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The Pax Augustea in Fascist Italy: A Catholic Response to the Augustan Bimillenary

Nicolò Bettegazzi

University of Groningen

This paper investigates the reception of the emperor Augustus in the Latin literature of Italian Fascism (1922-1943), and specifically in two poems by the Jesuit poet Vittorio Genovesi: Roma Caput Mundi (1935) and Ara Pacis Augustae in Urbe restituta (1938). It shows how in these Latin poems Genovesi advocates the leading role of Christianity in ensuring the historical continuity between Augustus’ Empire and Fascist Rome. The pervasive presence of Augustus in the Fascist notion of romanità (Romanness) has been noticed and explored (Nelis, 2011), along with the initiatives to celebrate the rebirth of Empire in Fascist Italy through the bimillenary of Augustus’ birth in 1937 (Arthurs, 2018). Less attention, however, has been paid to the ways in which Augustus and the Augustan period were used to promote a Christian vision of Roman antiquity and contemporary Italian society.

Roma Caput Mundi begins with Genovesi asking why Augustus is being evoked with such great honours (1-3). The poet then directs his gaze toward Rome’s ancient ruins, which he identifies as the symbols of pagan religion. The central section of the poem celebrates the advent of Christianity (58-160) and Augustus’ role in paving the way for its triumph (101-108). Genovesi voices his fear that new wars may tear the whole world apart (167-238), unless Rome regain its authority as the centre of a universal mission based on the Christian message (239-261). Each of these themes reappears in Ara Pacis Augustae in Urbe restituta (15-37), written for the reconstruction of the Ara Pacis (completed in 1938). Genovesi interprets the monument as a symbolic counter-example to the hostilities spreading all over Europe (38-56) and as a prefiguration of that lasting peace which only Christendom can ensure (63-71).

This paper offers a new perspective on the different roles of antiquity and the Latin language during the ventennio fascista. Recent research on the cult of Roman antiquity in Italian Fascism has shown that Latin became the lingua Lictoria: that is, a medium used to celebrate the regime and its connection to Roman antiquity (Lamers – Reitz-Joosse, 2016). However, the archival research that I recently conducted in Rome brought to light many Latin texts which played a different role. As the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, Latin was often used to evoke the providential mission of Christian Rome and to define the role of Italian Fascism in fulfilling this mission. The analysis of texts such as Genovesi’s can deepen our understanding not only of the different attitudes of the Church vis-à-vis the Fascist regime, but also of the ways in which the Christian interpretations of antiquity contributed to elaborating alternative models of coexistence between Fascist and Catholic culture. By emphasizing the interrelation between Augustus, the Pax Augustea and Christianity, Genovesi anchors Fascist Italy in both Ancient and Christian Rome (see Sluiter, 2017). He achieves this, to mention but two examples, by emphasizing the contrast between ancient Rome’s ruins and Rome’s Christian symbols (e.g. St. Peter’s Basilica; Roma Caput Mundi, 62-66) or by endorsing the Christian interpretation of ancient authors such as Virgil and Horace (Roma Caput Mundi, 50-52, 69-73; Ara Pacis Augustae, 54-56). A crucial analogy between Augustus and the Fascist regime underlies Genovesi’s poems: like the Roman emperor, Mussolini is but the minister of divine providence, and this is what defines the historical correlation between the two leaders.

Session/Panel Title

Neo-Latin in the Old and New World: Current Scholarship

Session/Paper Number

53.6

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