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The Etruscan Spectacle of Fasces In Regal Rome: Some Unnoticed Implications

T. Corey Brennan

Rutgers University—New Brunswick

The Romans in both the Republic (as far back as we can reliably trace) and Empire made a familiar and highly effective spectacle out of the fasces—an assemblage of wooden rods, typically about a meter and half long, bound by leather straps together with a single-headed ax. The fasces are best conceptualized as mobile kits for punishment intended to induce feelings of respect for the relevant authority as well as fear.  This paper concerns the (unanimous) ancient tradition that the institution came to Etruria from Rome; that twelve attendants known as lictores each carried these fasces also before the old kings of Rome to mark their status and, with it, their capacity to inflict either corporal or capital punishment; and that the practice survived the revolution (conventionally dated to 509 BCE) that established the Republic, albeit with significant modifications for the two consuls who henceforth would head the state. Striking confirmation for the Etruscan origins (on which see Tassi Scandone 2001) came from the discovery in 1898 of a fasces-like decorative element in the seventh century BCE “Tomb of the Lictor” at Vetulonia. The question when the fasces as a symbol of chief political power arrived in Rome attracted much ancient speculation. However the extensive record of cultural contacts between the Romans and Etruscans in the archaic period allows us to posit a date only sometime before the fall of the monarchy.

Indeed, the procession with lictors and fasces must be regarded as the most distinctive and revealing aspect of the public presentation of the kings of Rome—at least the later, Etruscan ones of the sixth century BCE—that we can reliably recover. I maintain that the institution was meant both to leverage memories of regal prestige in Etruria (where, as Becker 2013 shows, many communities already had replaced kings with elected magistrates) and to inject pure psychological terror into what was in some important respects a politically regressive community. The use of the fasces, I contend, reflects outsiders’ efforts to rule a potentially resistant Latin people and control their aristocracy by a combination of intimidation and spectacle.

Efforts to disengage constitutional principles from the kings’ use of their lictors inevitably tend to replicate the efforts of (especially) later Republican authors such as Cicero and Dionysius, who used guesswork from the details they had to impose a Staatsrecht on earlier Rome. More relevant to the actual historical situation of sixth century BCE Latium is “the strong tradition for the continued presence of independent, warlike clans, often led by so-called condottieri” (Armstrong 2016). Given that the received story of regal Rome is essentially a series of attempted or realized usurpations (e.g., Macstarna, Tarquin, Lars Porsenna), one must consider, I argue, that competing individuals might simultaneously lay claim to sets of fasces. Such usurpation of insignia is lavishly attested for the later Republic, the Triumviral period, and for the Empire as late as the mid-fifth century CE (Sidonius Ep. 1.11.16).

Indirect evidence for regal-era competition and conflict over use of the fasces may come from the emphatic tradition that the Romans in establishing their new Republic took elaborate pains to ensure that the People were recognized as the source of the fasces, and that the full complement remained notionally at the regal dozen for each of the two consuls, extending to an awkward system of taking turns with the insignia when the chief magistrates found themselves together. A long series of literary sources consistently points up the transgressive aspects of displaying more than twelve fasces in the city (most explicitly, Dion. Hal. 10.59 on the decemviri of 451/0 BCE as “ten kings"). When use of the fasces was extended to Republican officials other than consuls, I argue that cultural memory as well as the theology of power and practical concerns shaped the development a system of fractional grants and protocols designed to mark individual rank, reduce conflict and curb the possibilities of abuse.

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Between Myth and Materiality: The Origins of Rome 800-500 BCE

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