fas·ces | ‘fæs,ez | ·plural n. (in ancient Rome) a bundle of rods with a projecting ax blade, carried by attendants (lictors) of chief magistrates as a symbol of a magistrate’s power.
• (in Fascist Italy) such items used as emblems of authority.
~ The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words
lictors: attendants of the higher Republican magistrates; they carried the fasces, a bundle of rods encasing a double-headed axe, the former symbolizing the power of scourging, the latter of decapitation
fasces: they symbolized the power of higher magistrates (see above). Twelve lictors carrying the fasces had accompanied the kings; in the Republic the twelve fasces alternated between the two consuls on a monthly basis.
~ Livy, The Rise of Rome, Books 1-5, translated by T. J. Luce (from the “Explanatory Notes”)
Fasces is a Latin word, referring to a bundle, fagot, packet or parcel. In a certain context, it referred to a soldier’s kit. It is, however, most typically used in reference to a bundle of ferulae (rods) with an axe in the middle. The origin of the physical fasces are difficult to trace, but it had a ceremonial role in the Roman government. One theory from Roman times was that they were introduced by the Etruscans, their predecessors on the Italian peninsular (although it is unverified in the archaeological record). The civic role of lictor, also traced back to the Etruscans, was the position that carried the fasces before different magistrates. Titus Livius (Livy) describes the (most likely) mythical founding king of Rome, Romulus, as establishing the role of the lictors to give himself a regal appearance:
[Romulus] thought that the rustics would feel bound to observe the laws if he made his own person more august and imposing by adopting various insignia of power, both in his dress and particularly by the addition of twelve lictors to accompany him in public. Some think he took this number from the number of augural birds that portended his kingship. I myself incline to the opinion of those who believe that, just as the attendants and other paraphernalia of office were borrowed from the neighboring Etruscans, who gave us the curule chair and the toga praetexta, so also the number twelve was borrowed from the lictors the Etruscans furnished to the man they elected king of their league, each of the twelve Etruscan peoples contributing one lictor apiece.
~ Book I, Ab Urbe Condita, Livy (T. J. Luce’s translation)
Note, that in this description he does not mention fasces; is this deliberate, accidental or coincidental? We don’t know, of course. Later, in Book II, he does address the fasces. Book I covers the history of Rome under kings. Book II begins his “history of a free nation in peace and war… the election of annual magistrates and greater obedience to the commands of law than to those of men,” which is the subject of the rest of Ab Urbe Condita; Rome as a Republic. He writes:
One might more correctly say that the birth of liberty was owing to the annual nature of the consuls’ tenure than to any lessening of the power the kings had possessed. The first consuls enjoyed all the rights and insignia of the highest office: they were only forbidden to hold the fasces at the same time, lest double intimidation of the people should appear to be their aim. By agreement with his colleague Brutus was the first to hold the fasces, and he proved thereafter to be as keen a guardian of liberty as he had been its initial champion.
~ Book I, Ab Urbe Condita, Livy (T. J. Luce’s translation)
The fasces was, thus, a symbol of authority, with the obvious connotation of justice vis-à-vis the ability to punish in scourging and executing. The latter point is particularly the case once Rome becomes a Republic. As Livy explains, this symbol, because it would have been the symbol of a king’s powers of intimidation before the Republic, was not one the consuls were allowed to carry in an era of Roman liberty. The lictors, however, did carry the fasces in the Roman Republic. C.T. Lewis in his Elementary Latin Dictionary explained it, thusly:
Twenty-four lictors, with the fasces, walked in a single file before a dictator [a temporary role alternately assumed by the consuls in time of emergency--usually military], twelve before a consul, six before a praetor
[Lictors] scourged or beheaded condemned criminals
In other words, separated from the context of a single ruler, it implied order and punishment meted for crimes committed against the law–not meted out of vengeance or whim by a tyrant (a Greek word, distinguishing a single-ruler from a democracy).
The symbol of the fasces was employed liberally in American iconography. For example, the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives explains that there is a fasces located on either side of the flag in the U.S. House: “The bronze fasces, representing a classical Roman symbol of civic authority, are located on both sides of the U.S. flag. The original Roman fasces consisted of an axe within a bundle of rods, bound together by a red strap. The fasces were carried before the consul and were used to restore order and carry out punishment of the courts.”
Additionally, it is expounded that, “The U.S. adopted the fasces as a symbol of the authority of Congress in part due to their symbolic relationship with Republican Rome, which the founding fathers consciously referenced in the formation of the United States.” This suggests to me a “Livian” influence among the Founding Fathers, but the website continues with this: “The form of the fasces also symbolically refers to the philosophy of American democracy. Like the thin rods bound together in the fasces, the small individual states achieve their strength and stability through their union under the federal government.” (These quotes come from the Office of the Clerk website.)
The fasces is seen in a number of American structures and designs. Notably, the fasces is seen on our currency, which has historically been one of a nation’s most important canvases for self-representation.
There are also claims that the eagle on the backside of the dollar bill is gripping arrows that are meant to represent a fasces. This seems difficult to affirm as there are no arrows in a fasces, nor is the eagle gripping an axe. A pamphlet describing our monetary symbolism, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, confirms that the arrows are representing war across from the laurels of peace in the other talon.
One of the more interesting suggestions of a Roman fasces appearing in American iconography is on the sides of Abraham Lincoln’s chair at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. According to the National Park Service, sculptor Daniel Chestor French, included “the reeds wrapped together in the arms of Lincoln’s chair [to] prompt the visitor to remember the way that Lincoln wanted to keep us bound together as one nation.” There is no axe and the NPS does not suggest that French intended it to be a fasces.
If it is a fasces, it would appear to be one in the latter definition of the Office of the Clerk: the states bound by unity in the Federal government. Of course, given the association of fascism with the fasces, it is not hard to see how some would react to the imagery in the Lincoln Memorial. However, the association with fascism is pretty recent.
The English word, fascism, comes from the Italian word fascismo, which is first known in 1921. The Italian government under Mussolini used the fasces as its symbol.
The Spanish government under Franco also made use of the fasces, as did the Nazis in their iconography.
These governments employed the symbols very recently in our collective history. So, wannabee-clever conspiracy-theorists, who point to the U.S. government, or Lincoln more specifically, as an oppressive regime in the fascist tradition through fasces-iconography are simply ignorant. Of course, having said that, the imagery is not likely to be employed in more recently introduced symbols because of its popularity with the fascist regimes–despite the obvious incongruity in their use of it, given the origins! While it has been usurped as fascist imagery, it is more appropriately the symbol of just, representative governance.