— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) August 14, 2017
When pictures surfaced of James Alex Fields Jr. and others carrying shields with fasces (a bundle of rods or sticks) emblazoned on them at the Charlottesville protests, historians took note. But they shouldn’t have been surprised. As Hyperallergic and other outlets have pointed out, many nationalist and alt-right groups like Vanguard America have long appropriated the insignia of ancient Rome in an attempt to connect their current movements to the bygone power and legitimacy of the Roman empire.
These alt-right groups were not the first to appropriate the symbols of Ancient Rome. From the leaders of the French Revolution, to Sicilian peasants challenging landowners in the 19th century, to architects of United States monuments, the symbol has often been used to represent power within a revolutionary movement.
The rising visibility of white nationalist groups, and fascism’s return to the public eye both in the US and in Europe more generally, however has brought to the fore more menacing symbols of the (ancient) past. The word “fascism” itself, like its Italian progenitor fascismo, derives from the Latin for “bundle of sticks.” And while it may seem an odd and benign symbol, that bundle — or fasces as it was called (in the Greek, ῥάβδοι) — carried significant political and cultural weight, as well as the threat of violence. In the center of the bundle of rods a small axe was kept in case capital punishment had to be carried out.
The fasces was usually a bundle of birch or elmwood sticks that, while typically merely symbolic of corporal punishment, could be used to actually beat people. The fasces as a symbol of power likely originated in the area of ancient Etruria. The ancient Greek geographer Strabo states that the fasces was an early sign of Roman regal rule adopted from the Etruscans by early kings of Rome. Etruscan or not, the fasces became intimately tied to the exercise of magisterial authority during the course of the Roman Republic.
In the Republican period (509–31 BCE), the highest elected political officials, called consuls, were elected yearly and given attendants called lictors who carried the fasces while following the magistrate. Roman judicial officials, called praetors, also had lictors — but only half as many, since consuls outranked them. The threatening equipment visually projected the imperium (the Latin word for power that gives us our modern word “empire”) of the consuls during the pageantry of processions that often wound through the city. For example, during the sacred procession of the Roman triumph, a parade given to victorious generals, the triumphing general dedicated a fasces wreathed with laurel to Jupiter within the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.
The fasces continued to carry with it the clearly legible threat of corporeal domination. Although violence was usually out of bounds within the city limits, a consul could beat an individual by ordering his lictors to do so using the rods. While traveling outside the city limits, lictors would add a double-headed axe to the bundles to represent the consuls’ ability to punish even Roman soldiers for various offenses. As ancient historian Anthony Marshall notes, the fasces had a real use: “they constituted a portable kit for flogging and decapitation.” Popular opinion regarding the inherent threat of the fasces can be seen in their treatment during popular uprisings. During periods of discontent, Roman mobs often toppled statues, but they also sought to break the fasces in public displays of displeasure. As ancient historian Gregory Aldrete notes in his work on Roman riots:
In 59 BC, at an assembly, the consul Bibulus had his fasces broken and suffered the further indignity of having a bucket of excrement dumped over his head; and the next year, Pompey’s lictors had their fasces broken by some of Clodius’ followers.
Aldrete sees the toppling of statues and the breaking of the fasces during rioting as the crowd channeling its hostility onto an inanimate object as a means of reciprocating the threat of violence and warning the magistrate.
Displays of the fasces didn’t always go over well with the public as Rome expanded her empire. When Julius Caesar landed on the Egyptian coastline at Alexandria following his engagement with Pompey, the Egyptians were understandably unsettled to see the Roman commander proceed into the city with his fasces firmly on display. That bundle of sticks not only heralded Roman imperialism — literally and figuratively — their public display constituted a warning to those under threat of being conquered. During his reign, the emperor Augustus continued and then expanded the use of the fasces as a symbol of state power, legitimacy, and the right to punish. Although a symbol of male magisterial power, during the Julio-Claudian period, two women, Livia, the wife of Augustus, and Agrippina, his great granddaughter and the mother of Nero, were granted the fasces with use of a lictor.
The fasces remained entwined with the threat of physical violence — a fact revealed in the New Testament. In second Corinthians, Saint Paul recalls his own beating with rods: “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea” (11:25). Paul’s testimony, like much of early Christian literature, depicts use of the fasces against the citizen as a symbol of Roman abuse of power. However once Christianity became the predominant religion in the fourth century CE, the fasces became a symbol of ecclesiastical authority. As Marshall writes,
Christianity triumphs, dramatic reversals are to be witnessed in which these same fasces, too strongly entrenched as national regalia to be discarded, are now used to salute Christian symbols and martyrs’ relics. They also reappear in the welcome amnesties for the condemned granted on church festivals.
The fasces as a combined symbol of state power and physical violence continued sporadically, but does not seem to have been a prevalent symbol in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Into the Renaissance and the early modern period, painters and sculptors used the fasces when depicting allegorical ideals such as Iustitia (Justice) and when depicting re-popularized myths from antiquity. In 1544, Battista Dossi painted Lady Justice holding the fasces as a mean of showing the balance between the scales of justice on one side and the punishment exacted by law on the other. In 1616, Peter Paul Rubens depicted the fasces with the myth of the Roman consul Publius Decius Mus sending away his lictors in 340 BCE. In popular early modern books on iconography, the fasces began to symbolize legitimate use of force in the service of justice. The state’s possession of the power to exact force through physical punishment was still the predominant message.
During the French Revolution, the fasces was adopted in order to validate the use of violence in the overthrow of an unjust French absolutist monarchy. The red cap of freedom inspired by the Roman freedman’s cap and the use of Roman Republican names by the revolutionary fighters, was, when combined with the use of the fasces, a clear argument for a legitimate revolution and the unity of the French people. A similar message of legitimate force can perhaps be seen in Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 portrait of George Washington, which puts a fasces built into the table leg on display.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Americans began to recognize and adopt the fasces predominantly as a symbol connected directly to government, justice, and law. The two sets of fasces on the chair of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Monument are perhaps the most visible example. As ancient historian Liv Yarrow points out, the fasces on his chair have no axe, but those on the tripods leading up to the monument do have axes. The construction of the Lincoln Memorial in the early 20th century is part of a larger process of reconciliation between the North and the South – a reconciliation reinforced by foreign adventures in the Spanish American War and World War One (notably wars fought with a segregated military). Consequently, one could again read the fasces here as a symbol of the legitimacy of Lincoln to use force to reconstitute the Union.
If the Lincoln Memorial tapped into one historical vein of meaning attached to fasces, Benito Mussolini and his followers would tap into another, more violent one. In the 1920s, the Fascisti in Italy would also use the fasces both for their name and as a means of legitimizing their new political movement. Benito Mussolini was obsessed with the words, architecture, and symbols of ancient Roman power as a means of historically collocating his own authority. As historian of fascism Paul Baxa and author of Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome notes in comments to Hyperallergic regarding Mussolini’s regular use of the Roman symbol:
The fasces were often used in architecture as well. For example, the façade of the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution or in numerous examples of the Casa Littoria (Fascist party headquarters) in various towns — most of which are still standing.
As Baxa tells us, Mussolini’s monogram (often enshrined in mosaic) combined an “M” with the fasces. He minted coins and commissioned numerous reliefs that used the sticks. In each case, the fasces served as a visual argument for his own authority by referencing both Italian history and the long history of the ancient Roman fasces as a symbol of legitimate and necessary force.
When James Alex Fields and the other white nationalists at the “Unite the Right” rally gathered with shields bearing the Roman fasces with an axe, the message of legitimate force was again visible. Like the use of SPQR or the appropriation of torches, all of these adopted symbols may look like harmless references to the past, but this particular iconography is historically tied to violence. If Italian Fascism has taught us anything, it is that the appropriation of ancient history provides these groups with a false origin story and a sense of authority to use violence that they cannot rightly claim and should never be given.