The not-so-Roman salute

by Robert Brečević

Propaganda and public choreography. Ideology as dance.

People are aware of the fact that the Nazi-salute (or Hitler-salute) is somehow related to the Roman empire. In fact, Hitler took it from Mussolini who resided in the city of Rome. But that’s about all that connects the straight arm / palm-down salute with the mythical empire of Romulus and Remus.

In short. The Roman salute apears for the first time in a painting, Oath of the Horatii (1784), by the French painter Jacques-Louis David. It was then developed further by other artist of the French neoclassical period.

In 1914 the Roman salute is featured in a movie (!) by Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Yes! The poet, the cocain-addict and the inventor of the entire estetics and rituals of Italian fascism wrote a script for a movie (Cabiria) set in Roman times, where he established the hailing as a typical Roman custom. A few years after (in 1919) Gabriele D’Annunzio and some 200 friends went to the city of Rijeka (in Italian FIume). They occupied this former Austro-Hungarian gem (at the Quarnero bay of todays Croatia) and formed the Italian Regency of Carnaro.

For almost a year they could experiment with an opera-like political system where Gabriele D’Annunzio was the original “il Duce”. He is said to have come out on the balcony at the Corso each evening whe he would recite his latest poems to his people. It is also said (I have no confirmation on this though) that they had an open source uniform policy – that is, everyone was allowed to design their own uniform.

You have to remember that this was at a formative stage of fascism – before it had really chosen sides and became a firmly right-wing extremist movement. F.e. Gabriele D’Annunzio’s accomplice in writing the constitution for Fiume was the well-known Italian syndicalist Alceste de Ambris.

By the end of 1920 Italy stopped Gabriele D’Annunzios experiment in Rijeka by sending one gun ship. D’Annunzio and his crew immediatelly surrendered. In 1921 Mussolini and his black-shirts (another D’Annunzio invention) marched to Rome. Il Duce then hailed with the Roman salute.

To sum it up. Nowhere in any fresque, painting, sculpture or written document from Roman times has this salute been depicted nor mentioned. There is simply no evidence that the Romans saluted anyone in this way.

Still to the popular mind it is percieved as “the Roman salute”. The Germans made it Germanic by adding the “heil”.

Oath of the Horatii