The legionary standards are known to have each been topped by a eagle, but beyond this fact nothing much else is known. The popular conception of a Roman standard sporting the SPQR as a mandate from the Senate and the People of Rome has been much coloured by the epic Hollywood films such as ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ or its more-recent remake ‘Gladiator’. This popular image is very likely wrong, however.
Since the time of the great Roman general Gaius Marius, the mentor of Julius Caesar, at the turn of the First century BC, each legion was issued with a single eagle standard. As there were only around forty Roman legions in all, it stands to reason that there would have been only forty standards in total, all of which, unfortunately, have been lost in antiquity.
They were venerated as holy objects and were placed in a shrine called the sacellum at the very centre of the legionary encampment. The sacellum also housed the regimental treasury, the aerarium, so to steal from these funds was considered an act of sacrilage. Each time the standards were moved or planted in the ground was accompanied by much ceremony and, according to Vegetius, specially orchestrated trumpet fanfares.
The standard was at the heart of Roman military tactics, not only serving as a rallying point to enable soldiers to regroup during the changing phases of a battle in response to rallying cries and trumpet calls. As a corollary, the standard-bearer (and in the first place the aquilifer) played a considerable part in battle; he was the man who led hesitant troops forward, and many a dangerous moment was turned into a Roman advantage by a heroic standard-bearer.
The below extract is a well-known story narrated by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars which occurred during his First Expedition to Britain in 55BC where the standard-bearer of the Tenth Legion, seeing the Roman invasion force floundering on the shore, leaped overboard onto the Kent beaches calling out to his fellow soldiers not to let their eagle fall into enemy hands, the legion were duly obliged to follow this brave fellow into battle and consequently the British forces were beaten.
And while our men were hesitating [whether they should advance to the shore], chiefly on account of the depth of the sea, he who carried the eagle of the tenth legion, after supplicating the gods that the matter might turn out favorably to the legion, exclaimed, “Leap, fellow soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. I, for my part, will perform my duty to the commonwealth and my general.” When he had said this with a loud voice, he leaped from the ship and proceeded to bear the eagle toward the enemy. Then our men, exhorting one another that so great a disgrace should not be incurred, all leaped from the ship. When those in the nearest vessels saw them, they speedily followed and approached the enemy.Julius Caesar: The Gallic War Book 4: Chapter 52
Losing the Eagle
Any legion losing its eagle standard would be considered a total disgrace, and for this reason they were jealously guarded by the soldiery, each man willing to risk his own life for the sake of his legion’s eagle standard.
The Adoption of the Eagle
The adoption of the eagle as the symbol of the legion took place under Marius, and according to Pliny the Elder, who dates its adoption as 104 BC, such previously used symbols as the eagle, lion, minotaur, horse and boar were dropped, keeping only the eagle, each legion having its own.
The eagle was assigned to the Roman legions as their special badge by Gaius Marius in his second consulship. Even previously it had been their first badge, with four others, wolves, minotaurs, horses and boars going in front of the respective ranks; but a few years before the custom had come in of carrying the eagles alone into action, the rest being left behind in camp. Marius discarded them altogether. Thenceforward it was noticed that there was scarcely ever a legion’s winter camp without a pair of eagles being in the neighbourhood.Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 10, Chapter 5
Those memorials which have come down to us testify to the importance attached by the army to these men and their duties, which were as thankless as they were prestigious.
The universal acceptance of the eagle standard by every legion did not mean the disappearance of other standards of lesser importance, and on silver coins (denarii) struck in 82 BC and 49 BC showing an eagle between two standards, these two standards carry the latter” H “and ‘P’ respectively, which may almost certainly be interpreted as referring to the hastati and the principes.
What did the Eagles look like?
The main evidence we have to go on are coin issues, especially those of the late Roman Republic, many of which incorporate military standards within their designs.
It was made of silver, or bronze, and with expanded wings, but was probably of a small size, since a standard-bearer (signifer) under Julius Caesar is said in circumstances of danger to have wrenched the eagle from its staff and concealed it in the folds of his girdle (Flor. IV.12).
To this day the barbarians keep possession of the standards and two eagles, the third, the standard-bearer, before it fell into the hands of the enemy, wrenched off, and keeping it hid within the folds of his belt, concealed himself in the blood-stained marsh.Florus – The Epitome of Roman History.Book Iv, Chapter 12
Such standards, decorated with discs and other symbols, though not crowned with a token animal as in the time of Polybius, were used throughout the Principate. Several later references, such as the loss of a standard in Persia recovered in AD 363 by Ammianus Marcellinus clearly demonstrate the importance attached by thearmy to its standards throughout its long existence.
In addition to the aqula, images of the Emperor (and often his family too) were carried – this was called an imago and was carried by an imagnifer.
It isn’t known what, if any, standard a legionary cohort carried. A portion of a legion, on detached duty, carried a standard called a vexillum, which was carried by a man called a vexillarius. The name for a portion of a legion on detached duty was derived from the name for the standard – vexillation. It was basically a little flag, but the cloth part hung from a crossbar. On the cross would usually be the legion’s (abbreviated) title, and symbol – often a sign of the zodiac. For instance, Legio II Augusta would be abbreviated LEG. II AUG. and would probably have carried the symbol for Capricorn.
At the lowest level, each century in a legion had its own standard, called a signum, which was carried by a standard-bearer called a signifer. This would be used both as a means of passing on orders (presumably by waving it around) and also as a rallying point, or focus – the men would know the appearance of their own signum, and so could easily locate it in the confusion of the battlefield.