What is a Fasces?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

During the 1930s, Italian president Benito Mussolini revived a tradition last seen during the days of the Roman Empire. Mussolini would be preceded by an honor guard bearing a ceremonial bundle of wooden rods with an ax head attached to one side. This symbol of absolute rule is commonly known as a fasces, and helped inspired the name of those who espoused such totalitarian power, the Fascists. "Emperor" Benito Mussolini embraced many of the same political principles as the ancient Roman emperors, and the fasces became the perfect embodiment of those principles.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

During the actual days of the Roman Empire, fasces represented the power of individuals when combined and united under a singular entity, namely the empire of Rome. Emperors treated the fasces with the same respect as a modern ruler would respect the power of his or her country's flag or coat of arms. A fasces generally preceded the emperor before his address to the Roman Senate or an inspection of troops on the battlefield. Traditionally, the Roman fasces only contained an ax head whenever an official state of war existed, but historically times of peace in the Roman Empire were few and far between.

Other Roman officials and dignitaries also had the right to have a fasces precede them during parades and diplomatic missions. Soldiers who had performed heroically in battle may also have had the honor of carrying a fasces during ceremonies. The ax blades inside most fasces were removed while conducting business in Roman government buildings, which served as a reminder that the bearers had no life-or-death powers within their walls.

The modern symbolic use of a fasces does not usually generate as much controversy as other symbols of power such as the swastika or hammer and sickle. The American "Mercury Head" dime, minted before the introduction of the current FDR design, featured the image of a fasces on its reverse side. Many government flags also feature the image of a fasces, along with other symbols of power, such as the scales of justice or infantry shields. There are numerous other examples of singular or multiple fasces used to symbolize unity and power on many public buildings and government offices.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


That's really interesting that the fasces were only meant to display an ax head during times of war, because in all usage since ancient times I think I almost always see them with the ax head. I can see why Italian fascism would include the ax due to the ideology glorifying war, but for other institutions to use it seems rather curious. One instance of the fasces appearing without the ax head is above a door frame in the Oval Office in Washington.

Maybe this is a case of that fact being little known during the formative years of the United States.


The fasces are probably not as infamous as the swastika today because for the most part, fascist Italy did not put the symbol on absolutely everything the way other countries have done with their emblems. The fascists kept the same flag Italy had used prior to their taking power, the party had its own flag with a fasces on it but I don't know that it was really seen that often.

Also, apart from a first anniversary coin from 1923 I can't find much evidence of the fasces being used on currency, either. It is really interesting how certain symbols have remained in our collective memory while others have been lost to time.


As stated in the article -"Emperor" Benito Mussolini embraced many of the same political principles as the ancient Roman emperors, and the fasces became the perfect embodiment of those principles.

My question - Which Roman political principles did/does fascism mirror?

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