Greco-Roman symbols and slogans are often invested today with political meaning, especially by those on the right, to whom they connote authoritarian power. The January 6 insurrection featured a wide array of these ancient talismans: Spartan crested helmets and hoplite shields, Roman eagles, and banners proclaiming ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ, “Come and take [them],” words supposedly spoken by the Spartan king Leonidas to the Persian monarch who demanded he surrender his arms. Also seen in the rioting crowd, on the T-shirt of one of the Proud Boys, was an image of the fasces, a bundle of bound wooden rods surrounding an axe, which beginning as early as the sixth century BCE served as a sign of the power of high Roman officials.
Paradoxically, the building the rioters were assaulting is adorned with the very same image. The statue atop the Capitol dome, Thomas Crawford’s personified Freedom, stands on a circular base festooned with fasces; and inside the House chamber, two enormous bas-relief fasces are affixed to the wall behind the speaker’s rostrum, flanking the American flag. In the Rotunda and Statuary Hall, fasces are found as ceiling decorations, sculptural elements, and, in richly toned wood crossed by gilt bands, as part of the frame of the Declaration of Independence.
The complex history that put this image on both sides of the January 6 skirmish lines is the subject of The Fasces, an engrossing study by the Rutgers classicist T. Corey Brennan. The evolution of the fasces from ancient to modern times reminds us of how dramatically the meanings of such objects can shift, or even invert, as different eras project onto them the values they want to uphold. In the twentieth century it is best known as the emblem—and the source of the name—of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. Brennan’s study is disturbingly timely: neofascist parties and politicians are gaining popularity around the world, including in Italy, where last fall the far-right Brothers of Italy party, a descendant of Mussolini’s Fascists, won a parliamentary majority and black-shirted Italians reverently marched to the former dictator’s grave.
The Latin word fascis, in its singular form, means “bundle” or “parcel,” especially one tied together with cord, such as a bundle of wood. Vergil uses the word in the Eclogues to refer, seemingly without political overtones, to the wicker basket in which a pair of newborn goats is carried by a goatherd. Fasces, the plural form, always (in extant Latin) designates a very specific bundle made up of five-foot-long elm or birchwood rods tied together with red leather thongs and often incorporating an axe, which is carried by an official known as a lictor. This instrument of corporal punishment—“a portable kit for flogging and decapitation,” in the oft-quoted words of the historian Anthony Marshall*—probably originated among the Etruscans of northern Italy, as the Romans themselves suspected. In 1897, in the Italian village of Vetulonia, the crumbled remains of a miniature fasces, wrought in iron, were discovered in an Etruscan tomb that dates to the seventh century BCE, by far the earliest evidence of one yet uncovered. Some ancient Etruscan leader or public official evidently wanted this reminder of his authority to accompany him into the afterlife.
As adopted and developed by the Romans, the fasces became part of an array of symbols by which political power was encoded and projected. Borne through the streets ahead of a Roman official, they served as a display of his imperium, the power accorded to him to enforce his will on others. This power was understood to be greater outside the bounds of Rome, where the strength of law was diminished by distance from its source, than within them; hence the fasces had two different “settings,” with or without the securis, or single-bladed axe, and only the second was permitted within the city. (Exceptions were made for victorious generals celebrating a triumph.) Thus an official heading out on a campaign or leaving for a provincial command would pause just outside the gates to have his lictors “load” their fasces with the securis, while he donned the red military cloak that was also forbidden inside the gates of the city.
The “cruel axes,” as both Lucretius and Vergil termed them, gave the fasces a far more menacing aspect, implying as they did the power of summary execution. According to legend, the prohibition on axes within the city went back to the overthrow of Rome’s monarchy and the founding of the Republic in 509 BCE; Plutarch reports that Publicola, one of those who had ousted the king, decreed in that year that axes should be removed from civic fasces, “wishing to make the government mild and agreeable to the people, instead of fearsome.”
The number of fasces borne before Roman officials signified their degree of imperium. Rome’s two consuls, normally the apex of the hierarchy during the Republic, were accorded twelve; rather than share them half and half (which might have led to standoffs between rival consuls), they passed the twelve back and forth, on a fixed schedule, whenever they were both in Rome. Lower down on the ladder of imperium, praetors were in most cases accorded only half a consul’s complement of fasces; thus Greeks referred to a praetor, perhaps with a hint of disdain, as hexapelekus, “six axes.” The greatest number of fasces, twenty-four, went to a dictator whenever one was appointed in time of crisis, “to mark him clearly as the full equal of a consular pair, with the ability to give either consul orders,” Brennan observes. Naturally the idea that the quantity of fasces signified the degree of imperium led to a certain inflation. Julius Caesar, after holding three dictatorships in a row in the 40s BCE, was granted the right to aggregate the fasces from each one and process through Rome’s streets with a veritable phalanx of seventy-two fasces-bearing lictors.
Though their primary function was to represent imperium, the fasces carried a wide range of meanings. After a successful campaign, a military leader festooned his fasces with laurel, the plant associated both with the god Apollo and with victory in Greek-style athletic games; if he was granted a triumph, he removed the laurel boughs when he reached the top of the Capitoline and dedicated them in the Temple of Jupiter there. In processions of public mourning after the death of a magistrate, the fasces were carried in inverted position, with the “business end” facing the ground. This is how they are depicted, in bas-relief, on the grave monument of Scipio Hispallus, who died while serving as consul in 176 BCE (making this frieze the earliest known artistic representation of the fasces). The solemn appearance of these lethal objects in a funeral march, bowed down to the ground as though in grief, must have had the same impact on Romans as the modern-day twenty-one-gun salute.
The mere presence of fasces, borne by lictors recruited for strength and loyalty to the regime, was usually enough to suppress dissent or disorder, but on rare occasions the rods or (outside of Rome) the axe needed to be deployed. An initial step was the detaching of the virga, a single four- or five-foot birch or elm rod kept outside the thongs girding the bundle, for easy access; this could be wielded with the right hand, while the rest of the bundle was supported with the left hand and shoulder, as seen in a tomb fresco discovered in the nineteenth century, now mostly lost but preserved in an excavator’s drawing. For crowd control purposes, a few well-placed blows usually sufficed; a more severe flogging with rods could be administered to a single troublemaker, though Roman citizens had a right of appeal that could put a stop to the beating. It’s less clear how the rods were put to use if, in a crisis, the order was given to unbind the red leather thongs that held the fasces together. Presumably lictors could wield only one or two of these rods at a time, but what became of the others meanwhile—potential weapons in any hands that might grab them? Brennan’s extensive research unfortunately doesn’t extend quite this far.
Clearly the Romans relied on the fasces as an implement of statist authority, but Brennan reveals how its meaning was later transformed by way of a curious cross-contamination. An ancient tale found among Latin versions of Aesop’s fables tells of a father who used a bundle of rods to teach his quarrelsome sons a lesson: he showed how individual rods could be easily cracked, but when bound together they resisted all efforts to break them. The very different meaning of the fascis or bundle in this story—strength through unity—was conflated with that of the Roman fasces beginning in the sixteenth century. The idea of unity thereafter became the primary meaning assigned to the fasces, especially in the United States, where it seemed to reinforce the message of e pluribus unum.
This more positive interpretation was only rarely challenged by those who knew something of Roman history; among them was Jefferson Davis, who as secretary of war in 1854 objected to the depiction of “lictors rods” in the hands of a Capitol statue. Other important buildings and monuments, though, including the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, made prominent use of the fasces motif. From 1916 to 1945 the Roman fasces, described by a US Treasury report as “symbolical of unity, wherein lies the Nation’s strength,” appeared on one face of the so-called Mercury dime; this fasces included a protruding axe-head, inexplicable within the Aesop story but interpreted by its designer, according to notes uncovered by Brennan, as “an instrument of justice, rather than of combat.”
The fasces story takes a new and darker turn with the rise of Mussolini’s Fascisti just after World War I, the subject of Brennan’s richest and most engrossing chapter. Italy, like the US, had long regarded the fasces as a symbol of unity, especially after the unification of its separate states in 1870. The Italian term fascio (plural fasci) had come into widespread usage in the late nineteenth century to denote organizations, such as trade unions or political action groups, that put a high premium on collective action and mutual loyalty. By late 1919 members of the Fascio led by Mussolini, radicalized by the war and its economic devastation, had begun to refer to themselves as Fascisti, and the term stuck. Mussolini’s newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, added historical weight and expanded levels of meaning to the new name with a banner headline on October 25, 1919: “The fascist emblem signifies unity, force, and justice!” As Brennan astutely notes, the depiction of the Roman fasces below those words shows the bundle’s leather thong undone at one end, undermining the idea of unity and implying instead that beatings were not far off: “The clear implication is that the kit is in the process of being readied for punitive use.”
With this published image and a headline that included the word “force,” Mussolini’s newspaper restored the original meaning of the fasces—the right to impose one’s will on others—to prominence, after several centuries in which the more pacific tale of the father and his quarrelsome sons had nearly eclipsed it. In the perfervid atmosphere of postwar Italy, where governments quickly rose and fell and inflation ran rampant, the recovered symbol of authoritarian power seized the imagination of Mussolini’s followers, who adorned party membership cards with pictures of fasces and constituted themselves as the National Fascist Party in November 1921. Within the year, Mussolini’s Blackshirt thugs had deposed the elected government and taken control of the state. Across the Atlantic, American journalists, conscious that the party’s emblem was also seen on their own coins and monuments, tried to keep ideas of unity and justice uppermost in their explanations of the ancient symbol, but Mussolini made this a difficult task. In 1925 he summed up the meaning of the fasces, writes Brennan, as “‘unity by means of authority’—which turns the American ideal of ‘strength through unity’ on its head.”
As Mussolini’s regime became more firmly devoted to the fasces as a national symbol and more clearly opposed to American political values, the problem exemplified by the Mercury dime became more acute. Objections to the coin’s design arose in the early 1930s, Brennan reports, and grew louder in the 1940s, but were still drowned out by those insisting that the fasces was a symbol of unity. New public art continued to incorporate the troublesome symbol even as war broke out in Europe; Brennan notes with bewilderment a 1939 fasces-wielding statue created for the Raleigh Justice Building in North Carolina. Finally, though, the protests broke through the wall of denial. In 1940 the California judge Léon Yankwich, an immigrant from Romania who had studied the classics in school, attracted national attention for his refusal to have a fasces-bearing wood panel displayed in his courtroom, even though the artwork was part of an expensive government program. Yankwich said loud and clear, in a letter quoted by Brennan, what many must have, or should have, intuited long before:
The fasces is an emblem of power and not at all coincident with the American concept of the limitation of power through law. Our ideal is justice through law. The other is the ideal of the totalitarian state where the dictator is the source of law and order.
Yankwich covered the offending panel with an American flag until a local postmaster, at his urging, got the fasces removed. Six years later the Mercury dime was finally discontinued by the Treasury and replaced by the version still circulating today, with a torch of liberty burning where the offending fasces once stood.
Though coins can be easily redesigned and wooden panels removed or altered, the problem of stone and granite monuments is a harder one. Ancient stonemasons chiseled out the names and images of discredited rulers, but one cannot imagine defacing the Lincoln Memorial by removing its fasces—the very “theme” and “unifying feature of the memorial,” according to the National Park Service website. We seem to be saddled with the unfortunate paradox that this imposing representation of the Great Emancipator is surrounded by instruments of authoritarian domination.
In Italy, which has a far greater number of fasces in public spaces and has to confront deeper levels of their historical meaning, the problem is more acute. Brennan gives a fascinating account of the postwar fate of what was once called the Foro Mussolini, a grand marble complex built in the pre-war years that included hundreds of images of fasces, as well as inscriptions glorifying Il Duce. The Foro remained virtually untouched until 1960 when, just before the start of the Olympic Games hosted by Rome, workmen removed the more worshipful of the inscriptions, but most of the fasces stayed. The symbol can still be found, Brennan writes, all over Rome and much of Italy, including on “an astonishing array of manhole covers…by various manufacturers.”
The Brothers of Italy party, which came to power after Brennan’s book went to press, has made no use of the fasces, though many have seen in its flame symbol an evocation of Mussolini’s Arditi shock troops in World War I, who wore black flames on their lapels. In his epilogue Brennan describes the fasces as a largely dormant signifier, but one in danger of being reawakened and again put to political use. Indeed its very unfamiliarity and the confusion over its meaning may make it more attractive to “right-wing extremists searching for a symbol that is potent, but not widely provocative at first glance.” Fasces, that is, can be worn on T-shirts without causing alarm, unlike swastikas. By making the fasces more recognizable and less ambiguous, Brennan’s book aims to prevent its return as a banner for authoritarianism.