Often, the wheels of historical scholarship turn in an orderly, if underwhelmingly unglamorous, fashion. But every once in a while, a scholarship story emerges that reads more like a plot lifted from The Da Vinci Code than a tale of everyday archives and archaeologists. Take the recent analysis of a message from Benito Mussolini beneath an obelisk in Rome—a tale that, as the BBC’s Becky Branford writes, pitted a group of classical scholars against a long-forgotten document.
The document in question is the Codex Fori Mussolini (translated to Mussolini Forums Codex in English), and it’s been in existence since 1932. At the time, the Italian dictator built a shrine to himself in the form of a 300-metric ton obelisk that says “Mussolini Dux.” Built from marble and placed at the entrance of a sports complex now called the Foro Italico in Rome, the obelisk had something buried at its base: three gold coins and a parchment written in Latin. While the contents of the parchment were first published in Latin in the 1930s, the writing was largely overlooked and never translated into Italian.
Peter Aicher, a classics professor at the University of Southern Maine, reintroduced Mussolini's Forum in a 2000 paper, where he first mentioned the forgotten codex. His work led two classical scholars, Bettina Reitz-Joosse and Han Lamers to analyze the text. Though the codex itself is still buried at the bottom of the obelisk, Reitz-Joosee and Lamers were able to reconstruct it using archival sources. They tell Branford that they believe the text was not intended for Italians of the time at all, but rather to serve as a kind of time capsule that glorified and eulogized the feats of Roman Fascism for the future.
Mussolini commissioned Aurelio Giuseppe Amatucci, a classical scholar, to write the piece in Latin. The codex uses the language of ancient Rome to draw parallels between Italian Fascism and the feats of the ancient world. That tactic was used regularly by Mussolini, who adapted ancient rituals and symbolism to lend credence to his harsh political ideology. He also commonly expressed the nationalist, reactionary ideology he championed through architecture—much of which remains in Rome to this day.
Once translated, the codex reveals a history of fascism, an idealized narrative of Italy’s fascist youth movement and the construction of the obelisk itself. As Branford reports, Mussolini presented himself as Italy’s savior—despite the fact that his own regime suppressed political debate, murdered his critics and collaborated with the Nazis.
It may be centuries before the real codex is unearthed and read, but for now the obelisk that contains it stands as an uncomfortable symbol of a dictator’s imagined future. Want to know more? Reitz-Joosse and Lamers just published a book about their findings that details the codex and its implications.
Editor's note, September 6, 2016: This story has been updated to give credit to professor Peter Aicher, whose work on Italy's Fascist period first unearthed the forgotten codex.