In modern times the so-called Roman salute was immortalized by Jacques-Louis David in his The Oath of the Horatii from 1786. Today the gesture is foremost associated with the Nazis. Less well-known is the fact that until 1941 the Roman salute was likewise used in American civil religion and performed when pledging allegiance to “the stars and stripes”. The idea to pick up the old Roman way of greeting – most certainly imagined with the help of David’s painting – seems to have came up within a group of Christian socialists. Included in this group was the Baptist minister Francis Bellamy who broadcasted the use of the salute, allegedly suggested by a friend in the early years of 1890s, thereby giving rise to the nickname “the Bellamy salute”.
I have however encountered an earlier use of the Roman salute among the Knights of Labor. This Christian socialist/humanist secret order was tremendously influential in ths US, especially in the 1880s. In the very first outline to their imperative ritual manual Adelphon Kruptos, a handwritten draft from sometimes between 1869 and 1874, probably written by Uriah Smith Stephens, we learn that the knights had a special secret “covenant sign”: “The (officer) W.A. will call all in the room up and to a rest or military attention, when prayer may be offered by any one designated by the W.A. or by the (officer) D.A.S. Place all eyes on the W.A. and all give the covenant sign in five motions to a rest.” In the marginal of the draft, this ritual element is described as “officers and appis(?) make pentagon”. A couple of pages later it is explained this way: “In five motion 1 left hand on right breast, 2 right hand raised closed, 3 open right hand palm in front, 4 right hand down to side, 5 left hand down to the side, in military rest pause a moment.”
I’ll bet Francis and his friends once were knights! It is also noteworthy, that, if I am correctly informed, Francis Bellamy was the cousin of Edward Bellamy, the author of the extremely influential socialist utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000–1887 from 1888.
The path transferring the Roman salute of David and French republicanism to fascism and Nazism, is said to go through the Italian epic movie Cabiria from 1914 (that I haven’t yet watched). The author to the screenplay was the fascinating Gabriele d’Annunzio, who in his short-lived republic of Italian Regency of Carnaro mixed proto-fascist themes with radical syndicalism.