There was no such thing as an Ancient Roman Flag as we know it nowadays. What the Romans used instead of a flag were battle standards of various sorts and forms. Many public buildings had inscriptions on their facades. The letters S.P.Q.R. Senatus PopulusQue Romanus stood to tell everyone that what they had before them […]
There was no such thing as an Ancient Roman Flag as we know it nowadays. What the Romans used instead of a flag were battle standards of various sorts and forms. Many public buildings had inscriptions on their facades. The letters S.P.Q.R. Senatus PopulusQue Romanus stood to tell everyone that what they had before them belonged to the Senate and the People of Rome.
Ships used no flag either and given the relative similarity of the vessels of different cultures such as Roman, Greek and Carthaginian distinction between them was by means of a statue at the front or indeed up on the mast.
Military Roman Flags
The Romans did make extensive use of symbols, standards and banners, particularly for military purposes to rally the troops. Such military insignia were highly revered. When in the military camp they were kept and looked after in a dedicated area called the “sacellum”.
The “Aquila” – Eagle – was the principal standard for the entire legion, very much the mystical heart of the troops and part of their ‘religio castrensis” – military religion. They were very precious, often made of silver or even gold. Their loss would be unheard of and a great dishonour. Retrieval of military eagles was consequently a great honour and they would be dedicated to Mars Ultor – Mars the Avenger – in the Forum.
The writer Suetonius in Emperor Augustus‘ biography explicitly refers to the Eagles as a symbol of valour and pride: “…he played the part not only a leader, but of a soldier as well, and that, in the thick of the fight, when the eagle-bearer of his legion was sorely wounded, he shouldered the eagle and carried it for some time”
Aside from the Aquila, there was also a number of flags called “Vexillum” – diminutive for “Sail”. These were hung like a sail, on a cross staff at the end of a post or lance. They represented a regiment’s colours and had a particular and almost mystical significance for the entire military unit. There were a number of typical images shown on them such as a wolf, wild boar and others.
Whilst the Eagle was held by the “Aquilifer” the military insignia were held by nominated individuals called “signifer” within each century. There were two such men within each manipulus, 60 in a legion. In fact, before joining battle, each centurion would nominate a backup signifer to ensure there was always someone ready to hold the standard. To be the standard bearer was a great honour. The soldier would wear a wolves skin over his helmet and armour and possibly also a mask.
Initially it is likely that these insignia were not so much a flag but rather a bundle of straw tied to the top of a post. Gradually this evolved into a broad variety of symbols and shapes such as eagles, hands (manus) and other to denote the specific manipulus to which that standard belonged.