Having just stated that Romanità, and its uses by Evola and fascism, is a form political modernism, I must make clear why I continue to call it counter-modern. As I explained in the Introduction, fascism is a complex mixture of political modernism and counter-modern, or Counter-Enlightenment, philosophy. In other words, it seeks to actualize a way of living that is an aggrandizement of the radical edge of modernity, with its fetishes for change, movement, industrialization, and efficiency, while at the same time constructing a cultural core around a scathing critique of the intellectual bases of such social change, namely egalitarianism, marketization, and individualism. Romanità might be useful as a means of motivating the “actualization” of modern life, in the guise of political and social change, but in its championing of selected elements of Rome’s intellectual heritage, demonstrated above by Evola, it is essentially counter-modern.
To take the matter further, Evola explained his use of Romanità in terms that countered the metaphors of collective human aggregates found not only in the origins of liberalism (the people, the nation) but in Hegel (the State). Instead of these concepts, which subsume the individual human will to a system that counter-balances the potential for individual greatness, Evola proposed the Roman and Nordic systems of Tradition. These, he felt, “do not recognize the voice of the leveled multitudes, but instead beat down and mock these idols of clay, these modern ideologies, and organize themselves on the … recognition of the irreducible differences among men, which define themselves in the natural and dynamic relation of their intensity.” The idealized elements of Roman character, then, are not attainable for the multitude. As we have seen, the Ultras conceive of themselves in the same terms, as an elite element that is separated from the bourgeois masses by their own devotion to Evola’s ideals.
It was suggested in previous chapters that the Ultras’ mentalità, while containing aspects common to all Ultra groups in Italy, is better developed in AS Roma’s Ultras than in other curvas. It is, perhaps, no accident that the founders of Commando Ultra Curva Sud coined the phrase “mentalità Ultras” in 1977. This is because of the extraordinary depth of feeling they have for the city of Rome as well as the depth of historical and mythical narratives to be found in the city. Rome, its history and symbolic universe, confer upon Ultra thought and action a sense of “the eternal” or extreme importance.
In 2004 Vincenzo Patanè Garsia interviewed Etore, one of the leaders of AS Roma Ultras. He spoke of AS Roma’s Ultras as “rappresentati di Roma città, e di tutto ciò che vi sta dietro … millenni di Storia e di cultura” (representatives of the city and all which that entails … millennia of history and culture). He continued to explain the pride and responsibility this conferred on the Ultras. “Come eredi di un Impero, come figli della Lupa, come gente Romana, fieri e orgogliosi andiamo in giro […] a sostenere i colori della nostra squadra e sopratutto della nostra città, la più bella del mondo” (like heirs of an emperor, or children of the Lupa [Capitolina], or the Roman people fierce and proud, we go on tour to support the colors of our team, but above all the colors of our city – the most beautiful in the world).
While I was unable to interview Etore for this project I met others who know him well. One of these was Federico, founding member of Antichi Valori, and former member of AS Roma Ultras. He described Etore as a “bravo ragazzo,” (good guy, one of us) one of those always present and one who never turned his back to the enemy. I asked about his statement, quoted by Garsia, hoping to understand the rarity of his love of Rome. Federico shrugged his shoulders and told me, “we all feel this way – it is normal – if someone is this way they are an Ultra.” Sensing my next question he interrupted, “even if one does not go to the stadium.” In other words, not only is Etore’s feeling for Rome and what it means to be Roman not unique, but it is enough to agree with him in order to be considered an Ultra by those who see themselves as the “keepers of the faith,” the most proud and fierce of the Ultras. Federico’s analysis points to an interesting question. If one may be an Ultra without going to a stadium, what is the purpose of the game of soccer within the Ultra phenomenon? And this raises the prior question of why soccer is important to the Ultras.
Why a sport is popular in particular time and place is often impossible to answer. Soccer holds a special place in any debate on the subject, as the United States, the tastemaker of the vast majority of popular culture in the West, is virtually bereft of passion for the game. Avoiding the psychological aspects of aesthetics or fandom, Markovits and Hellerman provide a social/material explanation for the popularity of sports in time and place. The main factor they identify is the presence of a sport for a long period, and crucially, at the moment of industrialization and the creation of mass society. Another factor is that a sport must be played, and not just watched, by a large percentage of the population. Finally, a sport should have enough media coverage that it becomes part of the “hegemonic sports culture” of the nation. It should be discussed long after the games are finished.
The popularity of soccer tends to be a given in countries where it is hegemonic. That it is hegemonic is demonstrated by the connection of national character with the playing style found in each nation. For instance, the Brazilians connect “beauty and art” with the ways their professional and national teams play. Similarly, the Dutch want their teams to play beautifully rather than “doing anything” to win. The Italians, instead, seem to have always associated soccer with warfare. Simon Martin reports on the failure of Serie A to unite the peninsula, as Mussolini had intended, because of the extreme partisanship of local fans. Similarly John Foot summarizes the origins of Italian soccer by explaining the exacerbation of civic rivalries by the game.
The Ultras and their understanding of soccer fit nicely within this understanding of soccer. The game was imported to Italy in the 1880s and became nationalized in the 1920s, meeting Markovits and Hellerman’s criteria. Likewise, Italians obsess over the game in midweek and it is no doubt the dominant sport in the country from a media point of view. And, every Ultra of AS Roma and every fan of soccer I met in Italy played the game in some form. Turning to the national character of the Italian game, the element of warfare and rivalry, as I have shown, is absolutely central to the Ultras as fans and as a unique social phenomenon.
But if soccer is important and available enough to be the sport of choice for the Ultras, what purpose do they see it serving? Following Allen Guttman’s research of Ancient Roman spectators, the Ultras are perfectly consistent with the purpose of Roman sports for their most passionate fans: as an opportunity for partisanship. Guttman uses ancient sources to explain that Roman spectators were extremely partisan, to the point that partisanship seems to have been the point, or at least the draw, of spectating sports in the ancient city. Pliny the Younger, Guttman tells us, had difficulty understanding the passions of the masses for sports. If the masses had a genuine appreciation for the skills one needs to properly control a speeding chariot, perhaps he would have been more sympathetic to their passions. Instead, Pliny said, “it is the racing colors they really support and care about, and if the colors were to be exchanged in mid-course … they would transfer their favor and enthusiasm. Such is the popularity and importance of a worthless shirt.” Guttman continues, explaining that team loyalties were so deep that often a man’s funerary inscription would mention his partisanship.
So deep were the passions for chariot teams that violence between sets of fans was common, with certain rivalries being so inflamed that the rival cities were prohibited from hosting games. Further, identification as a fan of a certain team bound one to a common body that had political clout. Certain colors, as teams were divided by color, were historically affiliated to certain parties. This was true regardless of social rank. “Whatever differences in behavior and even social class there may have been,” Guttman explains, “partisans of both colors moved in much the same world.”
In Rome it never occurred to me to ask the Ultras why they liked soccer. I never even asked myself why I like it, which for me, as an American male raised in a family of athletes of American football and baseball, was far less likely than Italian males who grew up playing the game. Later, however, when the research demanded an answer to the question, I contacted Federico of Antichi Valori. Predictably, he was stumped when I asked why he liked soccer. He had no answer, as if I asked him why he liked oxygen. When I explained what Markovits and Hellerman proposed, he seemed mildly interested but ultimately just said, “it makes sense.” However, when I told him about Guttman’s portrayal of Roman spectators, he was dumbfounded that he “had never known this deep connection between [the Ultras] and the Romans.” He asked for Guttman’s sources so that he could find them in Latin, excitedly telling me “Rome amazes me almost everyday, even after 37 years.” Sociological theory was one thing, in other words, but Rome, and an Ultra’s connection to Rome, was something else entirely.
Sorel distinguishes between the “mere observation of facts” and the “inner reason of things” which is found in the myths that motivate “the will to act.” Romanità is attached to the latter. These types of myths, Sorel argues, are strong enough to safeguard utopias that have no just reason to survive, such as the French Republic. Interestingly, Sorel also explains that myths are even capable of guarding against the “invasion of ideas and morals” of the “hostile” bourgeois class. Romanità is certainly used by the Ultras as a bulwark against the bourgeois form of life.
Through Federico I was introduced to other former members of Antichi Valori; amongst the most dedicated of the Ultras, they are neither completely Left nor Right, but are dedicated instead to Rome. Unlike the imposing and rather menacing skinheads and ideologues of Boys Roma and Padroni di Casa, the four former leaders of Antichi Valori are “clean-cut” professionals and students. Their backgrounds are similar: they are well educated (each having achieved the baccalaureato, or bachelors degree), have steady jobs, steady girlfriends or wives, and live at home or nearby their working parents. They spend as many hours together as possible during the week, often dining out or going to bars to play calcio balilla (table soccer). On summer weekends they go to the beaches near Rome, where table soccer is also widely played. In August they travel abroad or in Trentino.
What separates these young men from others (outside the Ultras phenomenon) is Romanità. Integral to each of the activities that they undertake together is a sense of pride in being Roman and a sense of duty or responsibility to “defend her honor.” I knew from the history of Antichi Valori that they were extremely steeped in the history of Rome, but through passing time with them away from the stadium I learned just how deeply being an Ultra and living according to its mentalità` can impact one’s life.
For instance, discussing Romanità with Federico and Fabrizio (another of the founders of the group) in a Monteverde bar the day after AS Roma won the 2006-7 Coppa Italia, Fabrizio made it clear that it was only Romanità that made them different. I had begun by suggesting that willingness to fight was quite important in placing distance between them and non-Ultras. He explained to me that fighting was not a random exercise for the Ultras. Sure, he said, there are some who are “fatto da ferro” (made of iron) and just enjoy fighting but a true Ultra does not fight without cause.
“We only fight because of Romanità,” he said. “Fight as Ultras?” I asked. “Yes, fight as Ultras,” he replied. Federico interjected something I found most interesting. “We are sons of a vecchia mentalità (old/ancient worldview),” he said. “Fighting is a big part of being an Ultra because we seek a glory that is not provided by the modern world. Instead, we seek an old glory, one made with virtu` (virtue) like Nietzsche described: virtue free of “priggish morality;” a virtue that leads to the strength necessary to do difficult things.” Again, Federico, as had Etore (of AS Roma Ultras) and Manuele (of Fedayn) invoked a Romanità that was prone to violence, a vision distinctly at odds with the Rome of neoliberal Italy.
— Excerpted from Ultras Contra Modernity: Romans at War, coming soon from Arktos Media.