Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Postal Propaganda Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Clive Foss


Ancient Egyptian motif, the eye of Horus, appears on stamp for a 1937 ophthalmology conference. (Clive Foss)
[image]The god Triptolemos, part of the cult of the earth goddess Demeter, appeared on this Greek stamp for a 1973 transportation conference. (Clive Foss)

Decades after the first postage stamps were issued in 1840, countries began to use stamps for international and domestic self-promotion. Stamps with ancient sites, artifacts, and archaeologists eventually became commonplace. Sometimes, such images were used to foster national pride, as exemplified by the 1972 Egyptian stamp celebrating the 150th anniversary of Champollion's decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Other times, stamps were designed to direct attention to timely cultural issues; a stamp issued in the 1960s is one such example, rallying around the UNESCO project to save the monuments of Nubia threatened by construction of the Aswan High Dam. And sometimes, stamps have become the tools of political propaganda. In pre-World War II Italy, Mussolini used historical allegory to lend credence to his Fascist regime, featuring aspects of ancient history prominently on stamps to suggest that he was a latter-day Augustus. One stamp shows a Roman road being uncovered in Libya, the closest to an actual excavation scene ever depicted, though its purpose was propaganda for Mussolini's colonization of North Africa, once part of the Roman Empire. Another portrays the newly excavated and restored Market of Trajan, an example of the regime's efforts to glorify itself by restoring monuments of Rome's past. The 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus in 1937 was heralded by an array of stamps featuring Roman antiquities, some with cleverly selected quotations from the Res Gestae, an account of the deeds of Augustus inscribed on bronze pillars at the entrance to his tomb. One read, "I fought many wars on land and sea and was victorious in all of them." The message was not lost on the Fascist armies then engaged in Spain and Africa.

Clive Foss is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America