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p638 Insigne

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp638‑639 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

INSIGNE (σεμεῖον, ἐπίσημον, παράσημον), a badge, an ensign, a mark of distinction. Thus the Bulla worn by a Roman boy was one of the insignia of his rank (Cic. Verr. II.58). Five classes of insignia more especially deserve notice:—

I. Those belonging to officers of state or civil functionaries of all descriptions, such as the Fasces carried before the Consul at Rome, the laticlave and shoes worn by senators [Calceus; Clavus], the carpentum and the sword bestowed by the emperor upon the praefect of the praetorium (Lydus, de Mag. II.39). The Roman Equites were distinguished by the "equus publicus," the golden ring, the angustus clavus [p294], and the seat provided for them in the theatre and the circus (C. G. Schwartz, Diss. Selectae, pp84‑101). The insignia of the kings of Rome, viz. the trabea, the toga-praetexta, the crown of gold, the ivory sceptre, the sella curulis, and the twelve lictors with fasces, all of which except the crown and sceptre were transferred to subsequent denominations of magistrates, were copied from the usages of the Etruscans and other nations of early antiquity. (Flor. I.5; Sallust, B. Cat. 51; Virg. Aen. VII.188, 612, XI.334; Lydus, de Mag. I.7, 8, 37.)

II. Badges worn by soldiers. The centurions in the Roman army were known by the crests of their helmets [Galea], and the common men by their shields, each cohort having them painted in a manner peculiar to itself (Veget. II.18; compare Caes. Bell. Gall. VII.45). [Clipeus]. Among the Greeks the devices sculptured or painted upon shields (see woodcut, p298), both for the sake of ornament and as badges of distinction, employed the fancy of poets and of artists of every description from the earliest times. Thus the seven heroes who fought against Thebes, all except Amphiaraus, had on their shields expressive figures and mottoes, differently described, however, by different authors (Aeschyl. Sept. c. Theb. 383‑646; Eurip. Phoen. 1125‑1156; Apollodor. Bibl. III.6 §1). Alcibiades, agreeably to his general character, wore a shield richly decorated with ivory and gold, and exhibiting a representation of Cupid brandishing a thunderbolt (Athen. XII p534E). The first use of these emblems on shields is attributed to the Carians (Lorica I.171); and the fictitious employment of them to deceive and mislead an enemy was among the stratagems of war (Paus. IV.28 §3; Virg. Aen. II.389‑392).

III. Family badges. Among the indignities practised by the emperor Caligula, it is related that he abolished the ancient insignia of the noblest families, viz. the torques, the cincinni, and the cognomen "Magnus" (Suet. Calig. 35).

IV. Signs placed on the front of buildings. A figure of Mercury was the common sign of a Gymnasium; but Cicero had a statue of Minerva to fulfil the same purpose (Ad Att. I.4). Cities had their emblems as well as separate edifices; and the officer of a city sometimes affixed the emblem to public documents as we do the seal of a municipal corporation (Antigonus Caryst. 15).

V. The figure-heads of ships. The insigne of a ship was an image placed on the prow, and giving its name to the vessel (Tacit. Ann. VI.34; Caes. B. Civ. II.6). Paul sailed from Melite to Puteoli in the Dioscuri, a vessel which traded between that city and Alexandria (Acts, xxviii.11). Enschedé has drawn out a list of one hundred names of ships, which occur either in classical authors or in ancient inscriptions (Diss. de Tut. et Insignibus Navium, reprinted in Ruhnken, Opusc. p257‑305). The names were those of gods and heroes, together with their attributes, such as the helmet of Minerva, painted on the prow of the ship which conveyed Ovid to Pontus (a picta casside nomen habet, Trist. I.9.2); of virtues and affections, as Hope, Concord, Victory; of countries, cities, and rivers, as the Po, the Mincius (Virg. Aen. X.206), the Delia, the Syracuse, the Alexandria (Athen. V.43); and of men, women, and animals, as the boar's head, which distinguished the vessels of Samos (Herod. III.59; p639Choerilus, p155, ed. Naeke; Hesych. s.v. Σαρμιακὸς τρόπος: Eust. in Hom. Od. XIII. p525), the swan, the tiger (Virg. Aen. X.166), the bull (προτομὴν ταῦρου, Schol. in Apoll. Rhod. II.168). Plutarch mentions a Lycian vessel with the sign of the lion on its prow, and that of the serpent on its poop, manifestly intended to express the form of the chimaera (De Mul. Virt. p441, ed. Steph.). After an engagement at sea, the insigne of a conquered vessel, as well as its aplustre, was often taken from it and suspended in some temple as an offering to the god (Plut. Themist. p217). Figure-heads were probably used from the first origin of navigation. On the war-galleys of the Phoenicians, who called them, as Herodotus says (III.37), πάταικοι, i.e. "carved images," they had sometimes a very grotesque appearance.

Besides the badge which distinguished each individual ship, and which was either an engraved and painted wooden image forming part of the prow, or a figure often accompanied by a name and painted on both the bows of the vessel, other insignia, which could be elevated or lowered at pleasure, were requisite in naval engagements. These were probably flags or standards, fixed to the aplustre or to the top of the mast, and serving to mark all those vessels which belonged to same fleet or to the same nation. Such were "the Attic" and "the Persic signals" (τὸ Ἀττικὸν σημεῖον, Polyaen. III.11 §11, VIII.53 §1; Becker, Charikles, vol. II p63). A purple sail indicated the admiral's ship among the Romans, and flags of different colours were used in the fleet of Alexander the Great (Plin. H. N. XIX.5).


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