Roman standard (signum or signa Romanum) was a banner attached to a spar that identified a Roman unit or cavalry. The banner played a very important role in the army. It was a meeting point, a symbol of pride, and allowed for organized movements on the battlefield. In the case of a sound sign (a trumpet sound), all the soldiers belonging to the squad and the banner looked at the pennant in order to prepare for the appropriate orders. The ensign made various movements with the banner – he lowered, raised, waved – which indicated the tactics and subsequent movements of the unit.
The banners were so important in the Roman army that deliberate wars were fought or diplomatic efforts were made to recover the lost marks.
In Republican times, banners were usually marked with SPQR, meaning Senatus Populusque Romanus (Senate and People of Rome), which meant that the legion or cohort belonged to the citizens and the Republic. In the early republic, the proper military banner (signum militare) was simply a bundle of grass stuck at the end of a spar. Then the well-known sign of the open hand (manipulus) was introduced, and finally, the figures of symbolic animals were placed on the metal poles. Pliny the Elder in Natural History (X.16) lists five animals: wolf, eagle, boar, horse, or Minotaur. With the military reforms of Gaius Marius (at the end of the 2nd century BCE), the “quadrupeds” were abandoned and only the image of an eagle (aquila was used).
The tree-stand with the emblem or sign of the branch was made of wood. In its lower part, there was a point made of iron (cuspis), which made it possible to place a banner on the ground or, possibly, to repel attackers.
Roman soldiers took the military oath of oath (sacramentum militareor militum/ militiae). The oath was taken to prove loyalty to the consul during the republican era and to the emperor during the empire. From the 3rd century CE the oaths were held every year on January 3. In the late Empire, the oath caused numerous conflicts with Christians who served in the army and who often became martyrs. Tertullian incl. he condemned the legionaries professing faith in Christ and taking an oath of allegiance to the emperor; unequivocally emphasizing that the only sacrament that every Christian should offer during his lifetime is baptism.
An example of the oath that legionaries had to take was given to us by Flavius Vegetius, a writer from the 4th century CE:
Iurant autem milites omnia se strenue facturos quae praeceperit imperator, numquam deserturos militiam nec mortem recusaturos pro Romana republica!
The soldiers, therefore, swear they will obey the Emperor willingly and implicitly in all his commands, that they will never desert and will always be ready to sacrifice their lives for the Roman Empire.
– Vegetius, De re militari, 2.5
Moreover, the oath amounted to the total commitment of the soldiers for the sign for which they were prepared to fall. In situations clearly unfavourable to Roman soldiers, they were thrown at the advancing and overwhelming enemies in order to force their own soldiers to counterattack.
Each maniple (later cohort or centuria) had its own sign (signum), usually in the shape of a raised hand placed on a shaft that was constantly carried by a designated ensign (signifer). There were 59 such banners in the legion during the empire. In each cohort, in the first century, the signifer was the most senior in the rank.
Signum also had the so-called phalarae, are medallions with outstanding battle behavior. They were worn not only in battle, but mainly during military parades and triumphs. Centuria or the entire cohort could be rewarded. Carrying the attached medallion to the pennant made the squad proud and the enemy terrified. It is likely that the maximum number of medallions on the banner was six; however, we have the image of the banner on the stele of Aurelius Alexandrus from the end of the 2nd century CE, where you can see seven phalarae. This type of decoration was also awarded to individual soldiers.
At the tip of the shaft was an upward arm (manus) or the head of a leaf-shaped spear. Another element sometimes approved on Roman banners was the orb, or ball symbolizing Rome’s domination over the world. Sometimes a bronze image of the goddess Victoria, accompanied by little Mars, was also placed. This is evidenced by the reliefs from Trajan’s Column and the Arch of Constantine. Sometimes an image of the emperor was added, treated as a deity or his name.
In addition, the legions had symbolic cult symbols, most often a sign with the image of an eagle. This sign was usually a plaque with the marking of the legion and a metal hand on the top, attached to a metal pole, covered with circular emblems, with a laurel wreath.
These signs played a large role in the Roman army, both practical and symbolic:
- facilitated the maintenance of communication between units in combat;
- were a symbol of the unity of detachment and the integrity of the military order.
The types of banners used in the Roman army are shown below.
From the time of Gaius Marius (2nd half of the 2nd century BCE), the sole sign of the legions was a silver/bronze eagle (later golden), with wings raised, symbolizing Jupiter (aquila). At that time, the ensign was called aquilifera and was entitled to a circular shield.
The legionary eagle was likely not very large, because we have records of a situation when a legionary ensign in the army of Caesar, in case of danger, removed the eagle from the shaft and hid it in the folds of his clothes. The wounded or dying ensign reportedly tried to hand over the eagle to his commander at all costs, from whom he received signis acceptis. However, despite the fact that the loss of the legion’s mark was considered a disgrace, sometimes the commander decided to throw the banner at the enemy unit, either to distract from the losing Romans or to motivate his soldiers to fight.
The Roman state paid a great deal of importance to the recovery of all lost military banners, especially aquila. Under the famous defeat in the Teutoburg forest (CE 9), three Roman legions, the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth, were destroyed, and their eagles fell into the hands of the victorious Germans. Two of them were mirrored by Germanicus during the 15 and 16 campaigns, and the last one was regained by Publius Gabinius Secundus in 41 CE.
Draco was the military banner of the Roman cavalry that was held by the draconarius and represented the cohort. Vegetius reports that in the 4th century CE each legionary cohort had its own draco sign.
The appearance of draco in the Roman army may result from the appearance of Sarmatian units in the 2nd century CE2In turn, Franz Fiebiger stated that the Romans took this sign from the Dacians who used the dragon emblem3or from Parthians.
Originally, draco was used by the steppe peoples who based their army on cavalry. The ancient writer Flavius Arrian describes it as a long sleeve made of stitched coloured pieces of cloth. It is suspected that it may have assisted mounted archers in assessing the direction and strength of the wind.
Romans banner draco probably originally used it for their sports competitions – Hippica Gymnasia – in which a Roman participated ride. These Games involved a mock battle between two groups of soldiers, playing the roles of Greeks and Amazons, who fought with javelins with a wooden spearhead. The competition was also a form of unit manoeuvrability training.
Gradually, draco was adopted into the regular military. The draco sign showed the dragon with its mouth open and serpentine / sleeve. The dragon’s head was made of wood and copper.
Vexillum it was a Roman banner made of fabric, attached to a horizontal bar. It was a major sign for Roman troops, especially cavalry. However, it had less value for the army than, for example, aquila.
One vexillum has survived to our times, which dates back to the first half of the 3rd century CE. It is an almost rectangular piece of cloth, made of linen, showing the goddess Victoria. It has dimensions of 47×50 cm. There are fringes at the bottom. The object was found in Egypt around 1911. However, we do not have more information about the military unit itself that served under this flag.
Another type of banner was labarum. It was a square purple banner of the empire with golden fringes hung on a cross beam on which was embedded the Chi-Rho Christogram, and sometimes also the image of Christ in purple and gold. It was introduced by Emperor Constantine the Great. It was the banner of the Roman legions used only when the emperor was with the army.
There is a story related to this event. According to an account by Eusebius of Caesarea, before the battle at the Mulvivsky Bridge (October 28, 312 CE) Constantine the Great had a vision that allowed him to win. Around noon, he was to see a luminous cross in the sky, and under it, an inscription in Greek – “You will overcome this”. Better known in Latin translation In hoc signo vinces – “In this sign, you will win”. The next night in a dream, Christ commanded him to use the sign of the cross against his enemies. Eusebius then describes labarum (legionary’s banner) with the sign of Chi Rho. Constantine was the first emperor to convert to Christianity. He ended the policy of persecuting Christians and in 313 CE issued the Edict of Milan, proclaiming the freedom to profess this religion.
During the empire, the three-dimensional bust of the emperor (imago) as the commander-in-chief of all the empire’s troops was worn on the flagpole and was worn by the imaginifer.
The banner belonged to the entire legion but was only carried by the first cohort. Imago was of great importance to the army as it demonstrated the army’s loyalty to the emperor.
Signifer was easily recognizable in the battle. Over the open helmet was the skin of a wolf, bear (signifer legionaries) or a lion (signifer praetorian), with paws tied at the chest. Signifer auxiliares, i.e. auxiliary troops, put on a bear’s skin, but without its mouth. Trumpeters with trumpets and horns performed similarly. These skins, combined with the age-old magic associated with animals and totemism, were, of course, to be a source of power.
The role of the ensign was extremely dangerous, as the soldier had to stand in the front row and could only protect himself with a small round shield. The loss of the mark was a disgrace to the soldiers. In the event of an inevitable defeat, signifer saved the sign by, for example, tearing an eagle off a shaft.
In the Roman Republic, signifer referred to all kinds of ensigns, but under the Empire, signifer was just one of many types of signiferi, which also included: