The forgotten fascist legacy

Benito Mussolini’s role in preserving ancient Roman monuments

Many people may be surprised by the role the fascist leader Benito Mussolini played in conserving Roman monuments in the twentieth century CE. Alannah Campbell investigates how his regime used these monuments, which portrayed the ideals of ancient Rome, to recreate Italian supremacy in the Mediterranean two thousand years later.

Alannah Campbell

Today, tourists visit the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) and the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome without realising their original conservator was Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator that rose to power in 1922 as leader of the National Fascist Party. During World War II, these monuments were also admired by Adolf Hitler, an ally of Il Duce (“Leader”).

It may come as a surprise that Mussolini was instrumental in preserving monuments from ancient Rome’s Golden Age. An avid admirer of Roman history, he sought to represent modern Italy as the heir to the Roman Empire. The ideology of Mussolini’s political party touted nationalist and anti-individualistic ideals, wishing to reform what they saw as an ineffectual governing body and outdated monarchy with a fondness for excess and class division. Roman Imperialism was to be mirrored in early twentieth-century Italy, with military expansion and colonisation of certain Roman provinces from antiquity, such as Greece and North Africa.

One of Mussolini’s legacies in fascism was the ideal of Romanità or “Roman-ness” (Nellis 2007). Romanità hearkened back to the glory days of the Roman empire. He wrestled with methods of bringing that martial greatness to modern Italy, a nation beleaguered by an ambivalent monarchical institution, recurrent financial depressions and – under Mussolini’s governance – World War II.

Military glories

The Italian regime aspired to the military glories and architectural feats of ancient Rome, hoping to promote Italian supremacy in the Mediterranean. Mussolini’s Rome was to be the Third Rome, following the Augustan Rome of ca. 27 BCE to 14 CE, and the Second Rome under the papacy of Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590).

Ultimately, with a country ravaged by economic upheavals and war there were limited resources to secure Mussolini’s ambitious building plans, leaving many of his cultural projects unfinished. Mussolini’s government buckled under his overzealous military exploits abroad, culminating in the Italian Civil War from 1943-1945, during which Mussolini was executed.

Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler in Rome, 1938 to view the salvaged Tellus panel from the Ara Pacis Augustae.

Augustus, the heir of Julius Caesar, is lauded as the founder of Imperial Rome. His rise to power saw the end of Rome’s Republican era and began its transition to one-man-rule. He commissioned the altar of Augustan Peace in 12 BCE to herald a time of prosperity within the empire, following the annexation of Egypt in 31 BCE and the death of Cleopatra.

Enclosed by ornate walls and symbolic reliefs depicting Augustus and various gods achieving Pax Romana (Roman Peace) through military victory, it was an artistic feat and portrayed the princeps (First-Citizen) as the harbinger of peace. The pacification of Rome’s enemies was inextricably linked with Augustus, illustrated through his altar.

The altar was innovative compared to its contemporaries for its highly figurative style and overt propaganda, equating Augustus’ reign with peace in Rome and victory within the empire. Reliefs depicting Tellus, the goddess of abundance, and Roma, the personification of Rome bestowing fortune, were attractive concepts to modern Italy.

During World War II, Italy was ravaged by the scarcities of war as they sought to expand Italian rule over the provinces previously conquered by ancient Rome. The triumphs of ancient Rome supplied the fascist state with a model for administration and warfare. Additionally, it reinforced the fascist facade that they were acting above party politics, ostensibly looking towards promoting national unity, which knowledge of their ancient supremacy would surely inspire (Quartermaine 1995).

In the 1920s, publications connecting Roman history to twentieth-century Italy and Mussolini were rampant. Most notably, Tito Vezio’s “Due marce su Roma” (two marches on Rome) linked Julius Caesar to Benito Mussolini (1923).

Moreover, Mussolini’s own writings advanced a link between Augustus, the founder of Imperial Rome, and himself, the self-styled founder of modern Imperial Italy. Mussolini wrote: “In five years from now, Rome will appear wonderful to all the world: vast, orderly, powerful as she was at the times of her first empire under Augustus” (“L’insediamento del Primo Governatore di Roma”, in: Capitolium, I, fasc. 10, January 1926, p. 596; transl. and quoted in Quartermaine 1995).

A photo of the Tellus relief of the Ara Pacis Augustae. The seated woman in the centre is interpreted as Tellus, Pax or Italia, flanked by personifications of the land and sea breezes.

This prodigious boast from Mussolini ultimately proved unfounded. Ancient Roman architecture was weaponised into a political program to transform modern Rome into a fitting capital for Fascist Italy. The Italian regime tried to mesh their ideologies with war-time realities, subsequently falling to cynicism and administrative inefficacy. They managed Rome as a canvas to design their fascist legacy, seeking to distinguish themselves from earlier Italian governments by commencing building projects. Essentially, the regime prioritised the symbolic construction of an idealized Roman past over helping contemporary Italians who suffered the harsh realities of everyday life.

Mussolini’s attempts to rally Italy with the noble materials of ancient Rome were a flop. The preeminence of ancient Rome, its architectural and artistic feats, overshadowed Mussolini’s fledgeling state. The site of the piazza that contained the Ara Pacis was home to Medieval walls that Mussolini had demolished. Ostentatious churches of the Baroque period remained in the square, interrupting the complex and related to a style directly opposing fascist ideology, seeking distance from the excess and lavishness of past generations (Agnew 2010). The intermingling of ancient, papal and fascist elements caused Mussolini’s propaganda effort to fail, as the overall message of the space was decidedly un-Fascist.

A large area in the heart of a new capital city was peppered in ruins promoting peace within Rome at a time when contemporary Italy was at war, allied with the Axis powers in WWII. Mussolini’s intentions were eclipsed by the sophistication of Augustan Rome two thousand years previously and his piazza reflected this.

Closing remarks

Mussolini’s reconstruction of the altar was completed in part by September 1937 in time to celebrate Augustus’ birthday. The museum complex surrounding the altar of peace, designed by the architect Vittorio Morpurgo in the 1930s, was not replaced until 2005 by the museum seen today, created by Richard Meiers.

In recent decades certain individuals have attempted to alter Mussolini’s narrative, most notably his granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini. She was a politician from 1992 to 2020 and had joined the Italian Social Movement, a neo-fascist political party formed in the late 1940s by the remnants of Mussolini’s second political grouping, the Republican Fascist Party. Politically, on the one hand, she supported feminist and gay rights, but on the other, she embraced xenophobia and national supremacy.

She often feuds over Twitter with users and uses the platform to spew her vociferous support of the elder Mussolini, refusing to allow a bad word spoken of him and seeking litigation against those that speak poorly of the twentieth-century dictator. This rhetoric can be dangerous, and her idealisation of Benito Mussolini may have something to do with the power of his name, facilitating her varied public appearances from Playboy model to neo-fascist politician. The younger Mussolini did not heed the failures of the elder: that we learn from our history, but should not seek to emulate it.