Martin M. Winkler’s The Roman salute: Cinema, History, Ideology is the first and largely successful attempt to characterise and demystify what has become known in popular culture as il saluto romano or the “Roman salute”.
Winkler’s argument is essentially that the Roman salute is in fact not Roman at all, but became associated with Rome retrospectively through pre-1935 cinema’s need to provide its audience with “visual activity on the screen” (p.83). The Italian Fascists, and later the Nazis, appropriated the salute and imbued it with symbolism from which it cannot be disentangled. Winkler argues that in the aftermath of World War II movie-makers from Allied countries portrayed Rome as a Fascist/Nazi metaphor and the Roman salute as loaded with the ideology of those regimes. Winkler’s ultimate claim is that cinema presents its audiences with “irreal history” (p.11), the paradox of which is not discernible to them. To him the acceptance of the historical veracity of the Roman salute in cinema is an example of “potent fiction” edging out “real history” (p.11).
In support of his thesis, Winkler first traces the origins of the Roman salute, looking for hints in ancient sources. He then turns to its treatment in the last two hundred years in a variety of media, to conclude with a detailed discussion of the salute in cinema. The political ideology with which Fascism and Nazism imbued the salute is also expounded.
The Roman salute as a gesture in cinema has never been examined in such detail as in Winkler’s study. This volume thus adds further depth to the ever-increasing scholarship on ancient cultures and cinema, exemplified by the works of Gideon Nisbet, Maria Wyke and Jon Soloman. Winkler is himself one of the foremost specialists on Classical Antiquity in cinema, and this study is an important addition to his previous analysis of the subject.1
The book contains seven chapters, headed by a tripartite introduction and footed by a brief conclusion. Three appendices provide primary material that is too lengthy for the main body of the text. In the first part of the Introduction, “History and Ideology: Half-Truths and Untruths” (pp.1-6), the author sets the scene for a study of the Roman salute in its historical context, particularly in relation to various far-right groups or the “extreme fringes” of society (p.2), such as the American Falangist Party. The Second part, “Ideology and Spectacle: The Importance of Cinema” (pp.6-11) examines the ways in which ideology is entangled with visuality, cinema’s only medium. The third part, “About This Book” (pp.11-15), provides a concise summary of each chapter, Winkler’s rationale in respect of his use of evidence, and his source material. The author also notes the immense range of his intended audience: scholars, teachers and advanced students in classical studies, Roman history, art history, twentieth-century European and American history, film, media and cultural studies (p.14). Winkler discusses his use of images and his desire to have included even more, were it not for publishing restrictions. Last, he notes that his book is intended to open up discussion of the Roman salute and provide his audience with an introduction to this topic and suggest possible avenues for further research.
In Chapter One (pp.17-41), “Saluting Gestures in Roman Art and Literature”, the author examines the use of salutes in the ancient world, including the Greek social handshake and military salute as evidenced on the arches of Titus and Constantine, and on the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Discussions of the columns are exemplified using several friezes from each. Monumental evidence of Domitian’s military campaigns are also discussed at length. Winkler’s consideration of literary evidence includes all the key sources—Horace, Livy, Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Quintilian, Plutarch, Suetonius and even Silius Italicus. Returning to archaeological sources, Winkler covers both Greek and Roman examples of various salutes, again with visual evidence. He concludes the survey by discussing the possible interpretations that could be, and have been, made regarding ancient salutes. This chapter is convincing in its claim that the Roman salute, as a specific gesture, did not exist in Antiquity.
Chapter Two (pp.42-56), “Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii“, is devoted almost entirely to a close study of David’s 18th-century painting. For the purpose of analysing the Roman salute, Winkler sees the ‘Oath of the Horatii’ as an ideological cross-road. In it he recognises a scene intended to depict a particular (albeit fabricated) occasion from Antiquity that also contains propagandist messages for its contemporary audience. The author traces the origins of the painting and the cultural and political contexts surrounding its inception, ultimately concluding it to be the “starting point for an arresting gesture that progressed from oath-taking to what will become known as the Roman salute” (p.55).
Chapter Three, “Raised-Arm Salutes in the United States before Fascism” (pp.57-76) provides an overview of raised-arm salutes in 19th-century America prior to the emergence of Fascism in Europe. The author first turns to the early form of the Pledge of Allegiance, which originally included an entirely similar gesture to the one that came to be used by Fascists and Nazis. This uncomfortable association is not explored in depth; Winkler simply asserts that the gesture had no political or historical connotations in the United States. Next, Winkler begins with an examination of portrayals of Antiquity in cinema since its beginnings in the 19th century. He expounds the particular problems which directors face in providing their audience with devices that would readily “bring the Romans back to life”: what costumes, diction or gestures would help? (p.66). By the end of this chapter, Winkler has provided a useful analysis of stage direction techniques and examined the dramatic force of the Roman salute.
Having placed the Roman salute within its historical, social and political contexts, and having explored its use as a theatrical device on stage, Winkler now turns to pre-WWI cinematic depictions of salutes in Chapter Four, “Early Cinema: American and European Epics” (pp.77-93). The popularity of movies with religious themes, particularly the so-called ‘passion’ works, is discussed, especially in so far as they give an air of credibility to the details therein. Such films, like the 1925 movie Ben Hur, were often epic in scale and visually spectacular, features which became the norm for movies on religious subjects. The author notes that the cinema took over many conventions that had become ubiquitous in theatre, the Roman salute amongst them. This is an important step in establishing the link between the Roman salute and its use in the movies.
Chapter Five, “Cabiria: The Intersection of Cinema and Politics” (pp. 94-121), is a pivotal one which traces and discusses the use of the Roman salute in Italian cinema from 1914. Winkler sees the film Cabiria as a catalyst for the intersection of movies and politics, and he makes a convincing case for this proposition. Successful political movements usually have a poster-child, and in 1914 Italy had one in Gabriele D’Annunzio, whom Winkler identifies as the “most famous man of letters at the time and a cultural and literary figure well known throughout Europe” (pp.95-96). The chapter is split into three parts. Part 1 provides biographical material on D’Annunzio and his involvement with Cabiria. Part 2 discusses the transition of the Roman salute from an effective visual gesture to a political symbol in Cabiria. Part 3 pursues the seemingly natural evolution from D’Annunzio to Mussolini, and the former’s crucial role as a founding father of Fascism. In Winkler’s view, the films Cabiria and Scipione l’Africano are indelibly linked, literally and ideologically, with both D’Annunzio and Mussolini.
Chapter Six, “Nazi Cinema and Its Impact on Hollywood’s Roman Epics” (pp.122-150), traces the “pseudohistorical model of empire provided by Italian Fascism” (p.122) and its imitation in Nazi Germany. The ideological context of Nazi Germany is explored; Wagner and Hitler are representative of the appeal of the concept of the Roman Empire to would-be imperialists. With this as the backdrop, Winkler turns to an examination of the Nazi salute and compares it to the Fascist saluto romano. Winkler backs up his argument regarding the Nazi fashioning of a new Roman Empire with further evidence of gesture emulation, such as Hitler’s use of standards. Winkler points out that German cinema at this time reflected Nazi ideals in the choice of both subject matter and cinematography. Lengthy discussion of Olympische Spiele, the two-part epic produced following the 1936 Berlin Olympics, provides Winkler with a neat way to segue into discussion of the interconnection between, and confusion around, the almost identical Olympic salute and the now Nazi/Fascist gesture. The last section of the chapter is devoted to a close examination of the Romans in post-war films such as William Wyler’s Ben Hur and Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, as well as other associations in science fiction and American propaganda films. Winkler finds Quo Vadis particularly instructive, on account of its overt references to Nazism and Fascism, and examines several scenes in some detail, analyzing LeRoy’s use of the Roman salute and other devices. Perhaps a separate chapter on Quo Vadis would have provided more scope to explore these themes.
Chapter Seven, “Visual Legacies: Antiquity on the Screen from Quo Vadis to Rome” (pp.151-177), rounds off Winkler’s analysis of the Roman salute with a sweeping look at its use in post-WWII media. Part One, Cinema: From Salome to Alexander (pp.151-169), covers an eclectic variety of movies from 1953 to 2007. The Roman salute, he notes, is not always closely aligned in such films with Nazism or Fascism, although its associations with dictatorial authority are present as vestigial elements reminiscent of those political movements. Winkler bolsters his argument with a particularly heavy use of images in this chapter. Part 2 offers an interesting examination of the Roman salute in television, from Star Trek to Rome (pp.169-177). This section effectively illustrates the pervasive use of the gesture and its connotations.
In the Conclusion (pp.178-183) Winkler promises a final “comprehensive assessment of the cinematic history of the raised-arm salute” (p.178). He lists a veritable United Nations of ethnicities covered in the book. He does introduce some new evidence at this point, discussing John Huston’s film The Bible: In the Beginning, and weaving in varieties of the right-arm gesture that further illustrate its use as a dramatic device. After this, he ties in material already covered with brief discussions of further evidence, ultimately concluding that “the term ‘Roman salute’ makes no historical sense” (p.180) and its place as a cinematic device has converted a fictional construct to an accepted fact.
The Conclusion is followed by three appendices (pp.185-194), in which Winkler provides an English translation of Livy’s account of the Horatii and Curiatii episode, the Roman salute according to Il Capo-Squadra Balilla (that is, the Italian Fascists’ organization for young men), and a bibliographical summary of modern Italian and German scholarship on Fascism, Nazism and Classical Antiquity. Except for their bibliographical content, these appendices do not seem to enrich the book further.
This book is an invaluable guide to a gesture that has been widely used yet little understood. It is accessible to the scholar, through its lucid analysis of a plethora of evidence, and to the general reader, given its clear and jargon-free diction. Equally useful and entertaining are the pertinent illustrations. Yet it is this very depth and breadth, in terms of both targeted audience and range of material, that provides Winkler with such an unwieldy task. Winkler rightly calls this book a “solid introduction” (p.15) to a huge subject area, and he admits that more evidence could be unearthed to support his argument (or conflict with it). Winkler is attempting to address “several fields of scholarship simultaneously” (p.13) and to appeal to the scholar and non-academic reader alike. Such a multifocal viewpoint means that this study at times suffers from inevitable compromises. From a scholar’s perspective, a comprehensive and systematic gathering of evidence, and related analysis, would have further enriched the book, whilst at the same time general readers would no-doubt have appreciated more illustrations, possibly reproduced in colour. Furthermore, when attempting to reconstruct the intentions of a film or stage director, Winkler’s representation of the nature of the evidence is often problematic. At times, for example, he detects directorial intent behind slightly different performances of the gesture, whereas such differences may conceivably have been unintended and insignificant. Within the framework of the evidence used by the author and his own mandate, this book is, nevertheless, an important introduction to a fascinating and hitherto overlooked subject.
1. M. M. Winkler, Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema (editor and contributor), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001; Gladiator: Film and History, Blackwell, Oxford, 2004; Spartacus: Film and History, Blackwell, Oxford, 2007; Troy: From Homer’s “Iliad” to Hollywood Epic, Blackwell, Oxford, 2007; Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo’s New Light, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009.