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.

A coin from 54 BCE struck by Marcus Junius Brutus, later co-assassin of Julius Caesar, in commemoration of his ancestor, who had founded the Republic in 509 BCE. The reverse has lictors carrying the fasces with axes in service to the magistrate (image courtesy the American Numismatic Society)

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.

Ancient Roman relief of a lictor from the garden of the Museo Archeologico in Verona, Italy (image © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro via Wikimedia)

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.

The reverse side of a gold coin from 152–153 CE, minted under the emperor Antoninus Pius, show Liberalitas (the ideal of giving freely) holding an abacus and a fasces (image courtesy the American Numismatic Society).

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.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Dismissal of the Lictors,” (1616-1617) oil on canvas, Liechtenstein Museum,(image via Wikimedia public commons)

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.

Cesare Ripa, “Justice,” in Iconologia: Or, Moral Emblems (1709) translated and edited by Pierce Tempest, London, p. 47 (image courtesy ResearchGate)

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.

Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait)” (1796) oil on canvas;  now in the National Portrait Gallery (image via Wikimedia)

The Lincoln Monument was dedicated in 1922 and uses axe-less fasces on the chair of Lincoln but two fasces with axes on the tripods (Image courtesy chadh via Flickr).

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.

Monogram of Mussolini with the fasces from Foro Italico, previously called the Foro Mussolini, in Rome, Italy (image by Anthony Majanlahti via Flickr)

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.

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean.

21 replies on “Fasces, Fascism, and How the Alt-Right Continues to Appropriate Ancient Roman Symbols”

  1. European people alive today, who think European people have a right to exist tomorrow, are using European people’s symbols of the past.

    Shock horror!

    Thor’s hammer, Celtic cross, Lambda symbol, swastika, runes etc etc these are all symbols etched into our DNA as European folk.

    They are ours for the taking!

      1. Carmen.

        You sound like another leftist racist.

        Indigenous European populations have used swastika for thousands of years.

        1. The modern Swastika is widely used in Hinduism and Buddhism in East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. It is by no means an exclusively ‘European’ symbol. You completely fabricated blustering about me being a ‘racist’ doesn’t change that.

          1. Point out where I said it was exclusively European?

            You denied Europeans a claim to it either because you are racist or because you are ignorant of them having used it. Simple as that really.

          2. “European people alive today, who think European people have a right to exist tomorrow, are using European people’s symbols of the past.

            Shock horror!

            Thor’s hammer, Celtic cross, Lambda symbol, swastika, runes etc etc these are all symbols etched into our DNA as European folk.

            They are ours for the taking!”

          3. They are not ‘etched into our DNA as European folk’ or ‘yours for the taking’. And by the way, your point is a complete strawman of the article.

    1. Why do you think the Greek lambda is ‘European’? Don’t you know the history of how Greek literature reached Europe.

      Hint: Seville.

      1. “Don’t you know the history of how Greek literature reached Europe.”

        Greece is in Europe.

        Hint: Wikipedia.

  2. https://www.dw.com/image/42374886_303.jpg

    Let’s not forget the pair of fasces in gold relief flanking the podium of the House of Representatives. In the following image that depicts only the one stage right, the photographer seems quite aware of its symbolic connotations with regard to the man gesturing in the photo.

  3. Sarah Bond’s iconological study of fasces is of little real value because she appears to be ignorant of the inherent logic and/or emotive force of the symbol. The ‘point’ of the fasces is that, while one stick may be broken, when many sticks are bundled together they are stronger, neigh invincible. It is a potent image because it recalls a simple object lesson about solidarity. The author does not express that idea clearly, so she really can’t explain the fasces continued historical appeal, or what it means to the right-wing at this moment.

    1. It seems reasonable for fascists to appeal to the ancient Roman state symbolically since the values of that state were generally what we would call fascistic during most of its long history. However, White nationalist use of the symbol in America is somewhat contradictory: Rome was multi-ethnic, a slave state, not a tribal domain. One’s ancestors didn’t matter so much if one asserted and exercised Roman values effectively.

      1. Yes. Its own actual history written right at the death of republic and start of the empire actually celebrates its status not as an autochthonous state of a single origin, but that it drew its early citizen body from runaway slaves and disaffected members of many surrounding areas – Etruscan, Greek, Latin, Sabine, etc.

        Of course that isn’t necessarily it’s ‘real’ early history but certainly reflected its own self-image.

    2. You must not have read the article with attention because in fact the author gives a rather thorough history of the fasces as image, and the “United we stand, divided we fall” cliché you seem to regard as an insight is so self-evident that her account presupposes it. Instead, she correctly emphasizes the connotations of the image as it was re-appropriated in the context of some of the most repugnant ideologies and practices of recent history. Not all of us are trapped in the rigidity of literality.

      1. We are all, indeed, trapped in the rigidity of literality, as you put it. Sarah Bond’s interpretation of the fasces is trapped by her focus on the use of sticks to mete out corporal punishment. Her article concludes with a ringing denunciation of the role of ancient symbols in legitimizing violence. While I agree with her that the legitimization of violence is anathema, I don’t think that that is what the fasces promotes. It has been historically, and remains, predominantly a symbol of solidarity. That’s why it appears on the Lincoln monument. The fasces memorialize his role in re-uniting America through the civil war. They are not there to suggest that he could unwrap a bundle of twigs, select one, and beat someone. That, chichhsing, is the interpretation we get with crude literalism. And I think is it is a misinterpretation of a symbol, in the sense that the author’s fixation on violence construes the fasces as actual weapons.
        Heather Heyer was killed by being struck with a grey 2010 Dodge Challenger, not by being beaten with a stick.

        1. It is puzzling that you insist on a selective reading that distorts the author’s text. As Professor Bond makes clear, the fasces was a classical symbol of magisterial authority, which, by definition entailed the power to punish—which is why Mussolini and Franco used it. Its implication of unity was the unity of obeisance to the divinity of the emperor. By extension, it is the symbol of Pilate in his capacity of judge, the judge who washes his hands of justice in favor of a punishment that serves the immediate practical aims of an immanentized divinity, of the use of a justice system in the service of hypocrisy for personal gain. The mere fact that one artist used it (without an ax) as a symbol of Lincoln’s effort to preserve the union—a fact the author clearly knows—is irrelevant to her argument.

          1. I guess we will have to agree to disagree. You seem to want to imply that I am willfully distorting the author’s text. That’s not my intention, nor is it in fact possible. The author’s text is the author’s text, and my interpretation is my interpretation. I have criticized the author, and pointed out an interpretation – one that is definitely more conventional, and that I think remains more illuminating – of an ancient symbol. I don’t have a generally highly respect for Professor Bond’s interpretive skills as an historian (as evidenced in the few recent popular articles she has published), but that’s just my opinion.

  4. I remember also an old sandstone mutual insurance company building in Sydney’s Martin Place had them prominently as a carved architectural symbol – alarming to the young (anti fascist) but pre-classics-degree me who really only knew of them as a symbol of Mussolini’s fascists.

    I think the symbolism in that case was meant to convey ‘strength through unity’ – it maybe even had those words somewhere – as in the single rod could break easily but the bound collection in the fasces did not.

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