Fasces symbolise summary power and jurisdiction. The word is the plural of the Latin word fascis, meaning bundle. Traditional Roman fasces were bundles of birch rods tied together with a red ribbon to form a cylinder around an axe. Many western governments have used fasces as symbols of power.
Italian Fascists took their name from the Fascis, but the symbolism is much greater and fasces have avoided much of the stigma associated with twentieth century fascism.
Roman fasces looked like the ones on the far left, with the axe head sticking out from the bundle, but most modern representations show the act, sometimes double headed, projecting from the top of the bundle, as shown on the right. The picture on the far left is a photograph of a roman tomb. The one next to it is a modern reproduction - less neatly bound it has to be said.
The fasces lictoriae ("bundles of the Lictors") symbolised the imperium (power and authority) of ancient Rome. Lictors formed a corps of apparitores, subordinate officials who each carried fasces as a symbol of office before a magistrate during Roman public ceremonies - rather like modern mace bearers who precede Lord Chancellors, Judges, Mayors and University Chancellors. Bearers of fasces preceded other officials including consuls and proconsuls. In Rome, heroic soldiers carried fasces in triumphal processions. The symbolism of the fasces was already ancient even in Roman times. Roman historians recorded that twelve Lictors had accompanied the Etruscan kings of Rome in the distant past.
Fasces suggest strength through unity. A bundle of rods bound together possesses more strength than its consistuent rods. The rods themselves symbolised the state's power to punish delinquents - beatings were carried out using birch rods, sometimes rods taken from a fascis. The axe represented the ultimate power to execute people, by decapitating them. It has a long history in eastern Mediterranean countries. Fasces carried within the limits of the sacred inner City of Rome generally had their axe blades removed. This signified that the imperium-bearing magistrates did not have the judicial power of life and death. That power rested, within the City, with the people through their assemblies. However, during emergencies, when the Roman Empire was placed under a dictatorship (dictatura), Lictors attending to the Dictator retained their axe blades even inside the inner City a sign that the Dictator possessed the ultimate power.
The Fasces In France. Once the monarchy had been abolished the new French Republic needed new symbols the represent the state and its power to replace the old royal symbols such as the fleur-de-lis and the royal crown.
Liberty and later Marianne provided symbols for the revolutionary state while fasces provided an ideal symbol to represent the authority of the State. It is often hidden away in the background.
In the depiction on the left it accompanies two French tricolore flags and the national cypher RF. It is just visible behind the wreath.
In the depiction on the right it is less well hidden, this time by a poster with the new national motto. The axe head is completely concealed by a Phrygian cap (or Cap of Liberty).
It also features prominently on the French Seal of State, but here the axe has been lost completely and replaced by a spear. Fasces also appear on the (still unofficial) French Coat of Arms - still in the background but much more prominent, and with no attempt to hide the axe head. Similarly on the representation in blue to the right where it is scarcely concealed at all by the Motto of the Republic.
The fasces is one of the gererally recognised symbols of sovereignty not mentioned in article 2 of the French Constitution of 1958, which refers only to le drapeau tricolore, bleu, blanc, rouge: The French Flag , L'hymne national, the national anthem, The Marseillaise and La devise de la République; the motto . "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité".
The Fasces Used in the USA and Elsewhere
As well as the French examples given above, fasces are used today throughout the west, for example by the Spanish Guardia Civil (paramilitary police) and by the Norwegian and the Swedish police.
The symbol also widely used in the USA. The official seal of the United States Senate features a pair of crossed fasces (seal on the right, detail on the left).
At the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Lincoln's seat of state bears the fasces on the fronts of its arms.
Crossed fasces also appear on the badge of the US National Guard.
A frieze on the facade of the Supreme Court building depicts the figure of a Roman Centurion holding a fasces
Two fasces also appear in the US House of Representatives representing the power of the lower house and the country - one on either side of the national flag.
The reverse of the United States "Mercury" dime (see right) bears the design of a fasces (a proper Roman style one) and an olive branch.
A statue of Washington (see left) shows him leaning on a fasces, though the top of it, including the axe head is discreetly covered.
The symbol on the far right is a design from an envelope used during the American Civil War which also features a Phrygian cap (or Cap of Liberty) on a liberty pole.