Signs of the Times: Ancient Symbols Reused by Hate Groups

Sarah E. Bond
6 min readSep 15, 2018

For the past year and half, I have written extensively about the appropriation of ancient symbols, texts, and material culture as a rallying point for hate and marginalization within the U.S. and Europe. I wanted to take a moment to aggregate this work, to address how and why ancient historians are working to record this abuse, and to amplify the research of others studying the semiotics of hate groups:

1. The fasces: My latest for Hyperallergic addresses the connection between corporal violence and the fasces, a bundle of rods often accompanied by an axe that was carried by lictors serving certain Roman magistrates. The fasces has always been tied to ideas of legitimate force through political power, which is why it was an attractive symbol to French Revolutionaries and to Italian Fascists before being appropriating for the shields at the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. Below you will see some photos of Fascist-era fasces from Rome taken by Prof. Sophie Hay.

As @SarahEBond writes, the Roman fasces has been misappropriated for many years and is highly visible in the art and architecture of 1930s Rome.

— Dr Sophie Hay (@pompei79) September 14, 2018

2. The Torch: In August of 2017, only a few days after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, I wrote in Forbes about the long history of using torches as a means of intimidation. In antiquity, a torch was often terms a fax’ and could often be used not only to light the way, but also as an intimidation tactic during rioting and revolution.

A 3rdC CE relief depicting a Mithraic scene where a bull is being slaughtered shows a torch bearer providing light during the ritual. The relief with polychromy is now at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome (Image by Sarah E. Bond).

As I noted in the piece, the use of the torch took on new meaning in the Nazi era, but retained its ability to threaten violence:

Torches used as statements of power and racial superiority were even more prominent in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. On August 1, 1936, a new tradition was introduced to the modern Olympic Games: the use of a torch relay wherein individual runners brought the Olympic flame from Greece to Berlin–connecting the ancient world to Germany. The ancient Greeks had indeed used torches in athletics, but the Nazis appropriated the torch as a symbol of both athletic and racial supremacy.

Sarah E. Bond

Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa. Ancient History, Digital Humanities, and Public History For All. Thoughts are my own, y'all.