Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Holy Shit, the Fasces!

I'm doing something a little different this time. I'm going to give you a bit of background on this thing that you're seeing at the top of the post, then I'm going to tell you a story about something I saw when I was in Washington, D.C. that completely blew my mind. Sort of. I mean, it was more the fact that I picked up on it immediately that blew my mind. It was a seminal moment in my academic development that ultimately would lead me nowhere special. But hey, I've got a blog, right? So that's something.

Anyway, that thing is called a fasces. It's a bound bundle of birch rods with the head of an axe sticking out of it. It literally means power. It was the symbol of executive authority in Etruscan civilization. When the Romans took over, they adopted it as their own.
Abzorbaloff from Doctor Who
They took the Abzorbaloff approach to empire building

Here's how it worked: when a powerful official would stroll around their domain, they would be accompanied by subordinates called lictors. These lictors would carry around a fasces. The axe head would not always be a part of it - it was there to indicate that the official the lictors accompanied had the authority to mete out capital punishment. 

See, if a magistrate saw somebody being naughty, they could theoretically point at them and the lictors would be obliged to walk over and beat the fear of Jupiter into them. If they saw someone being really naughty, they could assign one of the lictors to the role of on-call executioner. The axe head was forbidden within the boundaries of Rome. Within the city, the power of life and death rested solely with the people. Well, you know, the rich ones. But putting a weapon on display was poor taste, at best. Treason, at worst.
Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio
They didn't exactly show leniency for treason, either

More importantly, the bundle of birch rods represented strength through unity. Alone, the rods could easily be broken over your knee. Tied together, they formed a cohesive, stronger unit that even Bane would have a bit of trouble getting through.
Bane breaking Batman
And he broke the Batman over his knee
Now, here's where the story comes in. I learned about the fasces in a high school Latin class, just weeks before I took a class trip to Washington, D.C. I don't know if you've noticed, but just about every important person in the history of the federal government has flashed some serious bedroom eyes toward Ancient Rome. So just about everything in our nation's capital pays lip service in some way toward Roman culture.

On the day we went to the Lincoln Memorial, I was able to put my new-found knowledge to use. Here's a picture of the statue of Abraham Lincoln that you'll find there:
Wait, that's not Daniel Day-Lewis

Notice anything familiar about it? Here's a hint: those aren't just armrests on his chair. He's got two old Roman symbols of magisterial authority under his arm. But there's more. These fasces have no axe head, because they're within the borders of the capital.

Lincoln presided over the country during the Civil War. What better symbol for his authority than one suggesting that strength comes from Union? One that conspicuously lacks a key element, which is only left out when it's in a place where people are forbidden from taking up arms against each other?

All this is basically to say that Daniel Chester French was the right man for the job of sculpting this memorial.

Holy shit.

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