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Bill Thayer

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p520 Fasces

For a much simpler summary of the fasces, see this good page at Livius.Org.

Unsigned article on pp520‑521 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

FASCES, were rods bound in the form of a bundle, and containing an axe (securis) in the middle, the iron of which projected from them.a These rods were carried by lictors before the superior magistrates at Rome, and are often represented on the reverse of consular coins (Spanh. De Praest. et Usu Numism. vol. II pp88, 91). The following woodcuts give the reverses of four consular coins; in the first of which we see the lictors carrying the fasces on their shoulders; in the second, two fasces, and between them a sella curulis; in the third, two fasces crowned, with the consul standing between them; and in the fourth, the same, only with no crowns around the fasces.


[image ALT: An engraving of two coins. On the left, one coin depicts four men in procession, of whom one carries an axe and another a rod; on the right, the other coin depicts a low backless chair flanked by two tall thin axes, head down. They are Roman coins illustrating the fasces.]

[image ALT: An engraving of two coins. On the left, one coin depicts a man, or a statue of a man, on a pedestal or podium, wearing a toga and flanked by two bundles of rods each bound up with an axe and crowned with a wreath; on the right, the other coin depicts a very similar scene, without the podium. They are Roman coins illustrating the fasces.]

The next two woodcuts, which are taken from the consular coins of C. Norbanus, contain in addition to the fasces — the one a spica and caduceus, and the other a spica, caduceus, and prora.


[image ALT: An engraving of two coins. On the left, one coin depicts an ear of wheat, a bundle of rods bound up with an axe (a fasces), and a wand terminating in two affronted snakes (a caduceus); on the right, the other coin depicts a very similar grouping, with the addition of the stylized prow of a ship. They are Roman coins illustrating the fasces.]

The fasces appear to have been usually made of birch (betulla, Plin. H. N. XVI.30),b but sometimes also of the twigs of the elm (Plaut. Asin. III.2.29, II.3.74). They are said to have been derived from Vetulonia, a city of Etruria (Sil. Ital. VIII.485, compare Liv. I.8). Twelve were carried before each of the kings by twelve lictors; and on the expulsion of the Tarquins, one of the consuls was preceded by twelve lictors with the fasces and secures, and the other by the same number of lictors with the fasces only, or, according to some accounts, with crowns round them (Dionys. V.2).c But P. Valerius Publicola, who gave to the people the right of provocatio, ordained that p521the secures should be removed from the fasces, and allowed only one of the consuls to be preceded by the lictors while they were at Rome (Cic. de Rep. II.31; Val. Max. IV.1 §1). The other consul was attended only by a single accensus [Accensus]. When they were out of Rome, and at the head of the army, each of the consuls retained the axe in the fasces, and was preceded by his own lictors (Dionys. V.19; Liv. XXIV.9, XXVIII.27).

When the decemviri were first appointed, the fasces were only carried before the one who presided for the day (Liv. III.33); and it was not till the second decemvirate, when they began to act in a tyrannical manner, that the fasces with the axe were carried before each of the ten (Liv. III.36). The fasces and secures were, however, carried before the dictator even in the city (Liv. II.18): he was preceded by 24 lictors, and the magister equitum by six.

The praetors were preceded in the city by two lictors with the fasces (Censorin. De Die Natal. 24;d Cic. Agrar. II.34); but out of Rome and at the head of an army by six, with the fasces and secures, whence they are called by the Greek writers στρατηγοὶ ἑξαπελέκεις (Appian, Syr. 15; Polyb. II.24 §6, III. 40 §9, 106 §6).e The proconsuls also were allowed, in the time of Ulpian, six fasces (Dig. 1 tit. 16 s14). The tribunes of the plebs, the aediles and quaestors, had no lictors in the city (Plut. Quaest. Rom. 81; Gell. XIII.12); but in the provinces the quaestors were permitted to have the fasces (Cic. Pro Planc. 41).

The lictors carried the fasces on their shoulders, as is seen in the coin of Brutus given above; and when an inferior magistrate met one who was higher in rank, the lictors lowered their fasces to him. This was done by Valerius Publicola, when he addressed the people (Cic. de Rep. II.31; Liv. II.7; Val. Max. IV.1 §1); and hence came the expression submittere fasces in the sense of to yield, to confess one's self inferior to another (Cic. Brut. 6).

When a general had gained a victory, and had been saluted as Imperator by his soldiers, his fasces were always crowned with laurel (Cic. ad Att. VIII.3 §5, de Div. I.28; Caes. Bell. Civ. II.71).


Thayer's Notes:

a The only really unsatisfactory aspect of this article is that the author forgot to tell us what this odd symbol means, probably because it was so obvious to him. The rods represent the power of the state to beat you, the axe its power to behead you: the whole is a plain and efficient symbol of state authority.

Before the symbol was hijacked by Mussolini's "fascists" in the early 20c, the fasces had an honorable modern history as well. They represent authority in the coat of arms of the French Republic, for example, and appear on several United States coins: the Mercury dime, of course, but also such rarities as the Battle of Gettysburg half-dollar; in the arms of Lincoln's chair in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.; and on the seal of the United States Senate as well as prominently among the architectural ornaments of a number of government buildings in Washington: on and around the speakers' podium in the chambers of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, at the entrance to the National Archives, etc.

b Nowhere does Pliny ever say that the fasces were made of birch; in fact, although he mentions fasces in several books, he only mentions birch three times, each in Book 16: and nowhere in that book does he mention fasces at all. The passage cited here merely lists trees that favor hills and those found in valleys, the birch being among the latter.

One possibility is that Smith is leaning on an editor's note, which would have been in Latin of course, in some 17c edition of Pliny; but in view of the other mysterious reference in this article (see the following note), I suspect that the material in this article was originally part of the article Lictor, which like this one, is unsigned and therefore, according to the Dictionary's preface, both must have been written by the editor William Smith — and that when the original article was broken up into parts the references were carried along without being rechecked.

c — or clubs. The Greek text of that passage of Dionysius as printed in the Loeb edition, with no critical note, has κορύνας = "clubs", a Greek word, and logical in the context. A change of a single vowel, however, would transliterate the Latin word coronas = "crowns": Dionysius frequently does transliterate Latin words, although usually with an explanation; crowns would not be so illogical either, and see the woodcut on this page.

d Nowhere does Censorinus ever mention fasces. The passage cited here merely quotes a plebiscitum of the tribune of the plebs M. Plaetorius ordering that two lictors accompany the praetor urbanus.

See the preceding note.

e I know of no Greek text of Polybius online; the links given above are to an English translation, in which, respectively: Praetor renders the Greek ἑξαπέλεκυν ἡγεμόνα, two Praetors the Greek δύο τὴν ἑξεπέλεκυν, and Praetor the Greek ἑξαπέλεκυν στρατηγόν.


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Page updated: 18 Oct 14