The Roman salute (Saluto Romano) is a gesture in which the arm is held out forward straight, with palm down, and fingers touching. In some versions, the arm is raised upward at an angle; in others, it is held out parallel to the ground. The former is a well known symbol of fascism that is commonly perceived to be based on a custom in ancient Rome. However, no Roman text gives this description and the Roman works of art that display salutational gestures bear little resemblance to the modern Roman salute.
Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Oath of the Horatii (1784) provided the starting point for the gesture that became later known as the Roman salute. The gesture and its identification with Roman culture was further developed in other French neoclassic artworks. This was further elaborated upon in popular culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in plays and films that portrayed the salute as an ancient Roman custom. These included a 1914 film called Cabiria based upon a screenplay by the Italian nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio. In 1919, d’Annunzio adopted the cinematographically depicted salute as a neo-imperial ritual when he led the occupation of Fiume.
Through d’Annunzio’s influence, the gesture soon became part of the Italian Fascist movement’s symbolic repertoire. In 1923 the salute was gradually adopted by the Italian Fascist regime. It was made compulsory within the Nazi party in 1926, and adopted by the German state when the Nazis took power in 1933. It was also adopted by other fascist movements.
Since World War II, the salute has been a criminal offense in Germany and Austria. Legal restrictions on its use in Italy are more nuanced, and use there has generated controversy. The gesture and its variations continue to be used in neo-fascist contexts.
The modern gesture consists of stiffly extending the right arm frontally and raising it roughly 135 degrees from the body’s vertical axis, with the palm of the hand facing down and the fingers stretched out and touching each other. According to common perceptions, this salute was based on an ancient Roman custom. However, this description is unknown in Roman literature and is never mentioned by ancient historians of Rome. Not a single Roman work of art, be it sculpture, coinage, or painting, displays a salute of this kind. The gesture of the raised right arm or hand in Roman and other ancient cultures that does exist in surviving literature and art generally had a significantly different function and is never identical with the modern straight-arm salute.
The right hand (Lat. dextera, dextra; Gr. δεξιά) was commonly used in antiquity as a symbol of pledging trust, friendship or loyalty. For example, Cicero reported that Octavian pledged an oath to Julius Caesar while outstretching his right arm:
“Although that youth [the young Caesar Octavian] is powerful and has told Antony off nicely: yet, after all, we must wait to see the end.” But what a speech! He swore his oath with the words: “so may I achieve the honours of my father!”, and at the same time he stretched out his right in the direction of his statue.
Sculptures commemorating military victories such as those on the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Constantine, or on the Column of Trajan are the best known examples from art. However these monuments do not display a single clear image of the Roman salute. For example, three such scenes have been analyzed on Trajan’s Column. On plate 99 (LXII, Scenes LXXXIV-LXXXV), six onlookers have their hand raised to Trajan, half extended straight, half bent at the elbow. On the ones with straight arms, only one palm is open but held vertically. The fingers of the three with bent arms are pointed downward. On Plate 167 (CII, Scene CXLI), three Dacians extend their right arms toward the emperor, their open hands held vertically and their fingers spread. None of the Romans are returning their gesture. On plates 122–123(LXXIV-LXXVI, Scenes CI-CII), the emperor on horseback is greeted by a unit of legionaries. None of the 15 legionaries is raising his entire arm. An officer facing Trajan has his arm close to his body, the lower arm raised, his index finger pointing up, and the other fingers closed. Behind him, two right hands are raised with fingers spread wide. Trajan himself holds his upper right hand close to his body, extending only the lower arm.
The images closest in appearance to a raised arm salute are scenes in Roman sculpture and coins which show an adlocutio, acclamatio, adventus, or profectio. These are occasions when a high-ranking official, such as a general or the Emperor, addresses individuals or a group, oftentimes soldiers. Unlike modern custom, in which both the leader and the people he addresses raise their arms, most of these scenes show only the senior official raising his hand. Occasionally it is a sign of greeting or benevolence, but usually it is used as an indication of power. An opposite depiction is the salutatio of a diogmites, a military police officer, who raises his right arm to greet his commander during his adventus on a relief from 2nd-century Ephesus.
An example of a salutational gesture of imperial power can be seen in the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta which follows certain guidelines set out by oratory scholars of his day. In Rhetorica ad Herennium Cicero states that the orator “will control himself in the entire frame of his body and in the manly angle of his flanks, with the extension of the arm in the impassioned moments of speech, and by drawing in the arm in relaxed moods”. Quintilian states in his Institutio Oratoria:
Experts do not permit the hand to be raised above the level of the eyes or lowered beneath the breast; to such a degree is this true that it is considered a fault to direct the hand above the head or lower it to the lower part of the belly. It may be extended to the left within the limits of the shoulder, but beyond that it is not fitting.
18th–19th centuries France
Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Oath of the Horatii (1784) provided the starting point for the gesture that became later known as the Roman Salute. The painting shows the three sons of Horatius swear on their swords, held by their father, that they will defend Rome to the death. It is based on an historical event described by Livy (Book I, sections 24-6) and elaborated by Dionysius in Roman Antiquities (Book III). However, the moment depicted in David’s painting is his own creation. Neither Livy nor Dionysius mention any oath taking episode. Dionysius, the more detailed source, reports that the father had left to his sons the decision to fight then raised his hands to the heavens to thank the gods.
Dominating the center of the The Oath of the Horatii is the brothers’ father, facing left. He has both hands raised. His left hand is holding three swords, while his right hand is empty, with fingers stretched but not touching. The brother closest to the viewer is holding his arm almost horizontally. The brother on the left is holding his arm slightly higher, while the third brother holds his hand higher still. While the first brother extends his right arm, the other two are extending their left arms. The succession of arms raised progressively higher leads to a gesture closely approximating the style used by fascists in the 20th century in Italy, albeit with the “wrong” arms
Art historian Albert Boime provides the following analysis:
The brothers stretch out their arms in a salute that has since become associated with tyranny. The “Hail Caesar” of antiquity (although at the time of the Horatti a Caesar had yet to be born) was transformed into the “Heil Hitler” of the modern period. The fraternal intimacy brought about by the Horatii’s dedication to absolute principles of victory or death … is closely related to the establishment of the fraternal order … In the total commitment or blind obedience of a single, exclusive group lies the potentiality of the authoritarian state.
After the French Revolution of 1789, David was commissioned to depict the formation of the revolutionary government in a similar style. In the Tennis Court Oath (1792) the National Assembly are all depicted with their arms outstretched, united in an upward gesture comparable to that of the Horatii, as they swear to create a new constitution. The painting was never finished, but an immense drawing was exhibited in 1791 along side the Oath of the Horatii As in the Oath of the Horatii, David conveys the unity of minds and bodies in the service of the patriotic ideal. But in this drawing, he takes the subject further, uniting the people beyond just family ties and across different classes, religions, and philosophical opinions.
After the republican government was replaced by Napoleon’s imperial régime, David further deployed the gesture in The Distribution of the Eagle Standards (1810). But unlike his previous paintings representing republican ideals, in Eagle Standards the oath of allegiance is pledged to a central authority figure, and in imperial fashion. Boime sees the series of oath pictures as “the coding of key developments in the history of the Revolution and its culmination in Napoleonic authoritarianism”.
The imperial oath is seen in other paintings, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (Hail, Caesar, those who are about to die salute you) of 1859. In this painting, the gladiators are all raising their right or left arms, holding tridents and other weapons. Their salutation is a well-known Latin phrase quoted in Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum (“The Life of the Caesars”, or “The Twelve Caesars”). Despite becoming widely popularized in later times, the phrase is unknown in Roman history aside from this isolated use, and it is questionable whether it was ever a customary salute, as is often believed. It was more likely to be an isolated appeal by desperate captives and criminals condemned to die.
19th–20th centuries United States
On October 12, 1892, the Bellamy salute was demonstrated as the hand gesture to accompany the Pledge of Allegiance in the United States. The inventor of the saluting gesture was James B. Upham, junior partner and editor of the The Youth’s Companion. Bellamy recalled Upham, upon reading the pledge, came into the posture of the salute, snapped his heels together, and said “Now up there is the flag; I come to salute; as I say ‘I pledge allegiance to my flag,’ I stretch out my right hand and keep it raised while I say the stirring words that follow.”
Because of the similarity between the Bellamy salute and the Nazi salute that emerged in Germany in 1920s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the hand-over-the-heart gesture as the salute to be rendered by civilians during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem in the United States, instead of the Bellamy salute. This was done when Congress officially adopted the Flag Code on June 22, 1942. There was initially some resistance to dropping the Bellamy salute, for example from the Daughters of the American Resolution.
Early 20th century in theatre and film
The gesture, already established in the United States through the Bellamy salute, has been traced to the Broadway production of the play Ben-Hur. The play, based on Lew Wallace’s book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, opened on Broadway in November, 1899 and proved to be a great success. Photographs show several scenes using the gesture, including one of Ben-Hur greeting a seated sheik and another of a small crowd so greeting Ben-Hur in his chariot. Neither Wallace’s novel nor text for the theatrical production mentions a raised arm salute. The salute was evidently added in keeping with the exaggerated style of acting in 19th century theater, which in turn influenced acting in the silent cinema.
The salute frequently occurs in early 20th century films set in antiquity, such as the American Ben-Hur (1907) and the Italian Nerone (1908), although such films do not yet standardize it or make it exclusively Roman. In Spartaco (1914), even the slave Spartacus uses it. Later examples appear in Ben-Hur (1925) and in Cecil B. DeMille’s Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934), although the execution of the gesture is still variable.
Of special note is the use in Giovanni Pastrone’s colossal epic Cabiria (1914). The screenplay was attributed to Italian nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was known as the “poet-warrior”. Inspired by the Italo-Turkish War, in which Italy conquered the North African Ottoman province of Tripolitania, Pastrone perused a politically volatile issue. The film highlights Italy’s Roman past and the “monstrous” nature of Carthaginian society, which is contrasted with the “nobility” of Roman society. Cabiria was one of several films of the period that “helped resuscitate a distant history that legitimized Italy’s past and inspired its dreams” and which “delivered the spirit for conquest that seemed to arrive from the distant past”, thereby presaging the “political rituals of fascism”, “thanks … to its prime supporter and apostle, Gabriele d’Annunzi
Variations on the salute occur throughout Cabiria on the part of Romans and Africans. Scipio uses the gesture once. Fulvius Axilla, the story’s fictitious hero, twice employs it as a farewell greeting to his hosts. The Numidian king Massinissa, guest of the Carthaginian Hasdrubal, raises his right hand and is so greeted in return, once by the strongman Maciste. Princess Sophonisba and King Syphax mutually great each other by raising their hands and declining their bodies. The diversity of the gesture and the variety of nationalities who use it in Cabria is seen as further evidence that the salute is a modern invention, used in the film to highlight the exotic nature of antiquity.
20th century adoption by Fascists
D’Annunzio, who had scripted Cabiria, appropriated the salute when he occupied Fiume in 1919. D’Annunzio has been described as the John the Baptist of Italian Fascism, as virtually the entire ritual of Fascism was invented by D’Annunzio during his occupation of Fiume and his leadership of the “Italian Regency of Carnaro”. Besides the Roman salute, these included the balcony address, the cries of “Eia, eia, eia! Alala!”, the dramatic and rhetorical dialogues with the crowd, and the use of religious symbols in new secular setting
Like other neo-Imperial rituals utilized by D’Annunzio, the salute became part of the Italian fascist movement’s symbolic repertoire. On January 31, 1923, the Ministry of Education instituted a ritual honoring the flag in schools using the Roman salute. In 1925, as Mussolini began his fascitization of the state, the salute was gradually adopted by the regime, and by December 1, 1925 all state civil administrators were required to use it.
Achille Starace, the Italian Fascist Party secretary, pushed for measures to make the use of the Roman salute generally compulsory, denouncing hand shaking as bourgeois. He further extolled the salute as “more hygienic, more aesthetic, and shorter.” He also suggested that the Roman salute did not imply the necessity of taking off the hat unless one was indoors. By 1932, the salute was adopted as the substitute for the handshake. On August 19, 1933 the military was ordered to use the salute whenever an unarmed detachment of soldiers was called on to render military honors for the King or Mussolini.
The symbolic value of the gesture grew, and it was felt that the proper salute “had the effect of showing the fascist man’s decisive spirit, which was close to that of ancient Rome”. The salute was seen to demonstrate the fascist’s “decisive spirit, firmness, seriousness, and acknowledgment and acceptance of the regime’s hierarchical structure”. It was further felt that the correct physical gesture brought forth a change in character.
The bourgeois gesture was supposed to disappear from the view of Italians and not contaminate their daily life. In 1938, the party abolished handshaking in films and theater, and on November 21, 1938 the Ministry of Popular Culture issued orders banning the publishing of photographs showing people shaking hands. Even official photographs of visiting dignitaries were retouched to remove the image of their handshaking.
In Germany the salute, sporadically used by the Nazi Party (NSDAP) since 1923, was made compulsory within the movement in 1926. Called the Hitler salute (Hitlergruß), it functioned both as an expression of commitment within the party and as a demonstrative statement to the outside world. Yet in spite of this demand for the outward display of obedience, the drive to gain acceptance did not go unchallenged, even within the movement. Early objections focused on its resemblance to the Roman salute employed by Fascist Italy, and hence on it not being Germanic. In response, efforts were made to establish its pedigree and invent a proper tradition after the fact.
The compulsory use of the Hitler salute for all public employees followed a directive issued by Reich Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick on July 13, 1933, one day before the ban on all non-Nazi parties. The Wehrmacht refused to adopt the Hitler salute and was able for a time to maintain its own customs. The military were required to use the Hitler salute only while singing the Horst Wessel Lied and German national anthem, and in non-military encounters such as greeting members of the civilian government. Only after the July 20 Plot in 1944 were the military forces of the Third Reich ordered to replace the standard military salute with the Hitler salute.