Was Rome a fascist state?
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco

Rome model

fascism < Latin fasces, ax-like bundles of wood used by the lictores (people preceding important personalities) to drive away the masses.

By countless politicians, imperialists, writers, artists and scientists even, the Roman state, moreover the Republic (or the Empire at its height) has been hailed as an example of a surprisingly "modern" state in Antiquity. They had an extensive road network, a clear insight into the workings of a professional army, built cities and aqueducts and had to deal with problems that many would consider typically 20th and 21st century problems such as overpopulation, backroom politics, racial and religious minorities, emancipation problems and so on. What Rome remains best known for is its complex legal and judicial system, which has been adopted as a model for many states, such as the Holy Roman Empire of the Germans, Napoleonic France, to a lesser extent the old British Empire and even the modern United States.

Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising at all that Rome, in its various aspects, has been used and abused by all sorts of different politicians. However, ever since the 19th century, when Rome was taken as a model to organise a state, there was a strong autocratic tendency in these ideologies, with a special emphasis on the military strength of the Romans and the severity of the "Roman spirit". The most infamous example of recent ideologies (ab)using the example of th Roman Republic/Empire is fascism, especially in its orginal form in Italy in the 1920’s under Benito Mussolini. Similar to Hitler’s Nazi ideology, Mussolini stressed the common "Roman" heritage of the Italians and wanted to restore the former glory of the Roman Empire to Italy. He put a strong emphasis on military strength, courage and tradition (hence also the many references to Rome), and glorified himself as the duce, the leader. Also like Hitler, Mussolini had been influenced by the works of Nietzsche (the butchered-up versions by Nietzsche’s sister, to be more precise, which marred Nietzsche’s reputation for decades after World War II).

There were some differences with Hitler’s ideology, but we mustn’t forget that Hitler too used the cultural heritage from Antiquity to build his empire. Although he found that the German people should assume the mantle of leadership in the world, the "Aryan" heritage he was so fond of also encompassed most Western European peoples, which includes the Romans and the Greeks. Hitler was very fond of Roman and Greek architecture and sculpture because they were rather straightforward, symmetrical and possessed a poise he couldn’t find in the modernist, abstract cultural world of his own age. Here again we see that the "Stoic" element of Rome is again stressed. Self-control and control in general, linked to a strong sense for overwhelming bombast and mass spectacle (as in the speeches of Mussolini, Hitler and many other dictators which nowadays come across on a modern audience as quite laughable and pathetic).

Good and evil

Other fascist groups and parties have, in later times, also drawn their inspiration from the image of a ruthless, uncompromising, strict and modern Rome bringing light into a barbarian darkness. Before we cast away these interpretations as single-minded and being thought of by some propaganda machine, we should perhaps be so bold as to enter the ring and see what is true about this. The truth is that many researchers, archeologists and classicists will be hesitant to enter this discussion. Should the outcome be that Rome indeed was a fascist state by modern definitions, then many Western nations who now proudly claim that they have a "Roman justice" better find an alternative to pride themselves upon. What is also true, on the other hand, is that the general public is fairly uneducated about Rome. The image people have of Rome has been largely determined by spectacular movies such as Spartacus, Cleopatra, and in more recent times Gladiator. In these movies the decadent, violent aspect plays an important role, especially as opposed to the noble barbarians or Christians. Few movies portray Romans as civilised people.

In many books and on many Web sites, on the other hand, the image prevails of a "good" Rome; they try their best to make their audience believe that Rome was actually a lot like the modern world, only without advanced technologies, and that the stories about the Romans’ cruelty have been overblown by Christian myths. It is odd that a writer such as Iuvenalis, known for his sharp and witty satires, had sympathies which would be considered unacceptable by most political and social circles in civilised countries. Iuvenalis hated Greeks, women and homosexuals. If Iuvenalis was born in today’s Rome, his writings would be met with much less approbation. Fat chance is that they probably wouldn’t even survive a century. So then, were Mussolini and the like right to adopt Rome and its ambiguous legacy as a role model for their fascism? I will argue that they were not, on the basis of two main arguments.

Roman politics

What politics?

In spite of having been praised for their talent for organisation in almost everything (architecture, roads, military endeavours, justice…) there was, oddly enough, no Latin word to describe "politics" or "politician" with. The modern word "politician" is actually derived from ancient Greek, by the way, stemming from the word polis, meaning "city" or "community". There are also no real words in Latin to translate the political meanings of "progressive" and "conservative" (although, ironically, both words are derived from Latin verbs, which shows that in our society too, these words have been invented later rather than being part of the original Germanic vocabulary of English). Then it is not very surprising that the Roman government during the Republic was largely led by amateurs, aristocrats who had the time and resources (getting elected and holding office required some financial means) to devote themselves to statesmanship. Also, like in many archaic societies, the military and political leadership of the Roman Republic (and a great deal of the Empire) were integrated and intertwined. The consules not only had the supreme political power but also held the supreme command over the legions.

One might argue that the classical opposing factions, those of the populares and the optimates, could be compared to modern political parties such as the American Democrats and Republicans, respectively. However, this comparison is rather far-fetched. Not only did neither faction have a clearly outlined ideology with a party programme or elected leaders, they didn’t differ that much from one another to be truly significant. The major difference was that the populares sought to build their power base with the people (as such, they took measures which naive historians and politicians would interpret as "socialist" but were in fact more akin to "populist" measures) whereas the optimates had theirs, traditionally, with the aristocracy. Much of this was also determined through the family clan one belonged to. The Iulii, for example, are a good example of a gens popularis whereas the Claudii were all optimates.

As such, Romans – even the upper class – were fairly unaware of political theories. Of course they knew there were differences between the Spartan government and that of Athens in the 5th century BCE, but no evidence has survived that could point out a "professional politician" or a Roman who made up politicial theories like today’s liberalism, socialism, communism or fascism. They simply did not really label forms of government according to ideology. A significant detail is that the Greeks, for example, used the word "tyrant" (tyrannos) in a very neutral context for "sole ruler". This is more important than it seems, at first sight. If you don’t have a name for either politics or fascism – not even one that comes close – you can’t be a fascist politician. Of course, one might argue, it’s not because they were unaware of these things, that Roman politics weren’t fascist in nature. I will deal with this problem in the next section.

The Republican and Imperial system

A first difference between fascism and the Roman system of governing – certainly where the Republic is concerned – is voting. Many fascist dictatorships do not organise elections or organise them in such a manner that the outcome has been determined beforehand by ways of subtle and not-so-subtle manipulation. This was not the case in Rome. Although candidates did not appear out of the blue and one could say the public was "manipulated" through games and free food, this does not differ very much from strategies modern politicians employ in democratic countries. Sometimes elections were irregular or there were cases of fraud, but I believe this could be attributed more to the fact that Roman politics were in essence amateuristic and largely determined by a select group of individuals. As such, there was a far greater chance of things going wrong or individuals trying to exert forms of power abuse to maintain or strengthen their positions. This had nothing to do with political ideologies at all. It also has to be noted that Roman writers, such as Cicero, were fairly proud of their system, which they felt guaranteed a voice to all segments of the population. Here the problem of women and slaves comes in. I will deal with this later on.

When one thinks of elections, one thinks of glorious speeches and masses of people rallying for a candidate on a square or a building. And if elections in Rome were, generally speaking, free of massive corruption and manipulation, this implies a certain freedom of speech. As we all know, freedom of speech and fascism are not on terribly good terms. Of course, freedom of speech was another notion the Romans did not know. It is unclear whether this was a right or if it was regarded as normal for a government to restrict freedom of speech. In any case, for candidates to run for office a certain amount of freedom must have been guaranteed. Also, especially in the later Republic, there were laws in place which prevented a citizen from being convicted or put into prison without actually having committed a criminal offence. If this law was really enforced or not is a different issue altogether. It should be pointed out, by the way, that the Roman government didn’t even have the means to exert massive censorship. In modern states, with telephone lines and television, this is in a sense easier than in a pre-industrial state where the only form of control can be social control. In a city populated by more than a million people, one can’t possibly imagine that dissent doesn’t exist.

Of course this situation changes once we reach the Imperial era. In the excessively violent last century of the Republic, with Sulla’s dictatorial reign of terror and Iulius Caesar being murdered in the Senate, to name a few examples, influential Romans had to be careful. Cicero, almost the epitome of the classical Roman rhetor delivering bombastic speeches in an exaggerated manner, was murdered on command of Marcus Antonius. His head was cut off and his hands were nailed on the rostra to show to the other senatores and the rest of Rome that speaking words that the regime did not like was dangerous. But this, although it’s one of the most known eras in Roman history, presents a warped image of the Roman Republic and is probably more an isolated case than it was the norm. Had it been the norm there would not have been made such a ruckus over it. Plus, although many a tribune of the people had been murdered, in the end justice usually prevailed and neither the assassins nor the plotters got away with it freely.

In the Empire, it’s true that the people didn’t have much of a say in the everyday political affairs. However, there was a considerable social mobility. The military structures that allowed for promotion and the political structures that allowed for the acquisition of citizenship or release of slaves were still present and probably worked even better than in the last days of the Republic (if not, there would have been a lot more revolts and uprisings). A large part of the bureaucracy was still intact. A lot also depended on the character of the emperor and – an underestimated factor – the way he was portrayed by writers after the emperor’s death. Domitianus for example is classically portrayed as one of the more evil emperors, having executed a number of senators. However, most forget that under his rule fewer senators were executed than under the rule of Claudius, who is generally regarded as one of the more noble and gentle emperors. A lot also depended on the successor. Vespasianus, who started another dynasty after the turbulent four-emperor-year (69 CE), benefited from having his direct predecessors portrayed as incompetent, decadent and greedy. On the other hand, Hadrianus owes his good reputation largely to his successor, Antoninus Pius, who prevented the Senate from not divinating him. So in fact some Emperors may not have been as dictatorial, mad or cruel as they have been presented even though there was a considerable factor of cruelty present in the Roman Empire. The cruelty factor will be discussed elsewhere in this essay.

Women and slaves

Still, one might argue, what about women and slaves? Clearly they do not belong to an image where Rome is presented as an almost modern state with modern problems, values and thoughts. And indeed that is correct. Much like the earlier example of Iuvenalis, who is to our norms a reactonary fellow, the Romans’ denial of voting rights for women, and persistent slavery, are elements which cannot be ignored. However, it cannot be single-mindedly interpreted as an extremely conservative way of life or a fascist type of social institution.

First off, if a man (a pater familias) mistreated his slaves, woman or children it usually didn’t go by unnoticed. The Romans themselves didn’t consider the use of domestic violence as an acceptable means to maintain order in the household. Suetonius, in his famous biographies of the first emperors of Rome, tries to point out that Nero’s father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was a cruel madman because, among other things, he hit his wife and children. Also, if an owner neglected and abused his slaves, it would eventually harm him as well from an economical perspective. The masters had every interest in keeping their slaves healthy and content, lest they would run away or become unproductive because of physical or psychological problems. Secondly, while laws at first sight dealt with slaves as though they were mere objects or furniture, it is known that master-slave relationships could result in friendship and were not always authoritarian in nature. Cicero for example was genuinely concerned with the fate of his slaves and it is known that Cato Maior, who is frequently cited by those who support the view of a fascist Rome, laboured on the land with his slaves as a sign of solidarity.

The Fascist-Nazi view on slaves was connected to racial ideologies. While in Rome most slaves were of Greek, Gallic, Punic or Germanic origin, this was more a consequence of their wars rather than a deliberate effort to enslave a certain people, let alone a race. Most likely Romans would have thought of such purposes as wasteful and uneconomical. I think it is better to view slavery as a more primitive part of their society which, by historical accidents, remained. Although some relativist historians may not like descriptions such as "primitive" and "advanced" to label societies with, it is clearly visible that nearly all pre-industrial empires used slaves. Essentially Rome was a primitive society, in spite of technological and political advancements unparalleled by their neighbours. Among intellectuals there was a certain awareness of moral values (as in many of these societies), but more often than not waves of primitive destruction ripped through the system. Frequent street rioting and political assassinations are examples of this, but also the bloody and sadistic gladiatorial games which no one seemed to mind. We should bear in mind that the masses were uneducated, poor and frustrated. Modern individuals release or channel their frustration through sport, television or the Internet but for the common Roman, who had a much longer working day, such avenues were unavailable. The image of Rome we have is very much coloured by a select elite of male aristocratic writers.

It has also been offered as an explanation that the amount of lead in the Romans’ water may have caused slight lead poisoning on a larger scale, which would explain these moral aberrations on the Romans’ part. This claim has not been proven. I personally think that cruelty is a factor present in any society. If one considers the violence on TV and the abhorrent genocides in World War II – only 50 years ago – I wouldn’t say that cruelty in our lives has been diminished on a scale that large. Surely it has become less and less openly acceptable in the course of the centuries but it doesn’t take away that it’s still there. What used to be gladiatorial bouts are now violent action movies and police chases. This "open cruelty" of the Romans has been abused by fascist thinkers and politicians to point out that Roman culture and civilisation existed not only in spite of but precisely because of this ruthlessness with weaker elements. Why this isn’t true for slaves and women has been demonstrated above, but there is another reason why this link is false.

Throughout history, where large groupings of people begin to form cities because many people feel attracted to one place (because of economic or religious advantages), the need arises for moral and legal codes on a more organised and reflective way than in small villages or farming communities where things are relatively simple. Because of the likely possibility that in large communities conflicts will arise if people hold on to older traditions, new moral codes need to be invented. As such, people gradually become morally more aware of things through both education and force which in turn become new traditions. Many countries in the world are now urbanised in a great degree, and unsurprisingly the most urbanised and densely-populated countries (claim to) have the highest moral standards. Rome, although the city itself was one of the first megacities ever, was still a more rural civilisation, which implies more primitive elements than in, say, 20th century Germany. The Empire and certainly the Republic didn’t have that many cities which could be compared to our modern cities. Rome was urban, but with a strong rural touch. Our vision is also warped, by the way, again because most Roman writers worked in Rome itself – although many came from the countryside or the colonies.

Back to women. While women could not vote, and strong female characters such as Etruscan women or Queen Cleopatra were viewed by their male contemporaries with a mixture of fear and admiration, it is undeniable that some women have been very influential in the history of Rome. Livia, Augustus’ wife, had a huge impact on the development of the empire by insisting on the nomination of her son Tiberius as successor to Augustus. In the Severan dynasty women held the true power behind weak monarchs such as Alexander Severus and in the later Eastern Empire there have been empresses. Women had, by the 2nd and 3rd century, achieved a considerable independence in social life. We mustn’t forget, by the way, that in the Republic Cato Maior tried to impose an edict restricting the personal freedom of women, an edict which he later withdrew because of massive protest. Hardly a fascist thing to do, no? It must also be noted that women were considered to be in charge of the household, the domain where they ruled supreme, and even the paterfamilias could not intervene that easily. The cliché of the dominant Italian mama has its roots in this tradition, which also existed in Greece, although to a lesser extent.

Xenophobia and racism

Fascism is generally connected to the idea that one's own group, community or people is superior to other peoples and, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, condones racism and xenophobia – hatred and fear of minorities, other peoples and other nations. This, too, has been linked to Rome in various contexts. Famous examples include Iulius Caesar's wars in Gallia, which decimated the local population and effectively erased most of the Celtic heritage in these parts through a process of Romanisation, which only left the fringes somewhat Celtic (modern Bretagne, where Breton people still speak a Celtic language, much like in the fringes of the British isles). And what to think of the infamous hellenophobia that came over Rome after Greece was conquered in the 2nd century BCE? Cato Maior forbade his sons and disciples to read anything Greek, simply because it was Greek. He accused them of plotting to overthrow the state and kill all Romans, extremist rhetoric which would nowadays only be used in frustrated ultra-rightist circles such as the Ku Klux Klan. Modern fascists see the fact that Cato could write these things without being publicly chastised as a justification for their own racist views, or views which imply that other cultures are inferior.

Again, however, it must be noted, as it has been in the previous sections, that Rome still was a more primitive culture. Not everyone had access to basic education. The thought that other peoples around you are inferior, certainly when they are slaves, is very tempting if you live in harsh conditions or when you notice – if you can afford to travel or if you are part of a legion – that Roman society is much better organised and clearly structured than other societies in the area, the idea that the Roman people somehow has a mission to civilise others is a very logical thought, even though it smacks of both arrogance and ignorance. Similar practises, by the way, are not only confined to Rome. The idealistic ideal to "civilise the barbarians" reoccurs in the neo-colonial 19th-century empires of the United Kingdom, France and to a lesser extent Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium (Spanish and Portuguese colonisation was somewhat different). Next to the low education level of the masses, in general we mustn't forget that the military conquests of Rome were not primarily racist in nature. Caesar did not march into Gallia with the idea to rid the world of the Gaul people living there. He simply wanted to conquer and gain power. That genocide was committed was more of a side-effect than a purpose on itself, no matter how cold that may seem.

A thing which neo-fascist thinkers often appear to forget about Rome is the fact that during the Empire, "strangers" became emperor. Traianus and Hadrianus were both from Spain. Diocletianus, generally regarded as one of the greatest emperors, came from Illyricum (present-day Slovenia) and most likely had a very mixed heritage. Even in the earlier stages of the Empire, local chieftains and kings were incorporated into the Roman system of government without much question. And in spite of Cato's outburst towards the Greeks, the Romans had a lot of admiration for Greek culture. Hellenists have remarked that in fact large chunks of Roman culture are copied versions of Greek and Etruscan elements. While this is a different and very controversial matter altogether, it is certain that Romans didn't think of foreign cultures as that inferior if they incorporated elements from it (something the Nazi Germans would have never even dreamed of to do with the Jews!). So even if there were racist and fascist streaks in the Roman character, this certainly was not a general rule and was, just like politics, far from a concrete ideology.


In concluding, I would like to point out two things.

The first is a suggestion. Perhaps it is time that we should realise that Roman culture had many elements which we would not tolerate today and might even look upon as dangerous, while some of these elements are part of our cultural heritage. Rather than applying rules of political correctness to Rome's many controversial thinkers, writers and phenomena, we should look at ourselves and ask ourselves what we are doing. Perhaps Rome could inspire us to be more tolerant of different, even if extremist, opinions and accept these as a fact rather than trying to silence them. This is not to say that we should condone those views, however.

The second is a firm warning. Rome, Roman culture, history and politics cannot be single-mindedly interpreted to fit into the framework of one or two ideologies. First, the Roman history spans such a long time that it would be impossible, and secondly Rome could not have been ruled by certain types of ideologies if they didn't really exist, although some individuals' mindset shows similarities. Neither the Roman Republic nor the Roman Empire were fascist, totalitarian states and should not be allowed to be abused this way. Single-minded interpretations are always dangerous anyway.

Optime valete!
© 2001-2018 Societas Via Romana