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Roman Legion: Symbols & Flag

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Rome's military was well organized and effective. In this lesson, we're going to look at a specific aspect of this military, the heraldry of the legion, and see how this represented ancient Roman society.

The Roman Military

The ancient Roman author Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus once wrote, Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you desire peace, prepare for war. To the Romans of the ancient world, war was a very important concept. Emperors proved their right to rule through military expansion, Rome's wealth relied on tribute from its colonies, and the ability to spread Roman culture convinced Romans of their superiority. Even back when Rome was still a republic, the military was seen as a primary instrument for protecting Roman lives and civilization. From what we can tell, the Romans must have truly loved peace, because they sure spent a lot of time preparing for war.

The Roman Legion

The Roman military was one of the best-organized fighting forces of the ancient world. Romans were absolute sticklers when it came to precision: Their roads were standardized, their temples were standardized, and their military was no exception. To fight in the hilly terrain of Italy, commanders of the early Roman Republic abandoned the Greek systems of organization, in which units of soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder and fought as one. The Romans needed more mobile units, so they developed a system in which collections of infantry units comprised a larger fighting force called a legion.

Small groups of soldiers were organized as flexible fighting units called maniples or centuries. Each one had roughly 100-120 men, and was led by a commander called the centurion. They were arranged to be as self-reliant as possible, with various lines of soldiers attacking or defending alternatively. A full rank of maniples formed a larger fighting force called the cohort, which contained around 400-500 soldiers. Ten cohorts made up a legion of roughly 5,000 soldiers. A legion, composed of these smaller units, could break apart and reform with ease, letting the soldiers move over several forms of terrain. At the head of the legion was the legate--the commander. The legate was generally a senator, appointed by the emperor. In addition to these forces, each legion generally contained auxiliary units of non-Roman soldiers and cavalry units. All together, they made for a lethal fighting force.

Banners and Standards of the Legion

By the first century CE, Rome had roughly 28 legions spreading the borders of the empire across Europe and the Middle East. To identify themselves, and in order to keep their soldiers centralized in the chaos of battle, each legion carried a number of banners and symbols. Each of these symbols were treated as sacred objects, anointed with sacred oils and garlands that indicated their importance in the Roman religion. Some were cloth banners, while others were poles containing various insignia. We collectively call these heraldic symbols the standards.

There were a few basic standards that every legion carried with it into battle. The vexillum was the banner of that legion, containing their distinct and identifying mark. This could include a variety of animals, but serpents were a particularly popular choice, especially among auxiliary cavalry units. The bearer of the vexillum was called the vexillarius. It was an honored position.

Next to the vexillarius were the signifer and imaginifer. The imaginifer carried an official bust of the emperor. As the Roman Emperor was head of the Roman military and the Roman religion, this bust had important political and religious connotations all at once. A signifer carried any other basic standards that the legion might have, including symbols of major battles won by that legion. In general, standard-bearers were older, veteran soldiers and were cloaked in the skins of lions or bears to indicate their status. In the Roman Republic, standards were also engraved with the letters SPQR--an abbreviation for the Senate and people of Rome in Latin. So, the legion was seen as carrying Rome with it wherever it went.

Standards of a legion
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