9.30.2013

Sarah Bond - Roma Aeterna: Cartography, Propaganda, and Mussolini's Rome

Whenever I go to Rome, I often eavesdrop. Don't pretend that you don't too. Something that often catches me by surprise are the conversations had by visitors to the area of the Colosseum, next to the Via dei Fori Imperiali, where people often ponder a series of maps that illustrate the growth of the Roman Empire. Assertions about the makers of the maps often range from Augustus to Nero to Marcus Agrippa, but rarely do American tourists pinpoint the actual crafty cartographer: Benito Mussolini. 



Five maps were put there by Il Duce in order to illustrate the growth of the Roman empire,  all fastened onto the Basilica of Maxentius and looking out onto the Via dell'Impero. Only four remain in situ--with the fifth now in storage. This fifth map was intended to show the reach of the new Italian empire, one that Mussolini had proclaimed after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in a speech of May 10, 1936. While this new Italian empire was never fully realized, it can be said that Mussolini understood the power of maps to communicate the traditional Roman ideals of potestas, auctoritas, and dignitas, and realized the latent potential of maps as propaganda. 

Those tourists in Rome are not that far off--particularly when they guess Agrippa or Augustus. Julius Caesar had originally commissioned Greek geographers to map the world, but when he met an untimely death, he did not live to see it. The job of creating a world map fell then to Marcus Agrippa. Agrippa too died before the survey was finished, but Augustus remained faithful to his friend and finished the job.


The map was likely rectangular and placed in the Porticus Vipsania, along the Via Lata. It was perhaps intended to show the extent of the earth and to demonstrate to what extent Rome had already conquered most of it, but may also have been intended to visualize the number of colonies planned by Augustus. 
The Porticus Vipsania

Although not smack dab in the center, it is notable that the city of Rome is the focus of the map; a sun in a heliocentric, Mediterranean universe. Similarly, when I reflect on the maps of Mussolini, I am reminded of how his maps were used to predict the future for the audience and to give them hope. In Augustus' case, he provided hope that the long civil war was over. Hope that he could make Rome great again after a long century of turmoil. Hope that this new empire would last into perpetuity. 

This brief post can not even begin to touch on the use of maps as propaganda in antiquity. For that, we can turn to a number of books from the likes of Richard Talbert and Claude Nicolet. However, I wanted to share my thoughts on Mussolini and to recognize that despite the fact that his maps show a destructive idea of imperium, they were also meant to inspire the thousands of Italians that stood on the roadside along Mussolini's newly remade Forum area, to believe in their leader and in his abilities. It is rather a good thing that Mussolini was nowhere near the man that Augustus was, and that the fifth map of Mussolini will perhaps forever stay in storage.  




Suggested Reading: 

O.A.W. Dilke, "Maps in the Service of the State: Roman Cartography to the End of the Augustan Era," 

Heather Hyde Minor, "Ritual and Cartography in Public Art During the Second Roman Empire," Imago Mundo 51 (1999), 147-162. 

Kenneth Scott, "Mussolini and the Roman Empire," Classic Journal 27.9 (June 1932), 645-657.

Richard J.A. Talbert, Rome's World (Cambridge, 2010). 

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