Signifer was the most common ensign of Roman legions. He carried the signum, i.e. a military banner with the emblem of a given cohort or centuria.
Signum was usually in the shape of a raised hand placed on a pole.
In addition, legions had symbolic iconic symbols, most often a symbol with the image of an eagle. This sign was usually a plaque with legion markings and a metal hand on top, attached to a metal pole, covered with circular emblems, with a laurel wreath.
Signifer was easily recognized during the battle. He had a wolf, bear (signifer legionary) or lion (signifer pretorian) skin on the open helmet, paws tied on his chest. Signifer auxiliares, or auxiliary troops, put on the skin of a bear, but without a muzzle. Trumpeters equipped with trumpets and horns performed similarly. These skins, combined with the eternal magic associated with animals and totemism, were obviously to be a source of power.
The role of the ensign was extremely dangerous, because the soldier had to stand in the first 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 inevitable defeat, signifer saved the mark by, for example, breaking an eagle from a shaft.
In the Roman Republic, signifer referred to all types of bearers, but during the Empire, signifer was just one of many types of signiferi, which also included :
- aquilifers – signifer appointed to wearing the legionary symbol, aquila;
- draconarii – signifer carrying the banner driving (draco);
- imaginifers – signifer which he wore the emperor’s banner – imago;
- vexillarii – signifer carrying the banner and legion emblem.