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If you search around Google for the Roman Fasces symbol today, you’ll be greeted by multiple articles about fascism. That’s not accidental as the term fascism was derived from the ancient Roman fasces symbol. Nevertheless, the fasces symbolism has managed to outlive Mussolini’s fascist party and continues to exist on its own.
The fasces, in ancient Rome, was a physical bundle of straight wooden rods, with an axe (originally double-bladed) in the middle of the rods, with its blade sticking out from the top. The fasces’ origins are believed to come from the Etruscan civilization, an old culture in central Italy that predates Rome. This civilization was located close to modern Tuscani and northern Lazio. The Etruscans themselves are believed to have taken the symbol from ancient Greece where the double-bladed axe, known as the labrys, was a famous symbol.
Symbolism of the Fasces
With its unique design, the fasces represented unity and governmental power. The bundle of wooden rods symbolized the unity of the people and the axe symbolized the ultimate authority and law-giving status of the ruler. In many Roman traditions, both during the Roman republic and the later empire, fasces bundles were given to public and governmental officials during special occasions. This tradition likely represented the people gifting the officials with authority and power.
At some point during the time of the Roman republic, the double-bladed axe was replaced with a single-blade one. How intentional that was is unclear but the meaning of the axe also started to be associated with the public officials’ power of capital punishment. That’s also why on many occasions, the fasces was presented with the blade of the axe removed, when the power of capital punishment rested on the people’s assemblies and not on governmental officials.
During the Roman empire, however, or even during republican times when ultimate authority was temporarily given to Roman dictators, usually at the time of war, the axe blade was kept on the fasces. This symbolized the government’s ultimate power over its people.
Fasces – Life After Rome
The fasces is unique in that it’s not only one of the oldest Roman symbols but it also lived on and had a prominent life throughout every stage of Rome’s development. From its early days as a polis, through the period of the Roman republic, and to the end of the Roman empire. What’s more, the fasces lived on after that as well.
Emblem of the National Fascist Party. Source.
Not only was the fasces at the center of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party during World War II, but the fasces also managed to outlive even that. Unlike the swastika, the symbol of the Nazi party in Germany which has remained associated with Hitler and his regime, at least in the western world, the fasces endured without stigma. The reason for that is likely in the fact that the fasces had already been deeply rooted in other cultures outside of then-fascist Italy.
From France to the U.S. fasces symbols were frequently present in various governmental seals and documents. The Les Grands Palais de France: Fontainebleau, the reverse side of the U.S. Mercury Dime, and even in the Oval Office in the White House – the fasces is a frequently-seen symbol of unity and authority.
Fasces-like Symbols Outside Of Rome
Even outside of its Roman origins, fasces-like symbols are present in other cultures as well. The old Aesop’s fable “The Old Man and his Sons” is a good example as in it, an old man gives his sons individual wooden rods and asks the men to break them. After each of his sons successfully breaks a single rod, the old man gives them a bundle of rods, similar to the fasces but without the axe in the middle. When the old man asks his sons to break the whole bundle, they fail, thus proving that “there is strength in unity.”
This fable also mimicks an old Bulgar (ancient Bulgarian) legend of Khan Kubrat and his five sons. In it, the old Khan performed the exact same act in order to persuade his sons to remain united. However, the five sons didn’t follow the old khan’s wisdom and broke the ancient Bulgarian tribe into five separate tribes and spread throughout Europe. Curiously enough, this myth took place in modern Ukraine and is almost impossible to be connected to ancient Rome.
While not directly related to the Roman fasces, the Aesop fable and the Khan Kubrat myth prove why the fasces has remained so well-known and widely used after thousands of years and some dark fascist “misuse” – the meaning and symbolism of the fasces is universal, intuitive, easily understood, and also quite powerful.
The fasces is an example of how the meaning of symbols are dynamic, reflecting their use and their context. However, unlike some other symbols which have become corrupted beyond use, the fasces has emerged relatively unscathed from its association with Mussolini’s fascism. Today, almost everyone has heard the term ‘fascism’ but not many know that this was derived from the ancient fasces symbol.