The Rod of Authority

In medieval and renaissance portraits, important men are often depicted holding a plain rod as a symbol of their authority. Now I know that the rod as a symbol of legitimate authority goes back to Aaron in the bible, where it comes from a shepherds crook guiding the flock. And I know the Romans used a bundle of rods as a symbol of authority in that they represented the legal power to administer a beating as a punishment. But I wonder how this translated into later noblemen wielding them in portraits. Did the rod come automatically with certain noble ranks? Or was it something bestowed separately by a king to a nobleman? It seems like the power symbolized by the rod was an innate power of nobility, so why have it displayed as a discrete power? Was the rod a symbol of civil authority or military authority? And in the portraits I see displaying a rod, it seems like it’s displayed by someone who worked their way up from lower stations rather than a natural-born noble. Almost like it’s a status-conscious nouveau-noble conspicuously displaying his powers.

What is the strait dope on Rods of Authority?

I have no answers other than to point out that the US House of Representatives still uses a “ceremonial mace”:

It’s derived from the Roman bundle of rods (fasces) you mentioned.

The paintings may not depict an actual extant rod. Paintings of that era were usually filled with symbols, every pose, location, and item in view will be placed to indicate the hierarchy of power in all its forms.
So adding a rod of power is going to be a given when the subject desires. It is there so the viewer of the painting is under no illusions about the power wielded by the subject of the portrait, as desired by the subject. These portraits were commissioned for just this purpose. So you may read as much into the personalities and hangups of the subjects as you desire.

It is quite fun to dissect the symbols present.

I don’t know anything about the history and symbolism of the rod as a sign of power, but I think that such a basic weapon always implied a brutal symbol of power and submission, maybe much better than a more modern weapon could. I seem to remember that the Egyptian pharaohs carried a simple club long after their soldiers had swords, that may be the same symbolism. And from where did the scepter derive, if not from a stick to wield power with? Or officers still carrying sabers long after firearms had been introduced? It seems like a pattern.

The idea that the rod as a symbol of power has a Biblical origin doesn’t feel right to me. Not being an Egyptologist I can’t say exactly when or what dynasty the sarophagi and images of pharoahs with rods are from, but I know I’ve seen them. This suggests a pre Biblical origin to me.

An argument could also perhaps be made that it’s a phallic symbol.

Actual rods may occasionally be symbolically conferred on people to symbolise investment with authority - e.g. a monarch might be handed a sceptre as part of a coronation/investment ceremony. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s just an iconographic convention - the guy in the painting is given a rod so that we know he’s a guy with authority. He may not have an actual rod any more than St. Peter has actual keys or any saint has an actual halo of light around his head.

I agree with others that the idea of the rod as a symbol of authority probably does not originate in the Jewish scriptures; it turns up in other cultures also. The use of a stick either to guide (like a shepherd) or to simply to hit (like lots of people) is a pretty basic skill which I would imagine dates from prehistory, and its associated symbolic significance will be equally old.

The symbol of the crook and flail (the flail symbolising providing grain) goes back to the Egyptian pharaohs.

Babylonian kings had a sceptre.

The sceptre as a symbol of royalty is standard throughout European history. Usually an orb and sceptre for European royalty.

Crosiers (crooks) as a symbol of bishops go back the beginnings of Christianity.

Not to be confused with a military swagger stick, as a symbol of an officer, though it’s also a symbol of authority.

No doubt the idea was a copycat of the mace of the House of Commons. There’s quite a few ceremonial maces in Britain:

Rods/sceptres/staffs/batons have been such a common symbol of status and office in so many different countries over so many centuries that any generalisations are impossible. So, just in Britain, the monarch has a sceptre, the Prince of Wales is invested with a rod, there was a time when dukes were also invested with rods, the Lord Mayor of London has a sceptre, some senior members of the Royal Household carry white staffs, the Earl Marshal has a baton, Black Rod has an actual black rod… Then there were military batons, which were sometimes actual objects but which were also often used in portraits just as generic symbols of military authority.

Sticks to be presented and to be displayed were such a simple way of creating meaning that they never did have a single significance.

Hell yeah, take a look at this brutal dictator and their rod of power

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at her Coronation wearing the Imperial State Crown and holding the Sceptre, both of which are set with diamonds cut from the famous Cullinan Diamond.

In terms of the officer’s “swagger stick”: See Wikipedia for “singlestick”, a form of fighting that used a rod instead of a sword. As a “gentleman’s accessory” a singlestick would have been made as an object d’art and likely included in a portrait - to show that the person was of a certain class.

Similarly, in the time when watches first appeared, portraits often had the person holding a watch to show their wealth or their interest in the latest technology.

In medieval and Renaissance times, few people were literate. So their art used symbols to portray stuff that we’d likely put in the little plaque right below the painting. My guess is the stick (and possibly it’s color, size, the way the subject held it) conveyed the subject’s exact rank.


I was thinking more of guys like Hamurabi or old Egyptian pharaohs…