Editorial Introduction

(Re)Living Greece and Rome: Performances of Classical Antiquity under Fascism

In: Fascism
Eleftheria Ioannidou Rijksuniversiteit Groningen Groningen The Netherlands

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This special issue examines the use of classical antiquity within artistic, cultural, and political events under fascist regimes in the interwar period. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany promoted the production of ancient drama, alongside forms of theater modelled on Greek antiquity, organized grand-scale classical spectacles, and deployed ancient themes and classical-looking symbols and insignia at political gatherings and displays. The analyses presented in this special issue bring into dialogue the scholarship on theater and culture under fascist regimes with the growing literature on the reception of the classics to foreground the significance of performative practices in reconfiguring the classicizing mythologies of fascism. It is the hope of the guest editors that the findings presented here will contribute to the study of performances that strove to re-enact historical pasts beyond the scope of classical reception.

The present special issue examines the use of classical antiquity within artistic, cultural, and political events under fascist regimes in the interwar period. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany promoted the production of ancient drama, alongside forms of theater modelled on Greek antiquity, organized grand-scale classical spectacles, and deployed ancient themes and classical-looking symbols and insignia at political gatherings and displays. The analyses presented in this special issue bring into dialogue the scholarship on theater and culture under fascist regimes with the growing literature on the reception of the classics to foreground the significance of performative practices in reconfiguring the classicizing mythologies of fascism. This issue thus adds to the fields of comparative fascist studies and classical reception by offering new insights into the reinvention of the ‘classical’ through theater and performance.1

The field of comparative fascism has been shaped by two influential theories that appeared in the 1990s: that of national palingenesis, which provides the basis for Roger Griffin’s definition of generic fascism, and the sacralization of politics expounded by Emilio Gentile.2 One of the hallmarks of these theories was interest in the revolutionary aspects of fascism in terms of both content and form. The new paradigm they engendered viewed fascism as a radical ideology as well as a cultural and anthropological revolution that aspired to create a new, ‘virile’ human being and to transform society from the ground up. As a populist movement, fascism relied on the mobilizing power of rituals and spectacles to diffuse its ideology throughout society; historical re-enactments, commemorative events, political pageants, parades, and festivities proliferated within fascist regimes in the interwar period. In addition to political spectacles, artistic and cultural performances reified its ideological message not only in rhetorical form but through spatial and bodily practices. Political and cultural events embroiled their audiences in different versions of the mythology of a reborn nation, but they did so by stirring collective emotions and sensations. Whilst scholars have paid attention to the spectacular character of fascism, the relationships between the spectacularization of politics and its regenerative ideology have not been sufficiently investigated. To bring this relationship to the fore, we consider political and cultural events as forms of collective action that actualized the core myth of national rebirth. Such events did not merely refer to the resurrection of the nation; rather, they strove to perform this resurrection by re-enacting an imagined, distant past.

In the two fully-fledged fascist dictatorships of the interwar period, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany,3 the invocation of classical antiquity purported to accord the regimes historical and cultural legitimacy. But the claim to the ancestries of Greece and Rome under Hitler and Mussolini was also rationalized though historical and racial myths that were bound up with the idea of national palingenesis. Gentile was one of the first to highlight the prominence of the Roman past under Italian Fascism, contending that the cult of romanità lay at the foundation of the secular religion promoted by Mussolini.4 National Socialism also derived its political symbols and rituals from classical antiquity, using ancient history and archaeology to validate its racial ideology. Johann Chapoutot discusses the ‘annexation’ of Greek and Roman civilizations to construct the origin myth of a Nordic master race.5 As Chapoutot argues, the racialized conception of Graeco-Roman antiquity, encapsulated in Hitler’s belief in the racial kinship between Greeks, Romans, and Germans, was predicated upon a cyclical conception of history in which the nation fights against its eternal enemy.6 The uptake of Griffin’s theory of palingenetic ultranationalism within classical reception studies resulted in a renewed understanding of the classicizing tendencies of fascism. The works of Joshua Arthurs and Jan Nelis, among others, show that the worship of Rome during the ventennio fascista did not represent a nostalgic attachment to classical tradition but was integral to a worldview that was profoundly modernist.7 Helen Roche and Kyriakos Demetriou draw a similar picture in their edited volume on the appropriation of the classics under Italian Fascism and National Socialism.8 The chapters presented in their volume offer a critical reappraisal of fascism’s role in redefining notions of classicism.

The literature on fascism’s classicism is predominantly concerned with textual, visual, and material objects rather than with theater and performative cultures.9 Yet, the efforts of fascist regimes to revivify a great past set the focus on performance as a dynamic medium that can transform classical traditions. Taking the cue from Günter Berghaus’s introduction to the edited volume Fascism and Theatre, we aim to advance an understanding of fascist performances that stretches beyond theater history by highlighting the performativity of cultural and political expression. As Berghaus remarks, there is need for a more thorough engagement with the methodologies of performance analysis alongside ‘a comprehensive examination of theatrical and performative phenomena in support of fascist movements.’10 With this in mind, we draw attention to the processes of embodiment that characterized classical reception under fascism. The approach advanced here seeks to analyze how the ancient symbols and references were activated and resignified through artistic and political performances. By extending theories of performance and performativity to the study of fascism, we reappraise the effectiveness of non-verbal elements, corporeality, and atmosphere in promulgating political ideology.

The artistic and political events that invoked classical antiquity offer us a heuristic tool to investigate fascism’s palingenetic character. Under Italian Fascism and Nazism, the revivification of the Graeco-Roman worlds was envisioned as a reversal of the alleged cultural decay of the previous decades. In that regard, the turn to the classical past within fascist theaters, public rituals, and political gatherings was, in and of itself, an act of turning antiquity into a living past, enfolded in the present of the nation. The function of these performances can be compared to the example of La Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista [Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution] at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome in 1932, a major event organized to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome. According to Jeffrey Schnapp, the heterogeneity of the exhibits put on display reflected an uneasy co-existence between ‘chaotic elemental forces’ and ‘sober formalism’,11 which exemplified Italian Fascism’s ability to make a productive principle out of paradox. In a similar manner, fascist performances that incorporated classical elements blended different temporal planes into a coherent whole, serving as ritual affirmations of the symbiosis between past and present, historical and mythical time, antiquity and modernity.

In this special issue, the notion of performance encompasses artistic forms, cultural events, and political action. This broad understanding of performance as a practice that inhabits both the political and the aesthetic spheres—constantly straddling and blurring their boundaries—is germane to the theatricality of fascist politics but also prompts a consideration of the effects produced by performative actions. We analyze how artistic and political events complemented each other in terms of organizing collective identity around the alleged historical, cultural, and racial roots, taking account of the role of physical vocabularies, corporeal interactions, and material and spatial properties. Of course, the use of performance to forge a connection with Graeco-Roman antiquity occurs in other historical contexts, such as in the classical spectacles of the French Revolution or colonial pageants in the US.12 Whilst we are aware that classicizing spectacles were not unique to fascist regimes, our aim is to foreground the enhanced performativity that distinguished fascist political cultures and to appraise the effect of this hyper-performativity in fusing the classical past into the mythology of national rebirth. The antiquity-inspired performances examined in this issue point towards a conceptualization of the classical that was rooted in process, embodiment, and effect. These terms are associated with an understanding of performances as events co-produced through the emotive and affective responses generated in the spectators. As concerted actions with the power to implicate their audiences, performances work to reinforce dominant power structures; as such, they offered an instrument for engineering and homogenizing a new body (politic).

The articles presented in this special issue establish a dialogue between classical reception, theater history, film studies, cultural history, archaeology, and architectural studies. Our inquiry advances an understanding of fascist political and artistic performances as the outcome of a complex interplay between representational strategies, bodily practices, and media technologies. The first three authors discuss the use of classical themes and forms in the theater and drama produced under fascist regimes. Eleftheria Ioannidou investigates the promotion of open-air theaters modelled on Greek prototypes in relation to the performative aesthetics of fascism. The turn to Greek models in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany enabled a rupture from the prevailing codes of bourgeois theater which was consistent with the efforts of the avant-garde to revolutionize the stage, but it was also key to embedding classical antiquity in the socio-political landscape of fascism. In the ancient sites and the new amphitheatrical spaces constructed in the open air, performances were designed as communal rituals that could transpose their audiences to a distant past.

Sara Troiani focuses on the classical spectacles organized by the Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico [INDA; National Institute of Ancient Drama] at the archaeological sites of Agrigento and Paestum in Sicily between 1928 and 1938. Inspired by the ritual and dance cultures of ancient Greece, these performances relied on the visual to engage their modern audiences. Troiani links this visual aesthetic to the idea of ellenismo artistico [artistic Hellenism] proffered by classical philologist Ettore Romagnoli who was one of the key protagonists in the revival of open-air theater and the artistic director of INDA between 1914 and 1927. As Troiani argues, it was precisely their visual character that rendered these spectacles an effective form of entertainment for the masses under Mussolini.

If Greece furnished the model for the theatrical forms and spectacles promoted by fascist regimes, themes from ancient history were mobilized in fascist drama to weave the past into the fascist present and future. Patricia Gaborik focuses on the historical drama Cesare (1939) by Giovacchino Forzano. The play provided the third part of the trilogy commissioned and, to some extent, co-authored by Mussolini, following Campo di Maggio (1930) and Villafranca (1931), which took as their heroes Napoleon and Cavour, respectively. Gaborik examines the blending of pedagogical dramatization and propaganda emanating from the transhistorical correspondence established between Julius Caesar and Mussolini. As the article demonstrates, this correspondence, reinforced through explicit parallels between the ancient and the modern dictators, is key to constructing what Claudio Fogu has termed ‘poetics of history’,13 presenting Mussolini’s ultimate victory as the conclusion to Caesar’s story.

The use of theater to galvanize the crowds was intertwined with the deployment of new technological media for purposes of dissemination and propaganda. Giovanna Di Martino focuses her exploration on a lesser-known facet of Italian Fascism’s appropriation of classical antiquity, namely the practices of documenting and archiving performances and spectacles, and inscribes them within archival scholarship on performance. Di Martino documents how Italian Fascism made use of historically connoted ‘cultural tools’, i.e. those belonging to ancient Greek theater, as ‘living archives’. The analysis zeroes in on images and film footage archived and stored digitally at the Istituto Luce as well as on the use of, and rhetoric around, re-opened and re-purposed ancient Greek and Roman sites all over the peninsula and in colonized Libya. As Di Martino shows, Fascism’s archival practices were linked to the function of theatrical performances themselves as ‘living archives’ that harnessed the collective memory of an ever-present past.

The interconnections between technology and classical imagination are explored in Fiona Macintosh’s article on the Greek-style dance in Britain in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The so-called Greek dance gave rise to a corporeal Hellenism which was influenced by classical scholarship and archaeology as much as it was shaped by modernism. The article links the use of chronophotography in clinical research to the study of the poses depicted on Greek vases by dance practitioners who sought to reproduce ancient dance. The turn to Greek ideals in modernist dance was associated with quests to liberate the body from nineteenth-century norms of gender and morality. But the utopian visions of a ‘natural’ body that underpinned this new visceral approach to antiquity were also seeped in the eugenic thinking that, as Macintosh demonstrates, was widespread in Europe in the decades preceding the rise of fascism. The ideal of the healthy individual body founded upon a racial reading of Greek antiquity fed into the imagining of a strong and racially pure collective in the work of Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman.

While modernist dance practitioners turned to Greek antiquity seeking alternatives to industrialized urban living, the intersection of classicism and modern subjectivity of a different kind is discussed in Pantelis Michelakis’s discussion of Leni Riefensthal’s Olympia (1938). Drawing attention to the troubled relationship between Riefenstahl and her co-director Willy Zielke and their different approaches that shaped the surviving version of the prologue, the analysis underscores how the cinematic medium breaks down the distinction between antiquity and modernity. In the film, the world of ancient Greece, in its material remains, cultural practices, and ideals, provides both an imagined mythicized origin and the vision for the present through what Michelakis describes as ‘an aestheticization of violent substitutions’. This contribution complements the examinations of the performing arts, revealing how notions of corporeality were brought forth through the fusion of modern technology and classical imagination.

The next three contributions explore the relationships of live events with material cultures and architecture. Dimitris Plantzos and Vasileios Balaskas take as their subject the symbolic gifts of Romanizing statues exchanged between Fascist Italy and Spain before and after the establishment of the Francoist dictatorship. Through the exportation of lo stile fascista [the Fascist style] to Spain, Mussolini’s regime sought to forge a shared sense of romanitas. According to the authors, the performative events staged on the occasion of these exchanges invited audiences to imagine themselves as re-Romanized soldiers of a new empire; in this manner, they emphasized the dynamic materiality of antiquities and contributed to disciplining the body of citizens.

Han Lamers and Bettina Reitz-Joosse investigate the intersection between the Roman past and political spectacle focusing on the use of Latin in the public ceremonies and performances of Italian Fascism. The article expands on their seminal work on the Codex Fori Mussolini, the first translation and commentary of the Latin text hidden in the foundations of the white obelisk at the Foro Mussolini.14 The three case studies discussed in their article represent different modes of ‘staging’ Latin, from the formation of the word DVX through the arrangement of bodies in space, the quotations from Latin authors integrated into the scenery of political events, and the texts sealed into the foundations of public buildings during the official inaugurations known as the posa della prima pietra [laying of the first stone]. Although these events were attended by diverse audiences who did not have knowledge of Latin, the authors appraise the effect of the language in relation to its visual, material, and symbolic functions. Whilst the use of Latin was meant to emphasize the rebirth of Rome under Fascism, the blending of ancient text with medieval and Renaissance visual elements reaffirmed the continuity of the Italian history offering participants a sense of transcendence.

In the final contribution, Jonathan Spellerberg is concerned with the relationship between materiality, spatiality, and performative enactment from the vantage point of architectural studies. In opposition to approaches that view Nazi architecture in terms of a finalized object, Spellerberg draws attention to the political discourses that surrounded the planning, construction, and use of the monumental sites erected in the Third Reich. Similar to Albert Speer’s theory of Ruinwert [ruin value] that projected Nazi architecture into the distant future, these discourses emphasized architectural construction as a process of becoming. In that sense, the idea of regeneration was not only mapped onto material space but became enacted by those who participated in designing and building of these venues—the community performing Germany’s reconstruction.

The contributions to this issue deal with the spectacularization of politics, the blending of propaganda and aesthetics, and the embodied practices that enacted the mythologies of fascism. One of the most distinctive common threads that runs through them is the consideration of the effect of performances in terms of fusing past, present, and future. Whether artistic or political, performances that invoked Graeco-Roman antiquity offered material and physical instantiations of the supratemporal visions that fascism strove to introduce into historical time. With its focus on the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler, and insights into other European contexts, this issue invites comparisons that seek to decenter the study of fascism. Fascist movements based their diverse but overlapping mythologies of cultural, national, and racial supremacy on the historical narratives of European nationalisms. The idealized versions of the nation held up by fascist movements in countries beyond Italy and Germany were predicated upon historical eras celebrated in national histories, like the invocation of the Dutch Golden Age by Anton Mussert’s Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging [National Socialist Movement] or Tudor England by Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists. Like the use of classical antiquity, these histories helped to create a symbiosis between past and present which was core to fascism’s radical utopianism. It is the hope of the editors that the findings presented here will contribute to the study of performances that strove to re-enact historical pasts beyond the scope of classical reception.


The contributions to this issue are developed from the papers presented at two conferences on the topic of classical antiquity and fascist performances: ‘Classics and the Spectacular under Fascism’, hosted by the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama at Oxford (2019), and ‘The Fascist Archive in Performance’, hosted by the Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (2021). The editors would like to thank the director of the APGRD Fiona Macintosh and the director of the ICOG Sabrina Corbellini who supported and funded these events. Our special thanks go to Giorgio Ieranò and the Laboratorio Dionysos of the University of Trento. We are grateful to Roger Griffin for his enthusiastic response to the project and insightful comments along the way.


Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991) and Emilio Gentile, ‘Fascism as a Political Religion,’ Journal of Contemporary History 25, no. 2–3 (May–June 1990): 229–251, and Il culto del littorio: La sacralizzazione della politica nell’Italia fascista (Rome and Bari: Laterza, 1993).


The debates about whether Nazism can be categorized as a variant of fascism date back to the interwar period and are invariably shaped by ideological controversies. For an overview of these debates, see Ian Kershaw, ‘The Essence of Nazism: Form of Fascism, Brand of Totalitarianism, or Unique Phenomenon?,’ in The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, fourth edition (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 23–54. According to Kershaw, ‘[t]he concept of fascism is more satisfactory and applicable than that of totalitarianism in explaining the character of Nazism, the circumstances of its growth, the nature of its rule, and its place in a European context in the inter-war period’. (52) In a similar vein, the comparative method applied to the diverse fascist movements of the interwar period addresses their common traits in terms of political ideology, organization, and cultural expression. See Constantin Iordachi, ed., Comparative Fascist Studies: New Perspectives (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).


Gentile, ‘Fascism as a Political Religion.’


Johann Chapoutot, Le national-socialisme et l’Antiquité (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008). In English: Greeks, Romans, Germans: How the Nazis Usurped Europe’s Classical Past (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).


Chapoutot, Greeks, Romans, Germans, 287–323.


Joshua Arthurs, Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). Jan Nelis, ‘Back to the Future: Italian Fascist Representations of the Roman Past’, Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies 3 (2014): 1–19,; Jan Nelis, From Ancient to Modern: The Myth of Romanità during the Ventennio Fascista: The Written Imprint of Mussolini’s Cult of the ‘Third Rome’ (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011); Jan Nelis, ‘Constructing Fascist Identity: Mussolini and the Myth of “Romanità”,’ The Classical World 100, no. 4 (2007): 391–415.


Helen Roche and Kyriakos Demetriou, eds. Brill’s Companion to the Classics, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2018).


Few works within the literature on fascist cultures focus on uses of antiquity within political spectacles. For example, see Gerald Silk, ‘ “Il Primo Pilota”: Mussolini, Fascist Aeronautical Symbolism, and Imperial Rome,’ in Donatello among the Blackshirts: History and Modernity in the Visual Culture of Fascist Italy, eds Claudia Lazzaro and Roger J. Crum (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005), 67–81.


Günter Berghaus, ‘Introduction,’ in Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925–1945, ed. Günter Berghaus (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1996), 8.


Jeffrey T. Schnapp, ‘Epic Demonstrations: Fascist Modernity and the 1932 Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution,’ in Fascism, Aesthetics, and Culture, ed. Richard J. Golsan (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1992): 4.


See, for example, Ihor Junyk, ‘Spectacles of Virtue: Classicism, Waxworks and the Festivals of the French Revolution,’ Early Popular Visual Culture 6, no. 3 (2008): 281–304, and Trudy Baltz, ‘Pageantry and Mural Painting: Community Rituals in Allegorical Form,’ Winterthur Portfolio 15, no. 3 (Autumn 1980): 211–228.


Claudio Fogu, The Historic Imaginary: Politics of History in Fascist Italy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).


Han Lamers and Bettina Reitz-Joosse, The Codex Fori Mussolini: A Latin Text of Italian Fascism (London: Bloomsbury: 2016).

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