Fasces - Encyclopedia




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FASCES, in Roman antiquities, bundles of elm or birch rods from which the head of an axe projected, fastened together by a red strap. Nothing is known of their origin, the tradition that represents them as borrowed by one of the kings from Etruria resting on insufficient grounds. As the emblem of official authority, they were carried by the lictors, in the left hand and on the left shoulder, before the higher Roman magistrates; at the funeral of a deceased magistrate they were carried behind the bier. The lictors and the fasces were so inseparably connected that they came to be used as synonymous terms. The fasces originally represented the power over life and limb possessed by the kings, and after the abolition of the monarchy, the consuls, like the kings, were preceded by twelve fasces. Within the precincts of the city the axe was removed, in recognition of the right of appeal (provocatio) to the people in a matter of life and death; outside Rome, however, each consul retained the axe, and was preceded by his own lictors, not merely by a single accensus (supernumerary), as was originally the case within the city when he was not officiating. Later, the lictors preceded the officiating consul, and walked behind the other. Valerius Publicola, the champion of popular rights, further established the custom that the fasces should be lowered before the people, as the real representatives of sovereignty (Livy ii. 7; Florus i. 9; Plutarch, Publicola, 1 o); lowering the fasces was also the manner in which an inferior saluted a superior magistrate. A dictator, as taking the place of the two consuls, had 24 fasces (including the axe even within the city); most of the other magistrates had fasces varying in number, with the exception of the censors, who, as possessing no executive authority, had none. Fasces were given to the Flamen Dialis and (after 42 B.C.) even to the Vestals. During the times of the republic, a victorious general, who had been saluted by the title of imperator by his soldiers, had his fasces crowned with laurel (Cicero, Pro Ligario, 3). Later, under the empire, when the emperor received the title for life on his accession, it became restricted to him, and the laurel was regarded as distinctive of the imperial fasces (see Mommsen, Romisches Staatsrecht, i., 188 7, p. 373).

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