Of the three most infamous dictators from World War II, Benito Mussolini definitely takes a backseat to his more merciless fellow despots, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
Mussolini, in fact, comes across like a bit of a buffoon, given his fateful decision to side with the Nazis, his nation’s performance during the conflict and his ultimate fate (captured trying to escape to Switzerland, executed by firing squad and then hung upside down in a town square where his body was pelted with stones by his fellow Italians).
Il Duce dreamed of recreating a Roman empire reminiscent of the great Caesars, to the point of enacting ancient laws totally out of step with the 20th century.
He went so far as to revive the Code of Diocletian, writes Rebecca West in her masterful 1941 work Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which recounts her travels through Yugoslavia in the late 1930s.
“(Mussolini) retrieved, whether from the half-comprehended talk of a clever comrade or by skimming a volume in the threepenny box outside the bookshop, the Code of Diocletian; and being either unaware or careless that Diocletian had perished of despair in his palace at Split, because he had failed to check the descent of ruin on the Roman earth, he enforced that Code on his country,” West writes. “This was a comical venture.”
She adds that Diocletian had “some excuse for seeking to stabilize by edict the institutions of an empire that had lasted for over a thousand years,” but it was idiotic for Mussolini “to attempt to fix the forms of a country that had been unified for less than a century and was deeply involved in a world economic system which was no older than the industrial revolution.”
Ultimately, Mussolini’s reign would be an even greater failure than Diocletian’s (284-305 AD).
Unlike previous emperors, Diocletian demanded people call him “Dominus” and “Deus,” meaning Lord and God, with “Lord,” in this case meaning master, as in master to a slave. The Roman Empire became a nation of slaves with one master, Diocletian.
All who came to Diocletian for an audience had to approach on hands and knees with face averted. If Diocletian ruled in one’s favor, he was allowed to crawl on hands and knees and kiss the hem of the emperor’s tunic.
Diocletian was faced with enormous economic problems, including rampant inflation due to generations of predecessors who had overspent. He dealt with the problem by enacting the Edict on Maximum Prices, setting price ceilings for every good and service in the empire, with violations punishable by death.
When the inevitable shortages occurred, Diocletian dealt with the shortages by forcing key businessmen to remain in business. He also mandated that all children of these men must remain in the same profession perpetually. Likewise, he did this for underpaid government jobs that no one wanted – making them hereditary people would be forced to fill them.
Diocletian also had a draconian solution to the tax situation that plagued the empire. Many of Diocletian’s tax revenues came from property taxes on farm land. When property taxes on these lands got too high, the occupants abandoned them and moved to the city, and no one was left to pay the tax.
Diocletian took a census and forced peasants to return to the land of their birthplace. Further, he forced them to remain in perpetuity on certain plots of land and pay the taxes due.
He also initiated the last and most severe of the Roman’s Christian persecutions. In 303, he issued a series of edicts rescinding the legal rights of Christians and demanding that they comply with traditional Roman religious practices. Later edicts targeted the clergy and ordered all inhabitants to sacrifice to the Roman gods. This persecution lasted beyond Diocletian’s reign, until the Edict of Milan was issued by Constantine.
Mussolini, according to West, was enamored with Diocletian’s Code because it had to be applied with violence, something he and his minions were particularly adept at. He turned Italy into a police state by the mid-1920s and was no longer responsible to the Italian parliament.
Although foiled in his bid to attack both Yugoslavia and France in 1933 by French success at breaking Italian military codes, Mussolini later turned his attention to Ethiopia. Italian efforts to subjugate the African nation are estimated to have resulted in the deaths of about 7 percent Ethiopia’s total population between 1936 and 1941.
In the end, Italy would suffer 444,500 deaths during World War II, including those of more than 153,000 civilians.
Even Diocletian, megalomaniac that he was, had the sense to step down from power when he was ill. Mussolini ended up dead, strung up on a meathook from the roof of a gas station in Milan. A fitting end for a thug.
(Top: Mussolini, center, with supporters during the March on Rome in 1922.)