The BBC News website recently reported on an unusual document that eulogizes Benito Mussolini and the rise of his fascist movement. It’s unusual—not only because it is in Latin—but also because it is still buried, unreachable, at the base of an intact obelisk in Rome that was erected in 1932 as part of a new sports complex, the Foro Mussolini. Two contemporary scholars, Han Lamers and Bettina Reitz-Joosse, reconstructed the parchment’s 1,200-word message using little-known documentary sources.
I was not surprised to learn of the document’s contents because after several years of studying and writing about the fascist dictator, I find it consistent with the man’s view of himself—as God’s early 20th-century gift to the Italian people. A few years ago, I toured the Foro with the eminent historian Emilio Gentile, and heard all about Mussolini’s delusions of grandeur. Professor Gentile confirmed what I had written in a series about the role that religion and its symbols have played in establishing false messiahs like Mussolini, even legitimizing them in the public’s eyes.
In describing the buried Latin document, one of the classical scholars who reconstructed it notes, “The text presents Mussolini as a kind of new Roman emperor, but also, by using biblical language, as the saviour of the Italian people.” In their book about the document, the two scholars detail how the regime usurped scriptures about Christ and applied them to Mussolini, casting him as a messiah [albeit false] in a very direct way. The document asserts that Il Duce had given back “to the Italians that Italy which the ancient Romans had made the light of the entire world.” Lamers and Reitz-Joosse point to themes that connect Mussolini to the “bringer of light,” and assign him what amounts to the role of Christ as the “light of the world” (see Luke 2:32; John 8:12).
The idea for the false messiahs’ series grew from a realization that Christ had mentioned that such people would come after his departure. The buried Latin text as interpreted by the scholars is an astonishing piece of evidence that Mussolini is, in fact, one figure who fulfilled Jesus’ warning about imposters coming in His name. When Jesus told his disciples that “many will come in My name saying ‘I am the Christ’ and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:5), He did not mean that they would say that He, Jesus, is the Christ. The punctuation in the verse conveys that they would put themselves in the role of Christ and claim to be saviors, specially ordained for the role. There have been many such politically motivated imposters across the centuries who have used elements of religion to popularize themselves, deceiving whole populations—even currying favor outside their own regimes.
In Mussolini’s case, the United States government supported his regime for many years because it was thought that fascism was a better bet for Italy’s future than the radical left. In a bid to encourage post-WWI economic order to their advantage, U.S. bankers and even two presidents (according to history professor Adam Tooze), favored the dictator—at least until Mussolini decided that he needed an empire and attacked Abyssinia. When Il Duce tied himself to another false messiah, Adolf Hitler, he ultimately sealed his fate, and his economic friends quickly became his enemies.
Though actors and settings have varied, the role of false messiah has changed little: imposters recite the same script over and over again, only to fail in ignominious and very destructive ways, ruining nations, families and lands including their own. This is exactly what Christ warned His followers about. Such men will continue to be an intermittent feature of human society until the day the true Christ returns to take up His permanent role in the Kingdom of God that will be established on earth.