|Aesop's Twig Fable Shows that Unity is Strength|
A visit to the People’s History Museum in Manchester this week reminded me that, once
upon a time, artistic representations of twig bundles were inspiring and wholesome.[i]
This was when illustrations of Aesop’s ancient
Greek fable of the twig bundle appeared on early Trade Union banners.
fable said that a father, worn out by the quarrels between his sons, asked them
each in turn to break a tightly bound bundle of twigs. Each son failed. Then he
asked them to break a single twig, a feat which they easily accomplished. The moral the father drew was that STRENGTH
LIES IN UNITY.
|Aesop's Fable the Workers' Centrepiece|
19th-century workers without legal rights banded together against
their employers and the state legislation to form Trade Unions, Aesop was one
of the few ancient authors most of them had met. His fables were used to teach
elementary literacy. Integrating an illustration of the fable into a banner was
visual shorthand for ‘Unity is Strength’ and widespread, for example in these
details from the 1898 banner of the Watford branches of the Worker’s Union and the Ashton &
Haydon miners’ union.
in 1919, the quite
different—Roman—twig bundle was appropriated by Benito Mussolini’s new Partito nazionale fascista. Ancient Roman magistrates called lictors had carried
their ceremonial twig bundles (fasces),
bound by red tapes and with an axe protruding, to symbolise state authority and the power to punish.
They had inherited the fasces from
the Etruscans; many non-Fascist nations such as the US subsequently borrowed the Roman fasces
long before Mussolini arrived on the scene.
|Mussolini's Fascist Twig Bundle (Left)|
So the peacable, Aesopic twigs of
the British unions, who were standing up against
the state, were abandoned after World War I because of the antipathy felt by
members of the Trade Union movement, uniting the workers of the world, to the
racism and nationalism of Fascism. Next
time you see a twig-bundle in any political iconography, ancient or modern, ask
yourself whether it is a reformist bundle, derived from Aesop’s Greek fable, or
an authoritarian bundle whose ancestor was once borne by a Roman magistrate.
|The Power to Punish: Roman Fasces|
|Table where Tom Paine wrote Rights of Man, People's History Museum|
[i] My mind was on organisations set up for
self-improvement since I had been invited to address the venerable ManchesterLiterary and Philosophical Society, founded in 1781 and the oldest such group
in Britain, on the question of whether Classics is inherently elitist. You
can read more about this visit to Manchester on Henry Stead’s blog here.
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