The Roman salute is a gesture in which the arm is held out forward straight, with palm down. Sometimes the arm is raised upward at an angle, sometimes it is held out parallel to the ground. Despite the gesture's name, it is unclear whether the Romans used it as a form of military courtesy; the current interpretation of a "salute" would seem to have evolved over time, more substantially in recent periods.
The salute was supposed to have been used in the Roman Republic, but there is no clear evidence of this. Indeed it is not known whether salutes as military courtesy existed at all in Roman culture. However, a number of images showing similar gestures exist from the Imperial era. These depict Roman leaders addressing their troops ("adlocutio" scenes). Usually the leader has his arm raised in a rhetorical gesture. In some images a few troops are also depicted with raised arms, possibly suggesting acclamation of the leader. Several such scenes appear on Trajan's Column.
The association of the gesture with Roman republican culture seems to have emerged in 18th century France with revolutionary and anti-monarchist movements of the era. Several paintings in the Neoclassical style depict Roman heroes adopting variants of the gesture. The most famous and influential of these is Jacques-Louis David's painting The Oath of the Horatii (1784), which illustrates a pledge of loyalty to the Roman republic. After the French Revolution of 1789, David was commissioned to depict the formation of the revolutionary government in a similar style. In the Tennis Court Oath (1792) the National Assembly are all depicted with their arms outstretched as they swear to create a new constitution. After the republican government was replaced by Napoleon's imperial régime, David further deployed the gesture in images of Napoleon receiving the acclamation and loyalty of his soldiers. These consciously imitated ancient Roman ad locutio scenes. The most important of these paintings is The Distribution of the Eagle Standards (1810).
As the founder of the French academic school of art, David was imitated by many painters during the 19th century, who regularly depicted the straight-arm gesture in scenes of Roman imperial history.
It is unclear precisely when the oath gesture became transformed into a quasi-military salute, though it appears in this role in some Davidian paintings, most famously Jean-Léon Gérôme's popular Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (Hail Caesar! They Who Are About to Die Salute You) of 1859. At the same time research by Augustin Thierry into the rituals of Gallic and Germanic tribes led to the claim that such gestures were associated with ancient Aryan peoples for whom monarchy was said to be defined more by charismatic prowess than simple inheritance. Nordic ideology, which was later embraced by the Nazis, claimed that the leading classes of ancient Greek and Roman culture had originated among Germanic peoples, who had migrated south. In consequence it was argued that the gesture was Nordic in origin, expressive of the free acclamation of a leader.
By the end of the 19th century, the gesture was recognised as a symbol of communal acclamation, appropriate as a sign of allegiance to be used in several mass movements. A version was adopted as the Olympic salute, with arms raised to the side of the body, as in The Oath of the Horatii. The gesture was also portrayed as a salute in a number of early films about ancient Rome, such as Ben Hur (1907), Nerone (1908), Spartaco (1914) and Cabiria (1914).
The Italian nationalist writer and adventurer Gabriele D'Annunzio, who had scripted Cabiria, appropriated the salute with a neo-Imperial meaning when he occupied Rijeka in 1919. It was later taken up by the Italian fascist party to symbolise their claim to have revitalised Italy on the model of ancient Rome. In the Italian version the arm was typically raised quite high above the shoulder with the palm bent outwards, in a rhetorical manner similar to Roman imperial statuary. Other fascist groups also adopted versions of the salute, including the German Nazi Party's Hitler salute, in which the arm was raised smartly to the front, at right angles to the chest with the palm turned downwards. Under Fascist rule, these salutes were also in use by the general population in Germany and Italy. Achille Starace, the Italian Fascist Party secretary, pushed for measures to make the use of the Roman salute generally compulsory, denouncing hand shaking as effete and foreign.
Because of the similarity between the Bellamy salute and the Nazi salute, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the hand-over-the-heart gesture as the salute to be rendered by civilians during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem in the United States, instead of the Bellamy salute. This was done when Congress officially adopted the Flag Code on 22 June 1942.
A similar form of an elevated right arm prevailed among certain Catholic youth organisations in the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany, e.g. the salute of the members of the Grail Movement. Their using the Roman salute was however ended in the mid-1930s, as confusion far too often arose over whether their salute form in public was an act of tacit support for Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, or not. Anti-clerical left-wing publications often used 1920s and early 1930s pictures of bishops and other clergy saluting these Catholic youth movements with the Roman salute, as to imply a "Nazi" or "Fascist" orientation of these bishops and priests, or even the Roman Catholic Church in general.
It is also known to be used by the Tamil separatist organization, the LTTE, while saluting their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. It is also used by Hezbollah in Lebanon during the swearing of oaths.
In 2005, Italian footballer Paolo Di Canio created controversy by using the gesture on several occasions to salute hardcore right-wing S.S. Lazio fans. Di Canio has also expressed admiration for Mussolini.
The salute continued to be portrayed as a real feature of Ancient Roman culture in some historical dramas about Rome, such as the 1951 film Quo Vadis, the 1960 film Spartacus and the 2000 film Gladiator. It has been used as such as recently as the 2005 TV series Empire and the HBO TV series Rome.
In the video game, Mega Man X4, the fictional military organization, known as the Repliforce, can be seen giving the Roman salute during the early cinematics of the game.
In the Japanese animation series Excel Saga the main heroines are often seen greeting their superior(s) with a Roman Salute, followed by an overly enthusiastic (if somewhat mispronounced) Nazi-era "heil".