The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new book explores the fasces, a symbol of power — and of unity

The armrests of Daniel Chester French's statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial are carved to resemble fasces. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

If an ancient Roman was somehow dropped into Washington in the year 2022, there’s a lot that would confuse him: the cars, the helicopters, the cellphones. But there’s something he’d recognize right away. If a Roman walked into the Lincoln Memorial and spied the massive statue of the president, he would note that the arms of Lincoln’s white marble chair are carved to resemble a bundle of wooden rods known as a fasces.

Those rods are ripe with symbolism. But what sort of symbolism?

That’s what Rutgers classics professor T. Corey Brennan explores in his new book, “The Fasces: A History of Ancient Rome’s Most Dangerous Political Symbol,” published by Oxford University Press. As you’d expect, there’s a lot of ancient Rome in Brennan’s book, but there’s a lot of the not-so-ancient U.S. in it, too, especially the nation’s capital.

The Founding Fathers took inspiration from Greek and Roman tropes — political, cultural, artistic. As a result, Washington bristles with fasces. The Lincoln Memorial alone is full of them, not just on Abraham Lincoln’s chair, but carved in multiple places on the monument’s walls and depicted in its murals.

“Washington is a bonanza for fasces-spotting,” Brennan said. “It’s hard to see any federal building from the New Deal period that doesn’t have the fasces in some place.”

A Roman who saw them adorning the shrine to Lincoln might form some unusual opinions about the man. He might assume Lincoln had been a lictor, a Roman official who served as a sort of bodyguard to elected magistrates. Lictors carried the fasces as a sign of their office. They also had a reputation for being thugs.

“The fasces is essentially a mobile kit for punishment,” Brennan said. “It consisted of a bunch of sticks to beat someone with and an ax to cut off his head.”

These components were bundled together with a leather strap to form a handy tool for torture.

Said Brennan: “It was an instrument of terror meant to induce fear.”

It should not be surprising that the word “fascism” is derived from “fasces.” When Benito Mussolini formed his National Fascist Party, he chose this ancient Roman tool (well, Etruscan, originally) as the party’s namesake and symbol.

Symbols can mutate over time and so it was with the fasces. By the time the U.S. was erecting and decorating its state houses, courthouses, post offices and bridges, the fasces had taken on a distinctly American personality. Rather than represent an enforcer, it came to represent unity. Most American fasces depict 13 rods, representing the 13 original states. Usually, there isn’t an ax.

Brennan traces this shift in the fasces’ personality to an Aesop’s fable popular during the Renaissance. In the fable, a father schools his quarreling sons by demonstrating that while a single stick can be broken easily, a bundle of sticks is too strong to break.

“It’s the notion that a bunch of sticks together is stronger than an individual one,” Brennan said. “In the Lincoln era, people really made a very big deal about this: the fasces as a symbol of unity.”

The fasces became a symbol of the abolitionist movement, much to the annoyance of some Southerners. When he was in Congress, future Confederate leader Jefferson Davis fought unsuccessfully to alter Thomas Crawford’s design for the base of the Freedom statue atop of the U.S. Capitol. It’s a bunch of fasces, bending slightly under the figure’s weight, but not breaking.

If the American flavor of fasces was ahistoric, so was Mussolini’s, Brennan said.

“His idea was imposing unity by means of authority,” Brennan said. Where the American fasces often does away with the ax, the bladed weapon becomes essential in the fasces Mussolini spread across Italy in public works of art.

“The ax imposes unity on the coherent parts,” Brennan said.

Fascism was the evil engine driving World War II. The other symbol from that era — the Nazi swastika — was also appropriated, from India, where it was a mystical sign. Unlike the swastika, the fasces remains obscure in America, where it is a generic symbol of unity and good governance, Brennan said. The sergeant-of-arms of the House of Representatives has an 1849 mace composed of 13 ebony rods topped with a silver eagle astride a globe.

And yet, the fasces has been spotted at extremist gatherings.

“One reason it’s been attractive to extremist groups is that of all the symbols, it’s largely forgotten,” Brennan said.

As Brennan writes in his book: “There is nothing ‘fascist’ about the fasces in Daniel Chester French’s statue of a seated Lincoln in his Memorial, dedicated in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 1922, seven months before Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome,’ by which he seized political power in Italy. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the fasces to a hate rally in 2022 is a different matter.”