Captationes ~ Modern Politics Linking to the Past

When I was an undergrad, one of the favourite phrases I picked up along the way was the captatio benevolentiae, which, as most folks reading this blog will know, involves a speaker saying good/complimentary things to their audience in order to ‘get them on his/her side’ early on. It was a common technique in ancient oratory and one which is very common today as well. Another one of the phrases which caught my ear in my undergrad years was captatio testamenti, which was usually translated as ‘legacy hunter’, i.e., someone — usually a young male — who courted a much older, much wealthier person in the hopes of being left something in their will when they passed. The events of the past few days in Charlottesville got me thinking about how both of those captatio techniques seem to have been front and center: there were plenty of appeals to the biases of various audiences and some political groups clearly build on some ‘legacy’ of ‘their’ past which they are hoping to cash in on.

Of course, such things are not new and have been happening ever since Greece and Rome were, well, Greece and Rome. Indeed, some of the groups in Charlottesville like to use the Greco-Roman world to justify their extreme views. As such, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an amazing example of ‘cultural appropriation’ in modern times which I came across while my family was vacationing in Sicily over a decade ago.  One of our side trips was to Taormina and Giardini Naxos and in our meanderings (after eating some memorable arancini from a street vendor), we came to what I thought was one of the ugliest churches we had come across:


The Church of Santa Maria Immacolata comes from that era (the 1960s) when architecture does not appeal to me. And so, while some folks  wandered to look inside, I decided to wander towards a fountain in the little piazza in front of the church, which from afar looked like it had the Ten Commandments incorporated into it somehow. The first side I saw, however puzzled me a bit:


Okay … so it was put up in 1932. But why would it have this AGERE NON LOQUI (as I’m writing this, someone on CNN just coincidentally said “Actions speak louder than words”, which is the idea; literally it’s Latin for ‘To do, rather than to speak”)? In the 1930s, of course, Italy was a fascist state. Was this some sort of fascist motto? So next, we have to wander around to the next side:


Still pondering the Latin on the previous side, we get more Latin. ANNO X E R (I think that’s an R, as will be explained below). Then we get the MEMENTO AUDERE SEMPER (‘Remember to always be daring’) which was a well-known motto of the Fascists and various fascist groups in 1930s Italy. So perhaps we are dealing with a monument (still standing) where the Fascists seem to be using Latin to link to some past?

Turning to the third, and final side, it all comes together:


ANNO 2865 DI ROMA … hmmm … this little bit has been bugging me for over a decade because the math didn’t work. But an appeal to twitter this afternoon proved fruitful as Dr Yarrow (@profyarrow) suggested 2865 was a mistake by the engraver for 2685. When that is realized, the ‘Roman anno’ does correspond to 1932. This seems to solve the ANNO X E. R., which would be ten years before, of course, or 1922, when the Fascists did their march on Rome (which could be rendered Expeditio Romam?). And finally, we get our most obvious statement that we’re dealing with a Fascist monument: EX FASCIBUS SALUS: “Safety from the fasces”. Personally, I would think AB would be preferable to EX, but I guess it works.

In any event, it’s an interesting example of a modern political group using the Classical past to attempt to give their movement that extra gleam of legitimacy. I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions  …