Forget the Elephants
Though Italy’s political disarray cannot in any sense be compared to the civil war raging across the Mediterranean in Libya, its former colony, neither country’s troubles are new. Their troubles are, instead, as old and timeless as Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, which sets the stage for the tragic and historical ties between these Mediterranean nations.
In his poem, Virgil sends his hero Aeneas to hell in order to teach the young man both his own and Rome’s destiny. Aeneas is met there by the shade of his father, Anchises, who gives his son a tour of the underworld, climaxing with a parade of Rome’s as yet unborn heroes. These heroes, -- from Brutus to Cato, Scipio to Caesar -- will shoulder the enormous burden of empire. Their arts, Anchises emphasizes, will put their “stamp on the works and ways of peace/to spare the defeated, break the proud.” Ultimately, Rome’s fate is to rule over “empire without end.”
Sparing the defeated did not go over well in either Virgil’s poem -- Aeneas kills his defenseless opponent Turnus -- or in Rome during its series of existential wars with its North African rival Carthage. Overcoming the elephants of Hannibal and the fecklessness of its politicians, Rome had, by the end of the second Punic war, proved its superiority. Though it had no compelling commercial or geopolitical reason to remain suspicious of an enfeebled Carthage, Rome nevertheless went to war a third time and erased Carthage from the map.
Rome thus found itself in uncontested rule over the Mediterranean: The wealth of mineral and human resources from North Africa (and Spain) transformed a middling regional power into an empire. At the same time, the austere values associated with the Roman Republic -- known as the mos maiorum (ways of the ancestors) -- fell victim to this surge in power and riches. Hannibal had his revenge, in AJ Toynbee’s famous phrase: Rome had indeed defeated Carthage, but tragically had also defeated those very ideals that had made it Rome.
Two millennia later, Virgil was called upon to justify a new kind of Punic war. In a 1934 speech, Benito Mussolini, the leader of Fascist Italy, mocked the imperial ambitions of Adolph Hitler. Who did the Nazis take themselves for? Were not Hitler’s ancestors little more than illiterate barbarians, Il Duce thundered, when the race of Romans had already given birth to Caesar and Virgil? And was it not this illustrious past that fascism would resurrect by once again crossing the Mediterranean in quest of its imperial destiny?
The fact that ancient Libya’s borders did not match those of modern Libya -- the site of Carthage was now in Tunisian territory -- was a mere detail that would not derail Mussolini’s ambition to become a new Caesar. Building upon an earlier invasion of Libya in 1912, Mussolini also launched the successful invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Fascist Italy thus controlled the northern and southern coasts of the mare nostrum -- a matter of strategic concern for a country utterly dependent on these sea routes for its imports. At the same time, Italy suddenly found itself the ruler of more than nine million Muslims. Anxious to guarantee stability, but also to show the world that it was worthy of this imperial reach, Rome declared that fascism would benefit its Muslim subjects no less than its Christian ones.
It is against this background that, in 1937, Mussolini made a ballyhooed and carefully staged visit to Libya during which he touted his newfound relationship with Islam. The visit’s climax occurred at a sand dune outside Tripoli, where Mussolini sat astride a black stallion draped in a cloth that had the fasces, the symbol of Fascist Italy, embroidered in gold thread. Two Libyan veterans of the Ethiopian campaign then presented Mussolini with a sheaved sword. Mussolini pulled it out, thrust it toward the skies and declared that a new dawn greeted Libya: “Fascist Italy intends to guarantee the Muslim people of Libya and Ethiopia peace, justice, well-being and respect for the laws of the Prophet.”
These words echoed Anchises’ command concerning the arts of imperial rule. Il Duce promised North Africans that fascism, unlike the democracies of France and Great Britain, would bring a gentler and kinder form of imperialism to their benighted lands. But like everything else during this state visit, the promise was mere décor. As the two Libyan veterans who greeted Mussolini with the “sword of Islam” already knew, the civilizing mission of the Italian military had not only used mustard gas in its Ethiopian campaign, it had also engaged in civilian massacres of a ghastliness against which the destruction of Aeneas’ Troy paled in comparison.
As we entered yet another millennium, stagecraft and photo ops, blusters and lies continued to shape Libyan-Italian relations. In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Qaddafi signed a “Friendship Treaty” that built upon the reparation accord brokered by the two men in 2002. The treaty’s ostensible purpose was to help normalize the West’s relations with Libya; its real purpose was to facilitate hefty commercial contracts between Libya and Italian firms, including armaments deals ranging from helicopters and patrol boats to torpedoes and small arms that are now all aimed at Libyan dissidents.
As Libya descends into civil war, Italy, for its part, confronts challenges that dwarf Berlusconi’s “bunga-bunga” bashes. Libya, of course, provides one quarter of Italy’s petroleum needs; moreover, billions of Libyan petrol-dinars have been funneled into an array of Italian corporations. No less critically for Italy, her shores are poised to become the destination par excellence for tens of thousands of Libyan refugees fleeing the bloodshed at home. These accidental tourists threaten to curtail the flow of real tourists -- a catastrophic prospect for a nation whose GDP is kept afloat by tourism receipts.
When Berlusconi visited Libya in 2008 to seal the treaty, Qaddafi presented him not with a sword, but two camels. As there was no room for the shaggy souvenirs on the state airplane, Berlusconi left them behind in Tripoli. However we interpret the changing nature of these gifts, one truth stands out: once again, Hannibal has had his revenge. Forget the elephants: the democratic and republican principles embodied by Berlusconi’s Rome have been trampled under foot by its own leaders, avid for contracts and cheap foreign policy successes. Robert Zaretsky is professor of history at the Honors College, University of Houston, and with Alice Conklin and Sarah Fishman, author of France and Its Empire Since 1870, (Oxford University Press). Copyright ©2011 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global