Oxford (2022) h/b 288pp £22.99 (ISBN 9780197644881)

This is the first full-length study of the fasces, that distinctive symbol of Roman authority that later gave its name to 20th century autocracy in Italy. Professor Brennan traces the history of the fasces from early Rome through to the republic and empire. Half of the rest of the book then covers their re-emergence as an emblem of liberty in both the American and French revolutions, and their later transformation into the defining insignia of fascism.

What were the fasces? Essentially a dozen or so rods of birch bound together with an axe by leather straps. B. has little archaeological evidence to go on. The 7th century Tomb of Lictors found at Vetulonia (in Etruria) shows that the Roman Kings had fasces, carried by 12 lictors (perhaps representing the twelve Etruscan cities). Dressed in red tunics with a distinctive white stripe, and with their rods and axes highly visible, they were ready to administer corporal or capital punishment (and even both together): the rods would be unbound and the straps then used to bind the legs and arms of their victims. Numerous accounts testify to the awe or tacito terrore in which they were held.

Under the republic the lictors transferred to the consuls but their authority was somewhat tempered as democracy advanced: axes were lowered within the city boundary, the lictors rotated monthly between the two consuls, and a right of appeal was instigated against summary punishment. But the lictors were far from ornamental: they cleared the way for their magistrates and upheld order in the Senate and courts. Often under the republic they were in the firing line between magistrates and the plebs, and could be attacked on occasion by the mob. Outside Italy they wielded Rome’s authority, accompanying imperial praetors and governors, though were often sensitive to local feeling: Cicero advised his departing governor brother ‘let rods and axes bear before you insignia of rank rather power’.

For the magistracy the fasces were a badge of pride, the knighthoods of today, and after death were displayed on family tombs. For military triumphs they were garlanded with laurels. And the trappings of office multiplied: praetors, ex-consuls, important priests, city councillors, all became entitled to lictors; even Vestal Virgins were escorted by one. Sulla had 24 when dictator, praetors serving abroad had 12 each. Plutarch claims that Caesar wintering at Luca, where he met Pompey and Crassus in 56 BC, was visited by 200 senators and magistrates attended by 120 lictors.

Who were these lictors? Generally they were freedmen, exempted from military service, and they were ranked in any entourage below accensi (personal assistants) and scribes but above messengers, copyists, soothsayers and heralds. They seem to have had a common training school and their own trade union. They were perhaps a combination of police and bailiff, with the power to intervene in markets and enter private homes.

Under the empire sightings are fewer, and especially rarer on coins. In the Byzantine era the evidence becomes fuzzier still; perhaps they merged into more traditional imperial bodyguards like the Varangians who carried staves as well as axes.

And then they disappear altogether. We don’t see fasces again until the 15th century, when we find them on Lippi frescoes, Raphael cartoons and papal tombs. But now they derive from a rather different historical source. The renaissance knew the fable of Aesop, in which the father stopped his quarrelling sons by showing how sticks bundled together could not be broken as easily as single stick on its own.

It is this different origin that is then seen in the adoption of fasces by 18th century European royal houses including our own. Britannia leans on fasces on George II’s coronation medal; Dutch and Spanish kings display them on their arms. Marianne symbolised the new French Republic with her hand resting on fasces and an axe.

Over in the United States Jefferson originally wanted Aesop’s bundle of rods being presented by the father to his son as the symbol of the new constitution. In fact, he, Adams and Franklin chose the motto e pluribus unum underneath a circle of 13 shields but the first Congressional mace had 13 ebony rods (for the 13 colonies) laced by silver bands. The symbol of the Union in the Civil War, from then on the fasces became the ultimate symbol of federal authority and were incorporated into US coinage and onto scores of new federal buildings. The great Lincoln Memorial, designed in 1911, featured a huge pair of axed fasces three metres tall, thus ‘revealing the higher meaning of the Memorial, the importance of the union of the states’ (according to the National Parks Service).

But, as B. points out, 1922, the year that the Lincoln Memorial was finally unveiled, was also the year of the ‘March on Rome’  by Mussolini and his followers, the ‘Autonomous Fasci of Revolutionary Action’, now renamed the Partita Nationale Fascista. The fasces became their election symbol, and the explicit threat to impose their authority in the face of strikes and disorder was well-summed up by the slogan la legge o la scure (the law or the axe). Under Mussolini fasces then appeared on Italian coinage, stamps and cigarettes, with the green-patinaed axe head, white birch rods and red leather straps mirroring the national colours. There was even a perfume—Fascio ‘the scent of daring and youth’ .

But Mussolini, though initially revered in the United States, was in fact turning the American meaning of fasces on its head: he championed unity through strength rather than the reverse. It was only later, after the Second World War, that the United States properly reacted against this: post-war coins replaced earlier fasces with the portrait of FDR. Though the fasces themselves survive on buildings on both sides of the Atlantic, and particularly in Italy, new examples are rare: B. highlights two recent statues of the Princeton President John Witherspoon.

This is a highly readable, interesting and useful survey, and an illustration of how we can always learn from history. The line between Romulus, the consuls, Marianne, Lincoln and Mussolini isn’t a straight one: symbols too can be easily manipulated.


Sir Michael Fallon

Founder of the Parliamentary Classics group