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SIGNA MILITARIA We shall say a few words first on the troops to which the separate standards belonged and the function they fulfilled in the army, and afterwards discuss the form of the standards. The exhaustive, lucid, and learned monograph of A. von Domazewski (Die Fahnen im römischen Heere, 1885) must form the basis of any such discussion. In much of what follows, points have been taken for granted which have been supported by evidence in the article EXERCITUS

Passing over the bundle of hay (manipulus) which is said to have been a standard in the time of Romulus (Plut. Rom. 8), the principal kinds of military standards may be classed as (1) signa (in the special sense), (2) vexilla, (3) imagines, (4) aquilae. It will be advisable to treat the first two together.

(1) and (2) Signa and Vexilla.--The chief distinctive feature of Roman warfare was that it was mainly carried on with the sword, and that the tactical unit was a small one, viz. the maniple (Varro, L. L. 5.88, “manipulos exercitus minimas manus quae unum secuntur signum:” cf. Serv. on Verg. A. 11.463). Each of these maniples had a signum, Liv. 27.14, 8: “ni C. Decimius Flavus, signo arrepto primi hastati, manipulum ejus signis sequi se jussisset;” but there appears to have been generally, if not always, two signiferi in the maniple (Plb. 6.24, 6), the second probably to act as a reserve in case the first were disabled or killed; so that we need not suppose that each century had a standard. From thus having a separate standard of its own, each maniple came to be called signum, σημαία, e. g. Liv. 25.23, 16; Plb. 6.24, 5.

These signa preceded the column on the march, but stood in the hindmost rank of the maniple during the fight. The term antesignani, taken together with the fact that where signa are spoken of in a battle without any qualification the reference is generally to the signa of the hastati (Liv. 8.11, 7); the insufficiency of the evidence for the existence of other standards to justify the title antesignani (e.g. Plin. Nat. 10.16); the probability that the standardbearers, impeded with the excessively heavy standards, would have been almost sure to have been at once cut down if they stood in the front rank of the sword-fight, and so the rallyingpoint of the maniple gone (whereas the loss of a standard and its bearer is generally spoken of as an unusual occurrence and a sign of a serious defeat of the division); the fact that the frontrank men could be recalled by the trumpets if they pushed away from the standards-all these points tend to show that the case is not made out, though argued with strong conviction by Domazewski (pp. 10-12), that the standards occupied the front line in the battle. But they undoubtedly were at the head of the column on the march; and their great importance, as the centre-point of the tactical unit, may be shown from the number of phrases in which the word signa occurs (signa tollere, signa movere, signa ferre, signa convertere, signa constituere, signa obicere). The word of command was always directed to the standard-bearers (Liv. 5.55, 1; 6.8. 1), and conveyed to them during the fight by the tubicines, who stood near the general, the signal of the tubicines being taken up by the cornicines.

The signa of the legions, then, were the standards of the maniples. Even after the regular introduction of cohorts and centuries as administrative units, the tactical unit remained the maniple consisting of two centuries. Caesar often mentions the maniple and always in connexion with the standards, e.g. Bell. Gall. 6.34, 6, “si continere manipulos ad signa vellet, ut instituta ratio et consuetudo exercitus Romani postulabat:” cf. 2.15, 1; 6.40, 1. Even under the Empire the manipular arrangement remained in force as far as the standards were concerned, just as it did as regards the rank of the centurions; and so Tacitus makes mention of maniples (Hist. 3.22; 4.77, 78), and Dio Cassius, not having a word to express “maniple,” renders it by δύο ἑκατονταρχίας (48.42, 2). In the battle at Forum Gallorum in 43 B.C. there were 22 cohorts and about 60 signa lost (Galba ap. Cic. Fam. 10.3. 0, 5); the numbers show that the signa belong to the maniples. In the coins given below we see the legionary signa with H(astati) and P(rincipes) [p. 2.673]on them. But during the Empire the manipular arrangement gradually disappeared, and Vegetius is quite right in saying that in his time (380 A.D.) each century had a signum.

That there was no special signum for the cohorts may be proved from these considerations: (1) that it would have served no purpose, (2) that there is virtually only one form of legionary signum on any representations we know of, and (3) that there is no certain trace whatsoever in the inscriptions or authors of there being two kinds of signiferi. When Caesar says (Bell. Gall. 2.25, 1), “quartae cohortis omnibus centurionibus occisis signiferoque interfecto, signo amisso,” he is doubtless thinking of the standard-bearer of one of the maniples, probably of that of the hastati: cf. Mommsen in Eph. Epigr. 4.360.

Vexillum (diminutive of velum, Festus, p. 377; or perhaps velum may be a contraction of vexillum, as Cicero says, de Orat. 45, 135) was the oldest standard of the Roman army. It was raised on the Janiculum while the Comitia Centuriata were being held (Liv. 39.15, 11; D. C. 37.28, 1); floating over the general's tent, it gave the signal for battle (Plut. Fab. 15; cf. Caes. Bell. Gall. 2.20, 1); it was the rallying-point of the soldiers in the case of a tumultus (Serv. ad Verg. A. 8.1). The signa of the maniples during the Republic seem to have had a vexillum on them (see the coins below); and, indeed, both the names are applied to the legionary standards by Livy, secundi hastati signum (26.5, 15), vexilla [manipulorum] (8.8, 8), for vexilla were the oldest flags in the Roman army. It is probable that the new form of signum. which had no vexillum at all was introduced by Augustus. But vexilla were the peculiar standards (1) of those divisions of infantry which were separated from the main division for some special duty, (2) of the troops of discharged veterans called out for further service.

As regards the standards of the cavalry, Domazewski (pp. 26, 27) draws a distinction between the cavalry of those divisions which consisted of both infantry and cavalry, such as the legions or the cohortes equitatae; and those troops which consisted solely of cavalry, such as the alae or the equites singulares. To the former belonged a vexillum, probably because the signum was appropriated to the infantry; to the latter both signa and vexilla--in each case one standard for each turma. Where both signa and vexilla appear, it is to be supposed that the vexillum was the original cavalry standard, which was later replaced, when no confusion was likely to ensue, by the more splendid signum.

Among the praetorians signiferi are found attached, to both the centuries and the cohorts; but, as the praetorians were arranged in maniples (Tac. Ann. 12.56; 15.33, 58), we may readily suppose from analogy that they were the divisions to each of which a signum was allotted.

The auxilia and the numeri had what we may call signa, and we shall speak of these below.

(3) Imagines.--In the early Empire imaginiferi are found belonging to the legions and to the auxiliary cohorts; each legion and each auxiliary cohort had one imaginifer. No evidence is found to prove that they existed among the auxiliary cavalry; yet each ala of the latter probably had a signum (cf. Tac. Hist. 2.89) on which the emperor's imago was fixed. There is an interesting relief of one on a tombstone in Hexham Church, reproduced by Dr. Bruce, Handbook to the Roman Wall, p. 79. Imagines are never found affixed to the standards of the tactical units except in the case of the praetorians, which was a special body-guard of the emperor. In the legions the imaginifer belonged to the first cohort (C. I. L. 3.6178, 20; Veget. 2.6); in the cohortes equitatae, to the cavalry of that body (C. I. L. 3.3256).

Legionary Signum from Mayence.

(4) Aquilae.--From the time of Marius the aquila was the standard of the legion. It of course had no tactical significance; but, besides being the sign of union of the whole legion, it marked where the commander happened to be, and accordingly where the main body of the legion was stationed. During the battle it was in charge of the primus pilus (V. Max. 1.6, 11; Tac. Hist. 3.22). In time of peace, during the Republic, it was kept at Rome in the Aerarium with the other standards (Liv. 3.69, 8). In the camp it was placed in a little shrine (Cic. Cat. i. 9, 24; D. C. 40.18, 1;--Herodian, 4.4, 5; 5.8, 6); for the standards were held as sacred (Plin. Nat. 13.23), and regarded as constituting an asylum (ib. 1.39).

The Form of the Standards.

Signum from Trajan's Column.

(1) Signa.--The, signa of the legions were in the main essentials similar to one another. The pole was a lace with a point at the lower end for fixing into the ground (οὐρίαχος, App. BC 2.62; cuspes, Suet. Jul. 62) and a cross-piece of wood a little above this point to prevent the pole sinking too deep into the ground; sometimes, too, the pole had a handle. The pole was plated with silver (cf. Dexippus ap. Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. 3.682: ἐπὶ ξύστων ἠργυρωμένων). Towards the top of the pole was a transverse bar with ribands, sometimes of purple, hanging from it; and these often had at their ends silver ornaments shaped like ivy-leaves. Along this transverse bar there appears to have been placed a plate containing the name of the legion, cohort, and maniple to which the signum belonged. Below the transverse bar came a series of discs, probably of silver (Plin. Nat. 33.58), like the phalerae. Hence we can readily believe the statements concerning the [p. 2.674]great weight of the standards: τὰ τῶν στρατοπέδων σύμβολα . . . . μόλις ὑπὸ τῶν γενναιοτάτων στρατιωτῶν φερόμενα (Herodian, 4.7, 7). There were military orders given to the maniple or century; for we know from Zonaras (7.21) that these orders were given to whole troops as well as to individuals (οὐ κατ᾽ ἄνδρα μόνον ἀριστεύσαντα ταῦτα ἐδίδοτο, ἀλλὰ καὶ λόχοις καὶ στρατοπέδοις ὅλοις πρείχετο). This accounts for the fact that the number of discs varies, sometimes being as many as seven, sometimes only two. We hear that in early times a (φιάλη was given as a meed of value to a foot-soldier, and φάλαρα to a horse-soldier (Plb. 6.39, 3); later, that (φάλαρα were given to both horse-and foot-soldiers; but we may perhaps assume that the (φάλαρα given to the infantry were of the shape of a φιάλη: and just as the alae of cavalry got torques and were accordingly called torquata (Orell. 516; C. I. L, 6.3538), so the troops of infantry got saucer-shaped phalerae. These discs could be taken off the pole; and poles without them were called incompta signa, and appeared as such at military funerals (Tac. Ann. 3.2). Ornare signa (Suet. Cl. 13) seems to have been the expression used for putting these discs on the pole, though in this passage it is said of the eagle, not of the signa properly so called. Below these discs, generally acting as a support, was a crescent moon, which was probably a kind of amulet to avoid ill-luck (cf. Plaut. Epid. 5.1, 38 (638); Hesych. sub voce σεληνίς). Above the transverse box was sometimes a corona aurea, sometimes a small shield--both probably kinds of orders, though one cannot feel at all sure in the case of the latter--sometimes a small vexillum, which was certainly an order (Sal. Jug. 85, 29), sometimes an upstretched hand, the token of fidelity. Again beasts, especially the capricorn, are sometimes found below the discs, chiefly on the military coins of Gallienus, Victorinus, and Carausius. They were of the nature of amulets (cf. Saglio, Dict. des Antiq. 1.253). For further details on this point see Domazewski, pp. 54-56.

Two representatives are given above of legionary signa. The first is from a tombstone in Mayence (Domazewski, fig. 12): the knobs under the crescent have no special significance. The second (ib. fig. 23) is a signum taken from Trajan's Column: note the hand and the vexillum. The two coins below (ib. figs. 34, 35) are consular

Signa. Coin of B.C. 83. Coin of B.C. 49.

coins of B.C. 83 and B.C. 49, with an aquila between two signa.

The standards of the auxiliary cohorts are so very like those of the maniples that there is no need to give a special representation of them.

The standards of the numeri are, however, noticeable, as they appear to have had figures of animals on the top: cf. Tac. Hist. 4.22, “hinc veteranorum cohortium signa, inde depromptae silvis lucisque ferarum imagines ut cuique genti inire proelium mos est.” One surmounted by a bull taken from a relief in the Museum at Chesters(the ancient Cilurnum on the Roman wall) is given by Dr. Bruce (Lapidarium sept entrionale, 930 = Doma--zewski, fig. 90).

Praetorian Standard (1).

The standards of the praetorians had, like the signa of the legions, the transverse bar and the ribands and their ivyleaves--sometimes above the bar, occasionally separated by a crown, a vexillum or a shield, an upright crown, or an image of a god. The most remarkable difference between these standards and those of the legions was that crowns (aurea, muralis, classica, or vallaris; see CORONAE) take the place of the phalerae. In the middle of the pole was placed a medallion containing a portrait of the emperor, or medallions if there were more emperors than one; the most important crown belonging to the maniples was placed between the medallions if there were two. Above and below the medallions were generally crowns. Above are two praetorian standards from Trajan's Column. On the top of the first is a figure of perhaps Victory before a vexillum, then a crown, the eagle surrounded by a crown, the transverse bar and one of its ribands with the ivy-leaf at the end, a crown, an imago, a corona classica (the beaks are quite plain), a crown, another imago, a crown, and a knob as a support. On the top of the other is the point of the lance, next a vexillum, crown, eagle surrounded with a crown, transverse bar with ribands, crown, imago, corona muralis, another crown, another imago, a crown, and a knob.

Praetorian Standard (2).

The standards of the speculatores, as far as we can make them out, consisted of an upright hand or a crown above the transverse bar. The latter had pendent ribands and ivy-leaves; under it [p. 2.675]was a phalera, a crescent, and the rostrum of a ship: the latter is especially noticeable. The annexed cut is a coin of Galba.

Standards of Speculatores.

(2) Vexilla.--The chief feature of the vexilla was, that hanging down from the transverse bar was a rectangular fringed piece of cloth which bore the name of the legion and probably that of the emperor. The cloth was sometimes white, sometimes red, sometimes purple (Serv. on Aen. 8.1; Capitol. Gord. 8, 3). Occasionally above this piece of cloth, which was the vexillum proper, is found a statue of Victory. Annexed is such a vexillum from Trajan's Column.

Vexillum, from Trajan's Column.

(3) Imagines.--These were medallions of the emperors affixed to poles (προτομὰς Καί σαρος, αἳ ταῖς σημαίαις προσῆσαν, J. AJ 18.3, 1: cf. D. C. 63.25, 1, εἰκόνας; 65.10, 3; Tac. Hist. 3.13, 31), though probably the imagines which were destroyed in a revolution are not merely those on the standards, but also the statues and busts of the emperor which were in the camp. That medallions of other emperors than the reigning one--no doubt those of the divi imperatores--were carried on the standards, is plain from Tac. Hist. 4.62: “revolsae imperatorum imagines.”

Aquila, from a relief at Verona.

(4) Aquila.--The eagle was placed on the top of a long pole--sometimes immediately, sometimes resting on a metal plate. It generally held a thunderbolt in its claws, and had its wings extended for flight; we know that it was considered a good omen for an army when starting to see an eagle in flight (Tac. Ann. 2.17; Hist. 1.62). Occasionally the eagle was represented as holding an oak-leaf in its beak. It was made generally of silver (Cic. Cat. 1.9, 24), sometimes of gold (D. C. 40.18, 1; Herodian, 4.7, 7). The pole had a spike, generally a cross-piece of wood above the spike to prevent it sinking too far, and sometimes a handle in the middle for pulling it up. If the legion as a whole had gained any especial distinction or ornament, that ornament was affixed to the pole, as in the case of the signa. The annexed aquila from the relief at Verona (Domaz. fig. 4) gives a good idea of the standard, though unfortunately the eagle's head is broken off.

Nearly all the material necessary for discussing the signa is given by Domazewski, op. cit. Besides that, some further assistance may be got from articles by Rein in Pauly, 6.1179-1182, 2542-3, and Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, ii.2 345, 353-7, 438-9.


hide References (45 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (45):
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.1
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.3
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 2.9.62
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.24
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.3
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.39
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.5
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.6
    • Cicero, Against Catiline, 1.9
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 11.463
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 8.1
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 13
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 62
    • Tacitus, Annales, 12.56
    • Tacitus, Annales, 15.33
    • Tacitus, Annales, 15.58
    • Tacitus, Annales, 2.17
    • Tacitus, Annales, 3.2
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 2.89
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 3.13
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 3.22
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 3.31
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 4.22
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 4.62
    • Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum, 29
    • Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum, 85
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 10.16
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 13.23
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 33.58
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 11
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 15
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 1
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 55
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 8, 11
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 8, 7
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 27, 14
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 27, 8
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 6, 8
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 25, 16
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 25, 23
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 69
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 8
    • Plutarch, Romulus, 8
    • Plutarch, Fabius Maximus, 15
    • Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, 1.6
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