While you might not have noticed before, similar tools are carried by officials at universities, in religious ceremonies, and in governmental organizations; the Baton (military), staff (often religious), scepter (royalty), or swagger stick (lower rank military) are all important pieces of the uniform of these functionaries. While they are all slightly different, for the most part they all symbolize the same thing as our Marshal’s baton – the authority and strength of the institution.
The tradition of carrying this symbol probably started ancient Greece or Minoa. But it is most familiar to us from the Roman Empire. There, the fasces was carried by lictors, sort of the Roman version of the Secret Service. The fasces was made of a bundle of birch sticks bound together by red ribbon or leather straps, and sometimes included an axe in the middle. In this configuration, the bundle of sticks symbolized strength in numbers, or the will of the Roman people made manifest, and the axe symbolized the power of capital punishment that the Roman police had. In fact, the fasces is still a common symbol used today in many republics, and you can see it displayed in buildings everywhere here in the District of Columbia as a symbol of the power and authority of the U.S. Government.
In Masonry, it is probably most apt to call the instrument wielded by the Marshal a baton (depending on the Lodge). It symbolizes the independence of the Lodge to outside influence and is a mark of the authority of the Master inside his Lodge.
The mace or baton as we use it matches well with the medieval tradition where the mace was carried in front of royalty by the Sergeant-at-arms in processions. In this case, the mace wasn’t just a symbol, but a practical tool used to keep order. If someone threatened the security of the sovereign, the Sergeant-at-arms would step in and clobber them with his mace. Also during that time, the mace was becoming a visible symbol and practical tool ecumenically, as well—in this case, it was called a virge or beadle (or mazzieri, in the Pope’s case) and was carried in front of church processions, sometimes being used to clear the way of animals or unruly crowds of parishioners.
For Masons, it was this implied threat of defensive violence that lead to the mace being seen as a symbol of independence to forces outside the Lodge, and as a sign of corporeal punishment to those who dared question the
But even more philosophically, the mace or baton is a weapon that has the ability to defend and protect. And so we use it in the speculative sense to defend and destroy subjective and aggressive tendencies within us that may well be out-of-order.
So, while the mace may seem like an afterthought of costume or just a meaningless relic of a long-gone pomp and circumstance, like everything else in the Lodge, it in fact has a deeply thought-out purpose and symbolic meaning for us to discover and decipher in our own study.