Full view of the Speaker's Rostrum (Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives)

–by Maggie Esteves

I remember my first tour of the Capitol: I felt overwhelmed at the hugeness of the building, the depth of the history, and the beauty of the Rotunda and other rooms. It wasn’t until months into this job that others—with keener eyes than mine—began pointing out to me the deliberateness of the details in the Capitol and the ways they enhance the very meaning of the building.

Symbolism is everywhere in Washington, especially in the Capitol. Architects over the decades heard the opinions of hundreds of Congressmen and Senators while they were building, so few things were created without a distinct purpose. So when I was asked if the symbol of an axe and reeds next to the Speaker’s rostrum in the House of Representatives had meaning, I knew the answer was “yes” and did some digging to find out why.

Check out the picture at the top of this post to see where these bronze fasces appear in the House, flanking the Speaker's Rostrum. (Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives)

This ancient emblem called a fasces served as the symbol of civil authority in the Roman Republic. Originally it was an axe bound among a collection of rods held together with a red strap. The fasces could be presented to restore order or to carry out punishment. Our founding fathers found deep inspiration for our own democratic experiment from the Romans and adopted the symbol to represent Congress. Just as the thin rods of the fasces become stronger when bound together, so the states find stability and strength while working collectively in the House and Senate in the Capitol building.

As I began sharing the history of this ancient symbol I also started noticing the motif of bound rods popping up again and again in the design and art of the building:

Charles Bulfinch designed picture frames with fasces for paintings in the Rotunda.

Fasces in Jean-Antoine Houdon's statue of George Washington in the Rotunda

Frames around the Declaration of Independence in Statuary Hall

The ceiling decorations in Statuary Hall feature fasces. Statuary Hall was originally built as the House Chamber.

This ancient symbol takes us from the Roman Republic and the ideas that formed the foundation of our American governmental system to the daily struggle for compromise and unity that is played out inside the U.S. Capitol building. It’s a small detail with big meaning.

Where else might you have seen this symbol from antiquity? Have you ever passed by the same building or scene so many times and failed to see details lost in plain sight? Stop and have a deeper look today! You never know what you might discover.

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