Saturday 9 November 2013

Aesop's Reformist Twigs v. Mussolini's Fasces

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.

Aesop's Fable the Workers' Centrepiece
The 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.

When 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.

Mussolini's Fascist Twig Bundle (Left)
But 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.

The Power to Punish: Roman Fasces
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. 
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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