The fasces

One of the strangest symbols of power, and one of the longest-lasting – who would have thought that a bundle of rods with an axe would give rise to one of the most feared words of the twentieth century?

Every Roman magistrate of the Republic who was allowed to wield imperium – official authority – had physical trappings of that power. These included a bodyguard of lictors who each held the fasces, a bundle made up of several rods and an axe tied together.

By the end of the Republic, an elaborate set of rules regarding lictors and fasces had developed, including how many lictors each type of magistrate – dictator, consul or praetor – was allowed.

And, of course, the minute I wrote that, I remembered that the Vestal Virgins also were escorted by a lictor, presumably because the Vestals were so tied up with the safety of Rome that they needed protection themselves.

What surprised me was the number of examples I found of the fasces being used as symbols of power in more modern times. For example: the USA and France adopted imagery which involved the fasces in the eighteenth century, Mussolini’s Fascist party took its name from the fasces, the image of the fasces is on the 1916 “Mercury” dime issued by the US mint … The list goes on.

the insignia of the National Guard Bureau of the USA

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