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 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 fasces remained in use in many societies after World War II due to its already having been adopted and incorporated into the iconography of numerous governments outside Italy, prior to Mussolini. Such iconographical use persists in governmental and various other contexts. In contrast, the swastika remains in common usage only in Asia, where it originated as an ancient Hindu symbol, and in Navajo iconography, where its religious significance is entirely unrelated to, and predates, early 20th-century European fascism.
Origin and symbolism
Aquila (Legionary eagle), toga figure, and fasces on reverse side of coinage.
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 fasces was a portable kit for flogging and decapitation. Roman lictors arrested and punished people, and acted as bodyguards for the powerful; they used the rods to lash people, and the ax to execute them. The laws of the twelve tables ended summary execution of Roman citizens in the fifth century BC, though fasces continued to be a powerful symbol of violent repression in ancient Rome.
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" (Съединението прави силата).
Rome, cloister of San Paolo, outside wall: marble panel with the six facie bundles.
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, such as Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, 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" or "union".
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.
War Flag of the Italian Social Republic
Eagle perched on fasces as adorned on caps and helmets of Fascist Italy
Fuselage roundel used on aircraft of the Italian air force during the Fascist period
Roundel used on the wings of aircraft of the Italian air force during the Fascist period
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 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.
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.
The reverse of the Mercury Dime, the design used until the adoption of the current FDR dime in 1945, features a fasces.
On the obverse of the 1896 $1 Educational Series note there is a fasces leaning against the wall behind the youth.
In the Oval Office, above the door leading to the exterior walkway, and above the corresponding door on the opposite wall, which leads to the president's private office; note: the fasces depicted have no axes, possibly because in the Roman Republic, the blade was always removed from the bundle whenever the fasces were carried inside the city, in order to symbolize the rights of citizens against arbitrary state power (see above)
The National Guard uses the fasces on the seal of the National Guard Bureau, and it appears in the insignia of Regular Army officers assigned to National Guard liaison and in the insignia and unit symbols of National Guard units themselves; for instance, the regimental crest of the 71st Infantry Regiment (New York) of the New York National Guard consisted of a gold fasces set on a blue background
At the Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln's seat of state bears the fasces—without axes—on the fronts of its arms; fasces also appear on the pylons flanking the main staircase leading into the memorial
The main entrance hallways in the Wisconsin State Capitol have lamps that are decorated with stone fasces motifs; in the woodwork before the podium of the speaker of the assembly, several double-bladed fasces are carved, but in the woodwork before the podium of the senate president are several single-bladed fasces
The grand seal of Harvard University inside Memorial Church is flanked by two inward-pointing fasces; the seal is located directly below the 112 m (368 ft) steeple and the Great Seal of the United States inside the Memorial Room; the walls of the room list the names of Harvard students, faculty, and alumni who gave their lives in service of the United States during World War I along with an empty tomb depicting Alma Mater holding a slain Harvard student
the symbol is used as part of the Knights of Columbus emblem (designed in 1883, replaced by bayonet from 1926 to 1947)
Commercially, a small fasces appeared at the top of one of the insignia of the Hupmobile automobile
A fasces appears on the statue of George Washington, made by Jean-Antoine Houdon that is now in the Virginia State Capitol; fasces are used as posts of the 1818 cast-iron fence surrounding the capitol building
The crest of the Chi Phi Fraternity, founded first in 1824, is divided into three sections, representing the triple origin of the Fraternity. The largest section of the crest contains a fasces with an ax, and represents the fraternity's value of Union. The symbol represents one facet of the Chi Phi Fraternity's early triple-origin; the one started in 1860 at Hobart College. According to the fraternity's lore, the rods represent the 12 Hobart founders, and the ax belonged to the Beta, or vice-president of the organization. The symbol was designed to resemble the ax bound by fasces as carried by Roman lictors when outside the Roman Pomerium.
The following cases all involve the adoption of the fasces as a symbol or icon, although no physical re-introduction has occurred.
Aiguillettes worn by aides-de-camp in many Commonwealth armed forces bear the fasces on the metal points; the origin of this is unknown, as the fasces is an uncommon symbol in British and Commonwealth heraldry and insignia
The Miners Flag (also known as the "Diggers' Banner"), the standard of nineteenth-century gold-miners in the colony of Victoria, in Australia, included the fasces as a symbol of unity and strength of common purpose; this flag symbolized the movement prior to the rebellion at the Eureka Stockade (1854)
^Les Grands Palais de France : Fontainebleau, I re Série, Styles Louis XV, Louis XVI, Empire, Labrairie Centrale D'Art Et D'Architecture, Ancienne Maison Morel, Ch. Eggimann, Succ, 106, Boulevard Saint Germain, Paris, 1910
^Les Grands Palais de France : Fontainebleau , II me Série, Les Appartments D'Anne D'Autriche, De François I er, Et D'Elenonre La Chapelle, Labrairie Centrale D'Art Et D'Architecture, Ancienne Maison Morel, Ch. Eggimann, Succ, 106, Boulevard Saint Germain, Paris, 1912