The Roman salute

The Tennis Court Oath, by J-L David The salute was supposed to have been used in the Roman Republic, but there is no clear evidence of this. Indeed it is not known whether salutes as military courtesy existed at all in Roman culture. However, a number of images showing similar gestures exist from the Imperial era. These depict Roman leaders addressing their troops (“adlocutio” scenes). Usually the leader has his arm raised in a rhetorical gesture. In some images a few troops are also depicted with raised arms, possibly suggesting acclamation of the leader. Several such scenes appear on Trajan’s Column.

According to a study for The Distribution of the Eagle Standards, by J-L David, the association of the gesture with Roman republican culture seems to have emerged in 18th century France with revolutionary and anti-monarchist movements of the era. Several paintings in the Neoclassical style depict Roman heroes adopting variants of the gesture. The most famous and influential of these is Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Oath of the Horatii (1784), which illustrates a pledge of loyalty to the Roman republic.

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 as they swear to create a new constitution. After the republican government was replaced by Napoleon’s imperial régime, David further deployed the gesture in images of Napoleon receiving the acclamation and loyalty of his soldiers. These consciously imitated ancient Roman ad locutio scenes. The most important of these paintings is The Distribution of the Eagle Standards (1810).

As the founder of the French academic school of art, David was imitated by many painters during the 19th century, who regularly depicted the straight-arm gesture in scenes of Roman imperial history.
From oath to salute

A picture from the Illustrated Exhibitor (1852) depicting the installation of an early German king Adolf Hitler giving the National Socialist salute. These early images of the gesture are not strictly speaking salutes, since most actually depict the swearing of oaths. It was with this function that the so-called Bellamy salute was adopted in the United States in 1892 as part of the Pledge of Allegiance.

This required that participants should initially bend their right arm with the hand held against the forehead, as in a conventional military salute. The arm should then be “extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the flag.” Similar gestures were adopted elsewhere in the late-19th century among both nationalist and socialist movements. In the modern USA, when swearing legal oaths and oaths of government office, the affirmant uses the gesture of an upraised arm, bent at the elbow, palm facing outward, which bears resemblance to the Roman Salute.

It is unclear precisely when the oath gesture became transformed into a quasi-military salute, though it appears in this role in some Davidian paintings, most famously Jean-Léon Gérôme’s popular Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (Hail Caesar! They Who Are About to Die Salute You) of 1859. At the same time research by Augustin Thierry into the rituals of Gallic and Germanic tribes led to the claim that such gestures were associated with ancient “Aryan” peoples for whom monarchy was said to be defined more by charismatic prowess than simple inheritance.

Nordic ideology, which was later embraced by the National Socialists, claimed that the leading classes of ancient Greek and Roman culture had originated among Germanic peoples, who had migrated south. In consequence it was argued that the gesture was Nordic in origin, expressive of the free acclamation of a leader.

Benito Mussolini and Hitler, Mussolini giving the Roman salute. By the end of the 19th century, the gesture was recognised as a symbol of communal acclamation, appropriate as a sign of allegiance to be used in several mass movements. A version was adopted as the Olympic salute, with arms raised to the side of the body, as in The Oath of the Horatii. The gesture was also portrayed as a salute in a number of early films about ancient Rome, such as Ben Hur (1907), Nerone (1908), Spartaco (1914) and Cabiria (1914).

The Italian nationalist writer and adventurer Gabriele D’Annunzio, who had scripted Cabiria, appropriated the salute with a neo-Imperial meaning when he occupied Rijeka in 1919. It was later taken up by the Italian fascist party to symbolise their claim to have revitalised Italy on the model of ancient Rome. In the Italian version the arm was typically raised quite high above the shoulder with the palm bent outwards, in a rhetorical manner similar to Roman imperial statuary. Other fascist groups also adopted versions of the salute, including the German National Socialist Party, in which the arm was raised smartly to the front, at right angles to the chest with the palm turned downwards.

Because of the similarity between the Bellamy salute and the National Socialist salute, 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 22 June 1942. A similar form of an elevated right arm prevailed among certain Catholic youth organisations in the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and Germany, e.g. the salute of the members of the Grail Movement.

Their using the Roman salute was however ended in the mid-1930s, as confusion far too often arose over whether their salute form in public was an act of tacit support for Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, or not. Anti-clerical left-wing publications often used 1920s and early 1930s pictures of bishops and other clergy saluting these Catholic youth movements with the Roman salute, as to imply a “National Socialist” or “Fascist” orientation of these bishops and priests, or even the Catholic Church in general.

Post-war use

The association with National Socialism has been so strong that the salute has rarely been used by non-National Socialist organizations since the end of World War II. There are several exceptions: in Portugal, Mexico and the Republic of China (Taiwan), the salute is still used during the swearing of oaths in inaugurations. The salute is also still used by some Palestinian and Arab militant groups such as Hamas— a use particularly controversial because of the Arab–Israeli conflict.

It is also known to be used by the Tamil separatist organization, the LTTE, while saluting their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. In 2005, Italian footballer Paolo Di Canio created controversy by using the gesture on several occasions to salute hardcore right-wing S.S. Lazio fans. Di Canio has also expressed admiration for Mussolini.

The salute continued to be portrayed as a real feature of Ancient Roman culture in some historical dramas about Rome, such as the 1951 film Quo Vadis and the 1960 film Spartacus. It has been used as such as recently as the 2005 TV series Empire and the HBO TV series Rome.

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