“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”, a vigorous Donald Trump retweeted a few weeks ago, raising quite a few eyebrows. In fact the maxim has always been associated to Benito Mussolini, the Italian Duce, so when Trump was asked if he was aware that the motto belonged to Mussolini and if he really wanted to be related to a fascist, he replied: “No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes” and added “Sure. It’s OK to know it’s Benito Mussolini. Look, Mussolini was Mussolini. It’s OK. It’s a very good quote. It’s a very interesting quote. And I saw it and I know who said it. But what difference does it make, whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?” True. I have to confess that I use it myself many times, without thinking that somebody might regard me a fascist ( being very far from those political ideals), because it was used by Mussolini. Plus, the Dux was not original.
Mussolini had found himself to rule a very young nation, which had suffered long dominations , whose positive heritage can be clearly seen in each of our regions in the variety of culture, food, music, language. But in those centuries of oppression, Italians had also gradually developed a high degree of scepticism and distrust against any form of administration. Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness are “virtues” which are still associated to the Italian way of being, but they were also the weapons which had been developed in time to defend themselves from foreign rules. The problem is that once free and politically united, the making of a common identity was, actually, a slow process, because a chronic distrust in rulers runs in our veins and has always made us choose for the “individual” rather than the “common” way. That’s why we still tend to look for that charismatic one, who might solve all our problems, thus ending in the catastrophe everybody is familiars with. Our recent history makes no difference.
Mussolini knew that he had to fuel his people with words that had to inflame hearts, thus trying to cement his fragmented country. Strength, courage, sacrifice, a country of lions rather sheep, this was what he wanted. Even if only for one day. This motto was one of Benito Mussolini’s most popular slogan. Starting from 1926, it became a significant part of the fascist propaganda and ended on school books, coins, graffiti etc., but as I have said before, the Dux was not original.The truth is that the phrase was written during the First World War, on the wall of a house in Fagarè (now Fagarè della Battaglia, the municipality of San Biagio di Callalta, province of Treviso). According to the newspaper “Il Secolo D’Italia” (but the primary source was “Il Corriere della Sera” of 19 February 1958, p. 6) the author was Ignazio Pisciotta, mutilated in 1911, an officer in World War I. On the ‘Corriere della Sera’ of 31 July 1918, in his war correspondence, Arnaldo Fraccaroli writes : “We find on the houses around here – on the ruins of the houses – the words of the soldiers traced by rapid brushstrokes in the early days of the resistance(..)”All heroes! We will win the Piave, or we will all die! “It is better to live one hour as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep!” Oaths were held. With these writings, the humble battered homes have a sacred majesty of a temple “.
Mussolini himself, as a matter of fact, never said to be the author of these words, which he used (at least) on three occasions, but always recalling them as the words on the wall of the house collapsed in Fagarè. One of these was a visit at Umberto I barracks in Rome on 26 June 1926, Mussolini said: “It was good that in recent days it was remembered a phrase that should not be forgotten: the one written by an anonymous official or little infantryman, it doesn’t matter, on one of the houses on the eve of the battle of the Piave: “Better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep “. Seeing the physical and moral strength of your troops, flower of the renewed nation, I am perfectly convinced that if it will be necessary tomorrow, all the grenadiers, all foot soldiers, all soldiers of Italy, all the people in Italy prefer to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep “.
Now, there is no doubt that the expression rightfully belongs to the fascist rhetoric dictionary, but to attribute the invention of the words to Mussolini only denotes the usual sloppiness that distinguishes certain journalists when reporting historical facts. And after all, would you really want to live all your life as sheep? C’mon!