The Italian Fascist period presents one of the most notorious cases of large-scale classical appropriation in the service of political propaganda. Mussolini’s quasi-religious focus on romanità has long been recognized as a dangerous reductive view of the goals of Roman society and empire, fostering numerous biased interpretations of the past in the service of the present. (Gentile 1996; Gessert 2014) Yet this period also must be recognized for its potential for expanding the discourse on ancient Rome of the Augustan period. In the analysis of primary receptions of the Roman past in the official imagery created within the constraints of dictatorship, but more importantly, through the secondary reactions to those receptions by the people who both created and experienced them, we create a line of questioning about antiquity that cannot be addressed by ancient sources alone.
This paper first addresses the issue of subjective scholarship during this formative period in the field of Roman archaeology. The Fascist regime supported the creation of numerous scholarly entities devoted to the study of Roman antiquity, and also sponsored a wide range of state-run excavations in both Italy and the provinces. (Arthurs 2013) Scholars in this period were thus engaged, whether willingly or under duress, in acts of cultural appropriation under the guise of scholarship. (Galaty and Watkinson 2004) The fact that the subject of this scholarly reception was the emperor Augustus, whose principate was also defined by manipulation of the past, is both profoundly ironic and potentially resonant. What can the paradoxical reception of autocracy within an autocratic framework reveal? This paper examines the work of several scholars and archaeologists, most notably G.V. Giglioli and Guido Calza, in support of the 1937 Mostra Augustea della Romanità, an exhibition devoted to the regime’s official interpretation of Augustus and the Roman Empire. The paradoxical conditions in which these scholars strove to work provoked a range of reactions and compromises, actions that in turn provoke inquiry into the experiences of the very ancient Roman poets, historians, and artists under interpretation. In this way, the understanding of the process of achieving ideological consensus under Fascism can aid in the comprehension of similar social processes in the Augustan age, not from the autocratic perspective that can be teased out of ancient sources (Lobur 2008), but through the actions and interpretations of those enacting the process of consensus.
To appropriate a phrase from Derrida’s seminal work on the paradoxes of democracy, this paper suggests that the act of reception inspires “the possibility of an essentially interminable questioning, that is, an effective and thus transforming questioning” (Derrida (1995) 239) in which neither the future nor the past are fixed. The process of reception brings forward new questions that bear upon the past, thus transforming that past and reflecting its image into the future, where the process begins anew.