Object: Roman Axe Head


Figure 1    Axe Head from The Classics Collection at the Sam Noble Museum

Iron Axe-head
Germany: Taunus Mountains, Limes Region
Likely first to sixth century ADMaterials: Iron

This iron axe measures 11 ½ inches (29.2 cm) long and 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide.  Its height is 1 ½ inches (3.8 cm). Axes and adzes, both common woodworking tools, are similar types of objects with one major difference. Axes, including this one, have handles that project down from the head with the blade of the axe in line with the handle. This makes the axe head blade vertical when held upright so that it can then be brought down to cut.  An adze blade length is horizontal when held upright.

The Romans created several types of axes. All Roman axes have a triangular blade, an oval eye for the handle, and a large poll or back of the blade. The axes with this small triangular shape vary in size with an average weight of 1.6 kg to .77 kg (3.5 lb. to 1.7 lb.).  Larger axes were used for heavier work such as felling trees and rough-shaping, while smaller axes were used for delicate woodworking.  The museum’s axe has a straight front with the rear sweeping back to produce a wide cutting edge.  The shape indicates the axe was most likely used to shape wood since its smaller size would give the carpenter more precision with cutting.

Similar axe heads have been found at Combend, Gloucestershire, England and Neuss, Germany, illustrating the widespread use of axes across the Roman Empire. Axes were also highly symbolic throughout Rome’s history, particularly in the Roman Republic. Axes were included in the fasces bundle, a symbol of power common in Roman life and often depicted in their artwork. The fasces bundle was a bundle of birch or elmwood rods tied in a circle with leather.  Within this wood bundle was an axe positioned so that the axe head protruded. The fasces bundle was carried by the lictors (guards) as they accompanied magistrates around the city.  Roman magistrates were government officials including praetors, consusl, proconsuls, dictators, and emperors. The axe head symbolized the authority of these elites. Roman elites were strong in unity like the rods and had power over life and death like the axe.  The fasces, as part of magisterial regalia, were carried in formal events. These events included the funerals of nobles and the departure of a magistrate to serve in the military. During parades, a common event for the Romans, fasces were the most visible symbol of a magistrate’s high office.

Though symbolic, fasces were still functional mechanisms of executive power and punishment.  The wooden rods could be used to beat lawbreakers, which could be lethal.  In addition to the rods, the axe was a deadly reprimand.

Fasces were depicted in many works of Roman art.  Fasces have been found pictured on tombs and coins. In the case of coins, the fasces advertised the family’s history of political appointments.  Fasces were

pictured on one side of the coin with the profile of the issuer on the other side.  The axe held within the fasces showcases the importance of axes not just as woodworking tools, but as symbols of Roman authority and power.


Take a look at the following video to learn more about Roman fasces:

[Chelsea Cinotto]

Works Cited

Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia

2011 “Fasces” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition accessed November 11, 2012.

Manning, W.H.

1985 Catalogue of the Romano-British Iron Tools, Fittings, and Weapons in the British Museum. London: British Museum Press.

Simpson, Grace

2000 Roman Weapons, Tools, Bronze Equipment and Brooches from Neuss – Novaesium Excavations 1955-1972. BAR International Series 862. England: Biddles Ltd.

Marshall, Anthony J.

1984 Symbols and Showmanship in Roman Public Life: The Fasces. Phoenix 38(2): 120-141.

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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