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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking



The post and chain fencing pictured here is from Trinity College, Dublin. It’s outward purpose is obvious – the prevention of people taking shortcuts across the grass. However, unlike lost fences this one carries a message.

The posts are painted iron representations of tightly bound bundles of sticks around a central spear. This bundle is a fasces and is a heraldic emblem. It has a long heritage back to Ancient Rome, where is symbolised the power of the empire.


Traditionally the centrepiece of a fasces was an axe. To ancient society an axe represented thunder and thereby rain, which in turn was closely associated with fertility. However, the axe was mainly defined by its own duality – it is both a tool and a weapon. As shown in the photo from Trinity college the spear is a sign of potent virility.

The bundling however, would make what had been a well-crafted tool of minimal complexity into an overwrought and cumbersome apparatus. Perhaps this is why governments and rulers have used it in their coats of arms?

Historical use

As described, the fasces is a traditional symbol, occurring in Etruscan society and continuing in use through medieval European heraldry through neoclassicism to today.

Fasces became a little more unsavoury when the Italian Fascists adopted the name and image of what had been the symbol of workers co-operatives and used them for their own purposes. Its use suited the fascists perfectly as it created a historic link to a glorious past, while maintaining a crucial link to the common man.

The phrase ‘Strength Through Unity‘ which describes the fasces lives on as the credo of neo-nazi organisations. The visual symbol itself however, is still in use unencumbered with a legacy such as the maligned swastika has. There are many examples where this is the case, mostly governmental or legislative in context, describing their work for and through their populaces.

The prime example would be the fasces in the Oval Office which no weapon in the centre. This is due to a probable classical influence; in the Roman Republic, the blade was always removed from the bundle whenever the fasces were carried inside the city. This symbolised the beneficial and non-aggressive nature of the urban rulers’ attitudes to the rural rank and file.

Some further examples:

Les Grands Palais de France at Fontainebleu, fasces appear in the myriad of heraldric elements

Les Grands Palais de France at Fontainebleu, fasces appear in the myriad of heraldric elements

The US National Guard's arms show an eagle bearing two fasces, illustrating its two comprehensions

The US National Guard's arms show an eagle bearing two fasces, illustrating its two comprehensions

Sankt Gallen in Switzerland's emblem

Sankt Gallen in Switzerland's emblem

Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbant, Penguin, 1969
World-reknowned semiotician Umberto Eco discusses the mental contortions required of true fascists
Good old Wikipedia the font of knowledge of dubious origin (the lazy researcher’s swiss army knife)

This article was posted by on Friday, November 20th, 2009 at 04:03.
It is archived in America, Architecture, Art, Culture, History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

3 Responses to Fasces

  1. Pingback: Weird symbolism in Dublin architecture - Page 3

  2. Pat Wolff says:

    Fasces – was/is it a usable tool, like an axe? Sure doesn’t look like I could grasp it to swing at a chunk of tree

    • Hi Pat,
      Good question.
      I think the fasces symbol also, intentionally or otherwise, functions as an metaphor for the cumbersome nature of civil and social systems. In essence, it seems to say that the larger and more unwieldy systems get as everyone works together, the less they often actually work.

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