The whitewashing of Rome | Aeon

Jamie Mackay

is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Frieze and The Times Literary Supplement, among others. He is the author of The Invention of Sicily (July 2021). He lives in Florence, Italy.

4,200 words

Edited by Marina Benjamin

White supremacists fetishise ancient Rome – but antiquity was more diverse and polychromatic than racists will admit

At the dawn of the 20th century, Italian patriots were struggling to overcome a profound inferiority complex. Ever since 1861, when Giuseppe Garibaldi unified the country’s disparate regions into a nation-state, politicians and intellectuals had been anticipating the arrival of a glorious new era. Decades on, however, the economic, diplomatic and cultural results were wanting. Nationalists knew they needed a new mythosto boost public confidence, something to make Italy seem strong and competitive on the world stage. Several options were on the table. Some saw religion as a source of potential unity. Others pointed to the Renaissance, and the long tradition of democratic republicanism as admirable blueprints. After much debate, however, most statesmen came to settle on ancient Rome. The classical legacy, so they reasoned, while admittedly rather distant, was a moment when the peninsula had been at the centre of European and, arguably, world affairs. They set out, quite consciously, with this history in mind, to tell their fellow citizens a new story: that they would make Italy great again.

What this meant in concrete terms was imperialism. In 1912, to demonstrate its global aspirations, Italy launched a ferocious attack against Ottoman Libya. As the bombs fell over Janzur, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote the ‘Songs of Our Exploits Overseas’, in which he conjured up the spirit of Vittoria, the Roman goddess, to call on all patriots to re-connect with the ‘eternal memory’ of the ancient past, and overcome the stifling ‘crust of centuries’ in order to set out again, under a new flag, to dominate the world. Other nationalists followed suit. The essayist Alfredo Oriani’s 1889 tract describing the need for the country to ‘sail once more on its sea’ as the ‘bringer of a new civilisation’ was republished in 1912, while the journalist Enrico Corradini went as far as to suggest that there was a hidden Roman road concealed under the Mediterranean Sea that linked the modern Italian nation to the African colonies over which it had a ‘historic claim’. Notably, all of these writers referred to the water by its ancient Roman name, Mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’).

Like all modern colonialism, Italy’s propagandising had racist overtones. In fact, one of the main reasons that the country’s intellectuals were so anxious to present themselves as a homogeneous group was, ironically, a byproduct of their nation’s Mediterranean geography. Over generations, people from both sides of the sea, from Tangier to Istanbul, had mixed with one another to the point that the Italian peninsula’s inhabitants couldn’t feel certain of their ethnic ‘purity’. In response, in the 1920s, philosophers such as Julius Evola posited esoteric theories about an Aryan ‘super-race’, a kind of spiritual nobility that had apparently always existed in Italy since Roman times, and which gave the ‘true’ Italians the moral right to dominate non-Europeans. These strands of thought combined in the ideology of fascism.

When Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, he did so wielding Roman imagery – the eagle, the fasci and a fictitious ‘ancient’ salute – even more aggressively than D’Annunzio and his forbearers had. At the same time, Mussolini opportunistically supported the burgeoning field of race science, encouraging anthropologists and eugenicists such as Alfredo Niceforo and Sabato Visco to produce ‘empirical’ evidence for what he called the ‘innate vitality’ of the Italian race.

In 1934, Italy’s fascist regime commissioned an installation to visualise their destiny as the righteous inheritors of a white Roman empire. The work, which was realised by the architect Antonio Muñoz, was comprised of five maps that were displayed along the exterior walls of the ancient Basilica di Massenzio in Rome. Four showed Roman civilisation at different stages of its evolution, from the age of Romulus to that of Trajan. The final image, however, which Muñoz completed during Italy’s campaigns in Ethiopia in 1936, depicted Mussolini’s own plan, to obtain control over the entirety of East Africa. This wasn’t all. Muñoz also designed his maps according to an anachronistic and ideologically charged colour scheme, rooted in ‘race science’. Everything inside the ‘Italian’ world – in both the ancient and modern images – was designated by white travertine marble. Everything beyond it was black.

Muñoz’s maps of Italy’s imperial imagination, displayed on the Basilica di Massenzio in Rome. Creative Commons Licence

Today, it’s tempting to disregard Mussolini’s use of classical antiquity as a minor quirk of Italian fascism. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that all the major European powers have drawn comparisons of a similar sort that leaned on ancient Rome. Britain, for example, which led the opposition to Axis forces in the Second World War, had long appealed to this kind of symbolism to justify its own imperial expansion. In the 19th century, intellectuals across the political spectrum, including Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Curzon, Arthur Balfour and Rudyard Kipling, all cited Rome as a moral justification for British incursions in India, on the basis that they, the white Europeans, were, as they thought, ‘bringing civilisation’ to the brown and Black natives. In London in 1912, the painter Sigismund Goetze began a series of D’Annunzio-esque murals for the Foreign Office, in which he invented his own white fantasy of Roman antiquity. Like the fascists, Goetze used Latin and neoclassical figures to celebrate his country’s victories over various nonwhite peoples. One image, which professes to show God’s kingdom on Earth, is particularly disturbing. At the centre we see Britannia, clad in her Roman imperial armour. She is surrounded by an array of highly stereotyped devotees, including a Japanese geisha and a Persian warrior. Africa, meanwhile, is depicted at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy, as a naked servant boy, carrying fruit on his shouldersBritannia Pacificatrix by Goetze (1921).

The myth of a white Rome is so embedded in the Western imagination that it has even found advocates outside Europe. It’s well known that the founding fathers of the United States held the ancient republic in high esteem. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were great admirers of Cicero, whom they saw as a defender of justice, while Alexander Hamilton and Patrick Henry identified Cato the Younger as the incarnation of liberty.

Their idealism, though, can’t be disentangled from the realities of racism and slavery on which the US was actually built. Indeed, it’s hardly surprising, given the rhetorical efforts to disguise such unpalatable realities, that anti-abolitionists would later turn to Rome to justify white supremacism. In 1852, Thomas Roderick Dew, a well-respected professor from Virginia, argued that ancient Rome, where ‘the spirit of liberty glowed with the most intensity’, was able to do so only because ‘slaves were more numerous than the freemen’. In 1916, following emancipation, the lawyer and zoologist Madison Grant tried to exploit the fears of many white Americans by appealing to a story of Black people ‘breeding out their masters … [as] in the declining days of the Roman Republic’.

Most of us would, I hope, oppose this kind of racist discourse on moral grounds. Yet it’s important to recognise that, while there are big differences between Italian fascism, British colonialism and pro-slavery groups in the US, all have contributed to a fantasy idea about Rome’s whiteness that’s still a feature of Western civilisation. Of course, a diverse cast of high-profile figures in these countries, from Antonio Gramsci to Franklin D Roosevelt,have, in different ways, worked to rebuff this abuse of history. Here, however, I want to focus on two lesser-known arguments that are particularly relevant for our own postcolonial times: firstly, that the Romans didn’t have a sense of race in the modern sense of that word. Secondly, and just as importantly, that their empire, unlike modern equivalents, was one in which people we’d now consider nonwhite played a leading role.[…]

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