of 1789, David was commissioned to depict the formation of the revolutionary government in a similar style. In the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ (1792) the National Assembly are all depicted with their arms outstretched, united in an upward gesture comparable to that of the Horatii, as they swear to create a new constitution. The painting was never finished, but an immense drawing was exhibited in 1791 along side the ‘Oath of the Horatii.’ As in the original, David conveys the unity of minds and bodies in the service of the patriotic ideal. But in this drawing, he takes the subject further, uniting the people beyond just family ties and across different classes, religions, and philosophical opinions.

After the republican government was replaced by Napoleon’s imperial regime, David further deployed the gesture in ‘The Distribution of the Eagle Standards’ (1810). But unlike his previous paintings representing republican ideals, the oath of allegiance is pledged to a central authority figure, and in imperial fashion. Boime sees the series of oath pictures as ‘the coding of key developments in the history of the Revolution and its culmination in Napoleonic authoritarianism.’

The imperial oath is seen in other paintings, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme’s ‘Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant’ (‘Hail, Caesar, those who are about to die salute you’) of 1859. In this painting, the gladiators are all raising their right or left arms, holding tridents and other weapons. Their salutation is a well-known Latin phrase quoted in ‘Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum’ (‘The Life of the Caesars,’ or ‘The Twelve Caesars’). Despite becoming widely popularized in later times, the phrase is unknown in Roman history aside from this isolated use, and it is questionable whether it was ever a customary salute, as is often believed. It was more likely to be an isolated appeal by desperate captives and criminals condemned to die.

In 1892, a similar gesture, called the Bellamy salute was instituted in the United States to accompany the Pledge of Allegiance (written by Francis Bellamy). The inventor of the saluting gesture was James B. Upham, junior partner and editor of the ‘The Youth’s Companion.’ Bellamy recalled Upham, upon reading the pledge, came into the posture of the salute, snapped his heels together, and said ‘Now up there is the flag; I come to salute; as I say ‘I pledge allegiance to my flag,’ I stretch out my right hand and keep it raised while I say the stirring words that follow.’ Because of the similarity between the Bellamy salute and the Nazi salute that emerged in Germany in 1920s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the hand-over-the-heart gesture as the salute to be rendered by civilians during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. This was done when Congress officially adopted the Flag Code in 1942. There was initially some resistance to dropping the Bellamy salute, for example from the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The gesture, already established in the United States through the Bellamy salute, has been traced to the Broadway production of the play ‘Ben-Hur.’ The play, based on Lew Wallace’s book ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,’ opened in 1899 and proved to be a great success. Photographs show several scenes using the gesture, including one of Ben-Hur greeting a seated sheik and another of a small crowd so greeting Ben-Hur in his chariot. Neither Wallace’s novel nor text for the theatrical production mentions a raised arm salute. The salute was evidently added in keeping with the exaggerated style of acting in 19th century theater, which in turn influenced acting in the silent cinema. The salute frequently occurs in early 20th century films set in antiquity, such as the American ‘Ben-Hur’ (1907) and the Italian ‘Nerone’ (1908), although such films do not yet standardize it or make it exclusively Roman. In ‘Spartaco’ (1914), even the slave Spartacus uses it. Later examples appear in ‘Ben-Hur’ (1925) and in Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘Sign of the Cross’ (1932) and ‘Cleopatra’ (1934), although the execution of the gesture is still variable.

Of special note is the use in Giovanni Pastrone’s colossal epic ‘Cabiria’ (1914). The screenplay was attributed to Italian nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was known as the ‘poet-warrior.’  Inspired by the Italo-Turkish War, in which Italy conquered the North African Ottoman province of Tripolitania, Pastrone perused a politically volatile issue. The film highlights Italy’s Roman past and the ‘monstrous’ nature of Carthaginian society, which is contrasted with the ‘nobility’ of Roman society. ‘Cabiria’ was one of several films of the period that ‘helped resuscitate a distant history that legitimized Italy’s past and inspired its dreams’ and which ‘delivered the spirit for conquest that seemed to arrive from the distant past,’ thereby presaging the ‘political rituals of fascism,’ ‘thanks … to its prime supporter and apostle, Gabriele d’Annunzio.’ Variations on the salute occur throughout Cabiria on the part of Romans and Africans. The diversity of the gesture and the variety of nationalities who use it in Cabria is seen as further evidence that the salute is a modern invention, used in the film to highlight the exotic nature of antiquity.

D’Annunzio, who had scripted ‘Cabiria,’ appropriated the salute when he occupied Fiume in 1919. D’Annunzio has been described as the John the Baptist of Italian Fascism, as virtually the entire ritual of Fascism was invented by D’Annunzio during his occupation of Fiume and his leadership of the ‘Italian Regency of Carnaro.’ Besides the Roman salute, these included the balcony address, the cries of ‘Eia, eia, eia! Alala!,’ the dramatic and rhetorical dialogues with the crowd, and the use of religious symbols in new secular settings. Like other neo-Imperial rituals utilized by D’Annunzio, the salute became part of the Italian fascist movement’s symbolic repertoire. In 1923, the Ministry of Education instituted a ritual honoring the flag in schools using the Roman salute. In 1925, as Mussolini began his fascitization of the state, the salute was gradually adopted by the regime, and by the end of that year all state civil administrators were required to use it.

Achille Starace, the Italian Fascist Party secretary, pushed for measures to make the use of the Roman salute generally compulsory, denouncing hand shaking as bourgeois. He further extolled the salute as ‘more hygienic, more aesthetic, and shorter.’ He also suggested that the Roman salute did not imply the necessity of taking off the hat unless one was indoors. By 1932, the salute was adopted as the substitute for the handshake. In 1933, the military was ordered to use the salute whenever an unarmed detachment of soldiers was called on to render military honors for the King or Mussolini.

The symbolic value of the gesture grew, and it was felt that the proper salute ‘had the effect of showing the fascist man’s decisive spirit, which was close to that of ancient Rome.’ The salute was seen to demonstrate the fascist’s ‘decisive spirit, firmness, seriousness, and acknowledgment and acceptance of the regime’s hierarchical structure.’ It was further felt that the correct physical gesture brought forth a change in character. Bourgeois gestures were supposed to disappear from the view of Italians and not contaminate their daily life. In 1938, the party abolished handshaking in films and theater, and the Ministry of Popular Culture issued orders banning the publishing of photographs showing people shaking hands. Even official photographs of visiting dignitaries were retouched to remove the image of their handshaking.

In Germany, the salute, sporadically used by the Nazi Party since 1923, was made compulsory within the movement in 1926. Called the Hitler salute, it functioned both as an expression of commitment within the party and as a demonstrative statement to the outside world. Yet in spite of this demand for the outward display of obedience, the drive to gain acceptance did not go unchallenged, even within the movement. Early objections focused on its resemblance to the Roman salute employed by Fascist Italy, and hence on it not being Germanic. In response, efforts were made to establish its pedigree and invent a proper tradition after the fact.

The compulsory use of the Hitler salute for all public employees followed a directive issued by Reich Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick in 1933, one day before the ban on all non-Nazi parties. The Wehrmacht (German military) refused to adopt the Hitler salute and was able for a time to maintain its own customs. They were required to use the Hitler salute only while singing the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ (the Nazi anthem) and German national anthem, and in non-military encounters such as greeting members of the civilian government. Only after the July 20 Plot in 1944 were the military forces of the Third Reich ordered to replace the standard military salute with the Hitler salute.

Similar forms of salutes were adopted by various groups. Its use in France dates back to 1925, when the ‘Jeunesses Patriotes’ (‘Patriotic Youth’), a movement led by Pierre Taittinger, would give the fascist salute at meetings while shouting ‘Dictatorship!’ Marcel Bucard’s ‘Mouvement Franciste,’ founded in 1933 adopted the salute as well donning blue shirts and blue berets. François Coty’s ‘Solidarité Française’ used the salute as well, though its leaders denied the movement was fascist. By 1937, rivalry among French right wing parties sometimes caused confusion over salutes. The ‘Parti Populaire Français,’ generally regarded as the most pro-Nazi of France’s collaborationist parties, adopted a variant of the salute that distinguished itself from others by slightly bending the hand and holding it at face level.

In the early 1930s, the salute was used by members of the Estonian nationalist right wing Vaps Movement, as well as the Brazilian Integralism movement, who used to salute by raising one arm. The Brazilian form of the Salute was called ‘Anauê’ – a word used as a salutation and as a cry by the Brazilian indigenous Tupi people, meaning ‘you are my brother.’ When the 4th of August Regime took power in Greece with the coup by Ioannis Metaxas in 1936, among the fascist traditions to be adopted by the regime was the fascist salute. In Spain the following year, Francisco Franco formally approved the salute in a decree which made it the official salutation to be used by all except the military who would continue to use the traditional military salutes. After a meeting with Mussolini, in late 1937, Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Stojadinović adopted a version of the salute as he took to styling himself as Vodja (Leader). In 1939, the salute of raising one arm was adopted in Romania under a statute promulgating the Romanian Front of National Rebirth. In Slovakia, the Hlinka Guard’s ‘Na stráž!’ (‘On guard!’) consisted of a half-hearted compromise between a friendly wave and salute with a straight raised arm.

The salute has been used many times by prominent individuals as well as the masses since the war. After being released from an insane asylum in the United States, famed poet Ezra Pound returned to Italy in 1958 and hailed his adopted country with the fascist salute. The salute was on display in the 1968 funeral for Mussolini’s youngest daughter. When the Italian Social Movement had its greatest electoral gains since WWII in 1971, crowds at the party headquarters cheered and gave the outstretched arm salute. In1983, on the 100th anniversary of Mussolini’s birth, thousands of black-shirted supporters chanted ‘DUCE! DUCE!’ (‘LEADER! LEADER!’) with their arms raised in the fascist salute on a march from his native village to the cemetery where he was buried. On the eve of Silvio Berlusconi’s election victory in 1994, young supporters of Gianfranco Fini made the fascist salute while chanting ‘Duce! Duce!’

In 2005, Italian footballer Paolo Di Canio created controversy by twice using the gesture to salute S.S. Lazio fans, first in a match against arch rivals A.S. Roma (a team widely supported by Rome’s Jewish population) and then against A.S. Livorno Calcio (a club inclined to leftist politics). Di Canio received a one match game ban after the second event and was fined 7,000 Euros, after which he was quoted as saying ‘I will always salute as I did because it gives me a sense of belonging to my people..I saluted my people with what for me is a sign of belonging to a group that holds true values, values of civility against the standardization that this society imposes upon us.’ His salute featured on unofficial merchandise sold outside Stadio Olimpico after the ban. Lazio was Mussolini’s favorite team. Di Canio has also expressed admiration for Mussolini.

In 2009, Michela Vittoria Brambilla, an Italian politician and businesswoman commonly described as a possible successor to Silvio Berlusconi for leadership of the Italian right, was caught in a controversy over her alleged use of the Roman salute, with calls for her to step down. She denied the accusation, stating ‘I’ve never either done or thought of doing any gesture that is an apology of fascism, something toward which I’ve never showed any indulgence, let alone sympathy. And why should I have made a public display of such a despicable gesture shortly after I’ve been made a minister?’ A video of the event was posted on the Web site of the newspaper ‘La Repubblica’ that showed Brambilla extending her right arm upward in what appears to be a fascist salute. Brambilla said she was just greeting the crowd.

A large number of films made after World War II use the Roman salute as a visual stereotype of a proto-fascist ancient Roman society. In the 1951 film ‘Quo Vadis,’ Nero’s repeated use of the salute at mass rallies explicitly presents the Roman Empire as a Fascist military state. The movie provided other filmmakers of the time a model, with notable examples including ‘Ben-Hur’ (1958), ‘Spartacus’ (1960), and ‘Cleopatra’ (1963). Not until ‘Gladiator’ in 2000 did the Roman epic return to the cinema. In this movie, the salute is notably absent in most scenes, for example when Commodus enters Rome or when the Senate salutes the Emperor by head-bowing.

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