• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: The Case of the Double-Edged Symbol

The fasces is one of many symbols that convey different meanings. The Latin fascis means "bundle," and the fasces is an Italian emblem (a bound collection of wooden rods, sometimes including an ax blade) that has origins in the Etruscan civilization. It was ultimately passed on to ancient Rome, where it represented power and jurisdiction. The Labrys, the ax originally associated with the fasces, is one of the oldest symbols in Greek civilization. Generally, it signifies that "unity gives strength"—while a single rod is easily snapped, the bundle is very difficult to break.

The fasces is found in many cultures. The images above were the symbols of the authoritarian Italian Fascists. Those below have been as American as apple pie since the founding of the United States (even during the Mussolini era, the fasces was not removed from American iconography, as the swastika was).

The fasces can be found on the podium of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C., beneath Abraham Lincoln's right hand; it appeared on the Mercury Dime, the design used until the adoption of the current FDR dime in 1945; it appears on either side of the flag of the United States behind the podium in the United States House of Representatives, on the seal of the United States Courts Administrative Office, and more. Recently, I saw—for the first time in decades—fasces at the base of the flag pole in Union Square, New York City.

In Rome, one can still find the outlines and shadows where fasces were hung before Il Duce's ouster from power (though the symbol was never outlawed, and two fasces currently flank his tomb). In this context it represents the abuse of power.

Designers worry about symbols having multiple or ambiguous meanings. The fasces is decidedly one of the sharpest of the double-edged swords (or axes, if you prefer).

Flagpole in Union Square, N.Y. Photos by Mirko Ilíc,