Fasces and humanitas

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Ancient Rome played a prominent role, in two different ways, in the comments on yesterday's post "Progress and its enemies". This was unexpected, since the post was about the rhetoric of names in political philosophy. In any case, my comments on the comments are too long to fit gracefully in a comment, so I'm posting them here separately.

Rome came up first in some back-and-forth about the use and meaning of the fasces in Roman times. Were they symbols of strength-in-unity, or were they a "portable execution kit"? In support of the second interpretation, Dan Lufkin quoted a passage from a recent book by Cullen Murphy, who in turn cites a 1984 paper by Anthony J. Marshall. Dan observed that the journal's web site "is still under construction for that issue", and suggests that we can probably find it in the stacks of our campus library.

In off-site storage, more likely, but in any case, there's no need to do anything as drastic as actually dealing with a physical object, since Anthony J. Marshall, "Symbols and Showmanship in Roman Public Life: The Fasces", Phoenix 38(2): 120-141,1984, is available from JSTOR. And Marshall does try to establish the points that Dan Lufkin cites Cullen Murphy as citing it to prove; and his argument seems persuasive to me. Here are a few quotes:

If we turn from public ceremony to the related topic of state regalia, we find that here also there predominates a tradition of scholarship dedicated to discovering the earliest strata of constitutional history. This limited inquiry may again tempt the unwary to infer that public institutions were static and that consequently their most archaic function continues for all periods to provide the key to the real, abiding significance of regalia such as the fasces. But it would be implausible to equate the primitive origin with the constant "meaning" if the Romans' own perception of their emblems of office remained lively and evolved in response to changing social and political conditions. Nor would it be reasonable to assume that Romans of the later Republic remained generally aware of the earliest, sacral origins of their magisterial regalia. […]

As constant concomitants of high office both in and outside Rome, the fasces in particular were the most striking visual feature of magisterial authority "on parade," and it is hardly surprising that our sources do not treat them as modern writers would treat a mere ceremonial mace of office. But this vital element cannot be the concern of studies which approach the evidence with the set purpose of extrapolating abstract constitutional norms. Unless we can establish that a significant number of Romans knew the historic reason for ceremonies such as the removal of axes from fasces at the pomoerium and clearly understood whether the primary significance of the securis was punitive, military, or religious, the traditional discussion of these topics in terms of constitutional technicalities cannot by itself elucidate the complete function of such insignia in post-regal periods. […]

We may take our start from the basic fact that the fasces were not merely decorative or symbolic devices carried before magistrates in a parade of idle formalism. Rather, they constituted a portable kit for flogging and decapitation. Since they were so brutally functional, they not only served as ceremonial symbols of office but also carried the potential of violent repression and execution. If these emblems of office paraded before Roman eyes retained their practical function in the infliction of severe corporal punishment, then despite the advent of provocatio their punitive associations never became as historically "distanced" for the average citizen as have those of ceremonial maces and swords in modern societies. Even after provocatio had been won to shield citizens from their summary use, mass executions of deserters or prisoners of war involving virgae and secures could still be viewed on occasion in the forum. Roman society was therefore unusual in that its central magisterial regalia remained directly functional; the fasces continued as both symbol and instrument of executive power. Thus powerful emotions of pride and fear could focus on them, and their symbolic political significance was accordingly intensified by their aura of latent violence. […]

"Provocatio (ad populum)" was the right of Roman citizens to appeal "to the people" magistrates' decisions in capital cases (also discussed here.) According to legend, this right was established by a law passed in the first year of the republic, 509 B.C., after the expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome.

Marshall continues:

In this context, it is significant that grants of the ius provocationis were so highly prized that for some recipients they were an acceptable alternative to full citizenship. Slaves or free men unprotected by citizenship or special privilege were subject without appeal to the full powers of the imperium administered via the lictor's strong right arm. This might run to a few blows to control crowds or enforce respect for the magistrate at an assize-hearing, or it might extend to flogging with or without decapitation to follow. Although the virgae themselves were not intended for capital punishment, the fasces are sometimes termed "bloody" in our sources because of the terrible beating which the heavy rods inflicted; they could, and sometimes did, prove lethal. Of birch or elmwood and some one-and-a- half meters in length, they were considerably weightier than the centurion's vitis or "swagger-stick," (which it was permissible to apply to citizens' backs). The virgae could of course be used on non-Roman military personnel. The single-headed securis, regularly carried in the fasces extra urbem and seen as a component of the regalia of office, was employed for executions under the Republic, later replaced in the Principate by the sword. Condemned prisoners were not kept waiting after sentencing, and execution was carried out in full public view. When the magistrate bade the praeco pronounce the dread words age lege, the lictors would unstrap the red thongs of the fasces on the spot (virgas expedire). […]

Physical dread of the fasces had abated for the Romans themselves after the cherished right of provocatio was won. While it remained effective, this right was prized with an ardour intensified by keen awareness of the menacing, practical side of the rods and axe as it continued a reality for the less privileged. Citizens themselves could still be beaten with the virgae if they did not register an appeal, and suspect elements of society such as rowdy actors could still suffer flogging before Roman eyes in the capital. Citizens began once more to dread summary punishment as their right of immunity wore thin from the second century A.D. onward, but in the heyday of their privilege any discovery that citizens' rights had been flouted by the lictors drew sharp reaction. Cicero's Verrines amply demonstrate how easily horrified emotion could be roused by tales of high-handedness. It is reasonable to assume that references to this grimmer side of the fasces and axes are the more emotionally charged because freedom from their application formed such a cherished and central component of civic rights; the more so since they did not fade into obsolescence as instruments of punishment, as have the block, the stocks, and finally the gallows for us. Liability to the fasces, in the chillingly physical image of axe poised over neck, rods over back, could therefore be used as a vivid, even relishable, symbol of subjection to Rome.

Marshall also suggests that the modern interpretation of the fasces as symbolizing strength-in-unity, rather than official-violence-provisionally-held-in-check, is an iconographic innovation of the French Revolution:

The Nachleben of the fasces in post-Classical history cannot be fully documented here but deserves mention as a tribute to their continuing vitality as symbols despite their antiquity. Their association with political strength was to be spectacularly exploited by the French revolutionaries, who interpreted them as a symbol of strength in unity, and, more dubiously, by the Italian Fascisti after 1926.

I had learned, or at least retained, only the strength-in-unity interpretation, so I'm grateful to Dan for furthering my education.

The second classical discussion began because I quoted Terence's "humani nihil a me alienum puto", in order to explain why I had read and blogged about Mark Halpern's Language and Human Nature. In response, Adrian Morgan quoted an echo in a work by Henri J M Nouwen. I was grateful to learn about Nouwen — I'd never heard of him before — and this confirmed the observations about serendipitous communication an earlier LL post on Terence's line ("Terence in the global lunchroom", 8/18/2004).

Terence's line has gotten a lot of attention over the years, as Richard Bauman explains in Human Rights in Ancient Rome:

'Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.'

'I am a man: I deem nothing pertaining to man foreign to me.' The words of the comic playwright P. Terentius Afer reverberated across the Roman world of the mid-second century BC and beyond. Terence, an African and a former slave, was well placed to preach the message of universalism, of the essential unity of the human race, that had come down in philosophical form from the Greeks, but needed the pragmatic muscles of Rome in order to become a practical reality. The influence of Terence's felicitous phrase on Roman thinking about human rights can hardly be overestimated. Two hundred years later the philosopher Seneca ended his seminal exposition of the unity of mankind with a clarion-call:

There is one short rule that should regulate human relationships. All that you see, both divine and human, is one. We are the parts of one great body. Nature created us from the same source and to the same end. She imbued us with mutual affection and sociability, she taught us to be fair and just, to suffer injury rather than to inflict it. She bids extend our hands to all in need of help. let that well-known line be in our hearts and on our lips: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. [(myl) from Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD), Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium]

With access to an intellectual coterie in which culture, influence and realism all played a part, Terence's message epitomised the Roman conception of human rights. It was not a starry-eyed concept. Prompted by the need to define their relations with non-Romans, the new masters of the Mediterranean world sought to combine the tenets of Greek philanthropia with traditional Roman values. The resultant product, humanitas, was given theoretical form by thinkers like Cicero and Seneca, and practical expression by laws and trials.

Given what an old hypocrite Lucius Annaeus Seneca was, it's worth noting that in its original setting in Terence's Heautontimorumenos: The Self-Tormenter, the line is a contextually ironic justification of neighborly meddling, rather than an unambiguous affirmation of universal empathy.

Henry Thomas Riley's version of the play's "argument" begins like this:

Chremes commands his wife, when pregnant, if she is delivered of a girl immediately to kill the child. Having given birth to a girl, Sostrata delivers her to an old woman named Philtera to be exposed. Instead of doing this, Philtera calls her Antiphila, and brings her up as her own. Clinia, the son of Menedemus, falls in love with her, and treats her as though his wife. Menedemus, on learning this, is very angry, and by his harsh language drives away his son from home. Taking this to heart, and in order to punish himself for his ill-timed severity, Menedemus, though now an aged man, fatigues himself by laboring at agricultural pursuits from morning till night.

This sets the stage for Riley's translation of the start of Act 1, Scene 1:

Chremes: Although this acquaintanceship between us is of very recent date, from the time in fact of your purchasing an estate here in the neighborhood, yet either your good qualities, or our being neighbors (which I take to be a sort of friendship), induces me to inform you, frankly and familiarly, that you appear to me to labor beyond your years, and beyond what your affairs require. For, in the name of Gods and men, what would you have? What can be your aim? You are, as I conjecture, sixty years of age, or more. No man in these parts has a better or a more valuable estate, no one more servants; and yet you discharge their duties just as diligently as if there were none at all. However early in the morning I go out, and however late in the evening I return home, I see you either digging, or plowing, or doing something, in fact, in the fields. You take respite not an instant, and are quite regardless of yourself. I am very sure that this is not done for your amusement. But really I am vexed how little work is done here. If you were to employ the time you spend in laboring yourself, in keeping your servants at work, you would profit much more.

Menedemius: Have you so much leisure, Chremes, from your own affairs, that you can attend to those of others-those which don't concern you?

Chremes: I am a man, and nothing that concerns a man do I deem a matter of indifference to me.  Suppose that I wish either to advise you in this matter, or to be informed myself:  if what you do is right, that I may do the same; if it is not, then that I may dissuade you.

Menedemius: It's requisite for me to do so; do you as it is necessary for you to do.

Chremes: Is it requisite for any person to torment himself?

Menedemius: It is for me.

Chremes: If you have any affliction, I could wish it otherwise. But prithee, what sorrow is this of yours? How have you deserved so ill of yourself?

Menedemius: Alas! alas! (He begins to weep.)

The key section in the original Latin:

ME. Chreme, tantumne ab re tuast oti tibi
aliena ut cures ea quae nil ad te attinent?
CH. homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.
vel me monere hoc vel percontari puta:
rectumst ego ut faciam; non est te ut deterream.
ME. mihi sic est usu'; tibi ut opu' factost face.
CH. an quoiquamst usus homini se ut cruciet? ME. mihi.
CH. si quid laborist nollem. sed quid istuc malist?
quaeso, quid de te tantum meruisti? ME. eheu!

[I should note that Terence's play, like most Roman comedies of its time, was a translation of a (lost) Greek original — so it's possible that the credit for the line, as well as the plot, ought to go to Menander rather than Terence.]


  1. David Eddyshaw said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 7:43 am

    Too right about the odious Seneca; I would think nobody could read his ghastly moral posturing in his letters to Lucilius and be in any doubt about what a major league creep he was, even if we didn't know about him from historical sources.

    (residual bitterness from long-past schooldays ..)

    It's always bothered me that this transparent moral fraud had such a high reputation among mediaeval Christians, who were not on the whole stupid or gullible in such matters.

    Maybe it's to do with his flashy Latin style.

  2. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 7:52 am

    One linguistic angle that can be found in Nouwen is his fondness for appealing to etymology. Two examples:

    "The first task of any school should be to protect its privilege of offering free time – the Latin word schola means free time – to understand ourselves and our world a little better. It really is a hard struggle to keep free time truly free and to prevent education from degenerating into just another form of competition and rivalry."

    "The German word for hospitality is gastfreundschaft which means, friendship for the guest. The Dutch use the word gastvrijheid which means, the freedom of the guest. Although this might refect that the Dutch people find freedom more important than friendship, it definitively shows that hospitality wants to offer friendship without binding the guest and freedom without leaving him alone."

    It would be nitpicking to criticise Nouwen too much for his habit of flirting with the etymological fallacy. Such things are outweighed by the overall quality of his work as a writer and thinker, and by the fact that I know one more word of Dutch than I otherwise would…

  3. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    Marshall says the fasces never became as distant from Romans as "maces and swords in modern societies" have for punishment purposes. In the West, maybe, but the sword on the flag of Saudi Arabia is a symbol of justice, and executions in Saudi Arabia are done with a sword, and in public.

    While I was staying briefly in the Red Sea Palace hotel in Jeddah in 1990 (the same place Michael Palin stayed in during his Around the World in 80 Days tv series), from my hotel bedroom window I happened to see an execution. It was at some distance, in a car park cleared for the purpose alongside a mosque, with a couple of thousand in the audience. The execution took place on the tarmac on one of the painted directional arrows; when I went back a year later they'd had built a proper raised platform for the executions, though otherwise it was still a car park.

    In the UK the statue of Justice (http://www.freefoto.com/preview/31-24-7?ffid=31-24-7) on top of the Old Bailey court has scales in one hand and a sword in the other, but I think it is a long time since anyone in Britain was despatched by sword. (My history teacher at school once read out what he claimed were genuine exam quotes from his pupils; one was "the execution of Mary Queen of Scots was a sworded affair").

  4. Chris said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 8:48 am

    "Modern" can mean "of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or immediate past : contemporary" or "involving recent techniques, methods, or ideas : up-to-date" (among others; Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed.) Perhaps Marshall means "modern society" in the latter sense, in which case modern (in the former sense) Saudi Arabia arguably does not qualify.

  5. Rob Chametzky said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    I'm a little surprised that no one has brought up Jakobson's

    "Linguista sum: linguistici nihil a me alienum puto"

    in the LL cum Terential context.

  6. marie-lucie said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    Mark, thank you for the extended quotation about the fasces, which I am not in a position to locate on my own.

    I find it doubtful though that fasces were carried by legionaries as part of army equipment, as Dan Lufkin wrote. Having looked at Wikipedia (I know, there are limitations there, but I don't have other access at this time) in English, French, Spanish and Italian (each slightly different from the other, fullest in Italian as one might expect), I get the impression that being accompanied by lictors carrying fasces was a privilege of high magistrates including consuls. In their military roles as commanders-in-chief, consuls could parade with fasces, but as far as I know there is no evidence that individual legions carried their own fasces and were ready to use them as instruments of execution (the penalties for Roman soldiers are also described on a Wikipedia site). The pictures on the reenactors' website linked to by Dan show men carrying fasces but without any hint that they are soldiers (eg no armour, helmets or soldiers' sandals).

    [(myl) Marshall's central point is that the fasces remained more than merely symbolic; but I don't see much about fasces in a military context in the article except for the sentence "The virgae could of course be used on non-Roman military personnel", and some discussion of their role in triumphal parades. But I might have missed it. I'll send you the .pdf and you can check more carefully, if you like.]

  7. dr pepper said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    Hmm, i had thought that the "strength from union" meaning of the fasces was associated with the parable of the quarreling brothers.

  8. cm said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

    There is one short rule that should regulate human relationships. All that you see, both divine and human, is one. We are the parts of one great body. Nature created us from the same source and to the same end. She imbued us with mutual affection and sociability, she taught us to be fair and just, to suffer injury rather than to inflict it. She bids extend our hands to all in need of help. let that well-known line be in our hearts and on our lips: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto
    The Romans had a word for fair? And a different word for just? Or was Seneca speaking English?

  9. Craig Russell said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 9:35 pm


    Seneca's original words that are translated "fair and just" are "aequus" and "iustus". The words are somewhat synonymous, but (in my opinion) "aequus" has more the sense of "on the same level", and "iustus" (the source of English "just", through French) has more the sense of "in accordance with accepted moral/legal codes".

    I think "fair and just" is a pretty good translation. What's your quarrel with the notion that the Romans would have words for these concepts?

  10. Stephen Jones said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 2:30 am

    I doubt if any Saudis associate the sword on the flag with public executions. Most Saudis have never seen one anyway. It's not as if they put them on television like they do in America.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 7:39 am

    I think "fair and just" is a pretty good translation. What's your quarrel with the notion that the Romans would have words for these concepts?

    I think that the commenter thought it strange that they would have two words, as in English, not just one, since the words are practically synonyms.

  12. cm said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    @Craig Russell

    I think "fair and just" is a pretty good translation. What's your quarrel with the notion that the Romans would have words for these concepts?

    No quarrel at all, it was an oblique reference to a recent discussion here (No word for fair?) of the claim – based on translateability – that the concept of fairness and a distinction between fair and just are unique to English and of modern origin.

    here and here.]

  13. Interesting Stuff: February 2009 (II) « The Outer Hoard said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 4:22 am

    […] A comment of mine on Language Log prompted Mark Liberman to extrapolate in the second half of another article. […]

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