Fasces ( FASS-eez; Latin: ['faske:s]; a plurale tantum, from the Latin word fascis, meaning "bundle"; Italian: fascio littorio) is a bound bundle of wooden rods, sometimes including an axe with its blade emerging. The fasces is an Italian symbol that had its origin in the Etruscan civilization and was passed on to ancient Rome, where it symbolized a magistrate's power and jurisdiction. The axe originally associated with the symbol, the Labrys (Greek: , lábrys) the double-bitted axe, originally from Crete, is one of the oldest symbols of Greek civilization. To the Romans, it was known as a bipennis.
The image has survived in the modern world as a representation of magisterial or collective power, law and governance. The fasces frequently occurs as a charge in heraldry: it is present on the reverse of the U.S. Mercury dime coin and behind the podium in the United States House of Representatives; and it was the origin of the name of the National Fascist Party in Italy (from which the term fascism is derived).
During the first half of the twentieth century both the swastika and the fasces (each symbol having its own unique ancient religious and mythological associations) became heavily identified with the authoritarian/fascist political movements of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. During this period the swastika became deeply stigmatized, but the fasces did not undergo a similar process.
The fact that the fasces remained in use in many societies after World War II may have been due to the fact that prior to Mussolini the fasces had already been adopted and incorporated within the governmental iconography of many governments outside Italy. As such, its use persists as an accepted form of governmental and other iconography in various contexts, whilst the swastika only remains in common usage in Asia where it originated as an ancient Hindu symbol, or in Navajo iconography, the religious purposes of which are entirely unrelated to, and pre-date, early twentieth century European fascism.
A few artifacts found showing a thin bundle of rods surrounding a two-headed axe point to a possible Etruscan origin for fasces, but little is known about the Etruscans themselves. Fasces symbolism might be derived via the Etruscans from the eastern Mediterranean, with the labrys, the Anatolian, and Minoan double-headed axe, later incorporated into the praetorial fasces. There is little archaeological evidence for precise claims.
By the time of the Roman Republic, the fasces had developed into a thicker bundle of birch rods, sometimes surrounding a single-headed axe and tied together with a red leather ribbon into a cylinder. On certain special occasions, the fasces might be decorated with a laurel wreath.
The symbolism of the fasces suggests strength through unity (see Unity makes strength); a single rod is easily broken, while the bundle is very difficult to break. This symbolism occurs in Aesop's fable "The Old Man and his Sons". A similar story is told about the Bulgar (pre-Bulgarian, proto-Bulgarian) Khan Kubrat, giving rise to the Bulgarian national motto "Union gives strength" ( ). However, bundled birch twigs could also symbolise corporal punishment (see birching).
The fasces lictoriae ("bundles of the lictors") symbolised power and authority (imperium) in ancient Rome, beginning with the early Roman Kingdom and continuing through the republican and imperial periods. By republican times, use of the fasces was surrounded with tradition and protocol. A corps of apparitores (subordinate officials) called lictors each carried fasces before a magistrate, in a number corresponding to his rank. Lictors preceded consuls (and proconsuls), praetors (and propraetors), dictators, curule aediles, quaestors, and the Flamen Dialis during Roman triumphs (public celebrations held in Rome after a military conquest).
According to Livy, it is likely that the lictors were an Etruscan tradition, adopted by Rome. The highest magistrate, the dictator, was entitled to twenty-four lictors and fasces, the consul to twelve, the proconsul eleven, the praetor six (two within the pomerium), the propraetor five, and the curule aediles two.
Another part of the symbolism developed in Republican Rome was the inclusion of just a single-headed axe in the fasces, with the blade projecting from the bundle. The axe indicated that the magistrate's judicial powers (imperium) included capital punishment. Fasces carried within the Pomerium--the boundary of the sacred inner city of Rome--had their axe blades removed; within the city, the power of life and death rested with the people through their assemblies. During times of emergency, however, the Roman Republic might choose a dictator to lead for a limited time period, who was the only magistrate to be granted capital punishment authority within the Pomerium. Lictors attending the dictator kept the axes in their fasces even inside the Pomerium--a sign that the dictator had the ultimate power in his own hands. There were exceptions to this rule: in 48 BC, guards holding bladed fasces guided Vatia Isauricus to the tribunal of Marcus Caelius, and Vatia Isauricus used one to destroy Caelius's magisterial chair (sella curulis).
An occasional variation on the fasces was the addition of a laurel wreath, symbolizing victory. This occurred during the celebration of a Triumph -- essentially a victory parade through Rome by a returning victorious general. Previously, all Republican Roman commanding generals had held high office with imperium, and so, already were entitled to the lictors and fasces.
Numerous governments and other authorities have used the image of the fasces as a symbol of power since the end of the Roman Empire. It also has been used to hearken back to the Roman Republic, particularly by those who see themselves as modern-day successors to that republic or its ideals.
The Italian word fascio (plural fasci), etymologically related to fasces, was used by various political organizations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the figurative meaning of "league".
Italian Fascism, which derives its name from the fasces, arguably used this symbolism the most in the twentieth century. The British Union of Fascists also used it in the 1930s. The fasces, as a widespread and long-established symbol in the West, however, has avoided the stigma associated with much of fascist symbolism, and many authorities continue to display them, including the federal government of the United States.
A review of the images included in Les Grands Palais de France : Fontainebleau reveals that French architects used the Roman fasces (faisceaux romains) as a decorative device as early as the reign of Louis XIII (1610-1643) and continued to employ it through the periods of Napoleon I's Empire (1804-1815).
The fasces typically appeared in a context reminiscent of the Roman Republic and of the Roman Empire. The French Revolution used many references to the ancient Roman Republic in its imagery. During the First Republic, topped by the Phrygian cap, the fasces is a tribute to the Roman Republic and means that power belongs to the people. It also symbolizes the "unity and indivisibility of the Republic", as stated in the French Constitution. In 1848 and after 1870, it appears on the seal of the French Republic, held by the figure of Liberty. There is the fasces in the arms of the French Republic with the "RF" for République française (see image below), surrounded by leaves of olive tree (as a symbol of peace) and oak (as a symbol of justice). While it is used widely by French officials, this symbol never was officially adopted by the government.
The fasces appears on the helmet and the buckle insignia of the French Army's Autonomous Corps of Military Justice, as well as on that service's distinct cap badges for the prosecuting and defending lawyers in a court-martial.
The unofficial but common National Emblem of France depicts a fasces, representing justice
Great Seal of France, 1848
Since the original founding of the United States in the 18th century, several offices and institutions in the United States have heavily incorporated representations of the fasces into much of their iconography.
Above the door leading out of the Oval Office
Mercury dime reverse
The mace of the United States House of Representatives, designed to resemble a fasces
The seal of the United States Tax Court
The Lincoln Memorial with the fronts of the chair arms shaped to resemble fasces
Flanking the image of Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address memorial
The seal of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts
Above the door to Chicago's City Hall
The flag of the New York City borough of Brooklyn
At the entrance to San Francisco's Coit Tower
Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the 18th MP Brigade
Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the 42nd MP Brigade
Horatio Stone's 1848 statue of Alexander Hamilton displays a fasces below Hamilton's hand
Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of US Army Reserve Legal Command
Regimental Coat of Arms of the United States Military Police Corps.
The following cases all involve the adoption of the fasces as a symbol or icon, although no physical re-introduction has occurred.
The coat of arms of the Swiss canton of St. Gallen has displayed the fasces since 1803
The original flag of the British Union of Fascists
The emblem of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, bearing the fasces
The emblem of the Russian Federal Bailiffs Service, bearing the fasces
Insignia of the Philippine Constabulary, bearing the fasces
Coat of arms of the Batavian Republic, bearing the fasces