During the 1930s, Italian president Benito Mussolini revived a tradition last seen during the days of the Roman Empire. Mussolini would be preceded by an honor guard bearing a ceremonial bundle of wooden rods with an ax head attached to one side. This symbol of absolute rule is commonly known as a fasces, and helped inspired the name of those who espoused such totalitarian power, the Fascists. "Emperor" Benito Mussolini embraced many of the same political principles as the ancient Roman emperors, and the fasces became the perfect embodiment of those principles.
During the actual days of the Roman Empire, fasces represented the power of individuals when combined and united under a singular entity, namely the empire of Rome. Emperors treated the fasces with the same respect as a modern ruler would respect the power of his or her country's flag or coat of arms. A fasces generally preceded the emperor before his address to the Roman Senate or an inspection of troops on the battlefield. Traditionally, the Roman fasces only contained an ax head whenever an official state of war existed, but historically times of peace in the Roman Empire were few and far between.
Other Roman officials and dignitaries also had the right to have a fasces precede them during parades and diplomatic missions. Soldiers who had performed heroically in battle may also have had the honor of carrying a fasces during ceremonies. The ax blades inside most fasces were removed while conducting business in Roman government buildings, which served as a reminder that the bearers had no life-or-death powers within their walls.
The modern symbolic use of a fasces does not usually generate as much controversy as other symbols of power such as the swastika or hammer and sickle. The American "Mercury Head" dime, minted before the introduction of the current FDR design, featured the image of a fasces on its reverse side. Many government flags also feature the image of a fasces, along with other symbols of power, such as the scales of justice or infantry shields. There are numerous other examples of singular or multiple fasces used to symbolize unity and power on many public buildings and government offices.