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This webpage reproduces a section of
A Description of the Trajan Column
by John Hungerford Pollen

printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode,
printers to Queen Victoria
London, 1874

Text and engravings are in the public domain.

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Roman standards

The standards in the legion were numerous. Every manipulus had a vexillarius or vexillifer, a standard bearer. The ensigns are fully represented in the bas-reliefs. Besides these the cohort had a standard, draco, and the legion an aquila. These were entrusted to picked men, and were to each subdivision and to the cohort and legion as precious and sacred as the colours of regiments in our modern armies. A careful study of the column will show how great a variety there is between different standards of the first kind. The origin of the standard and of the name manipulus seems, according to Ovid, to have been a handful of grass, fern, or other herbage, gathered and tied to the head of the lance.32 This was replaced by a hand, and hands appear on some of the standards, right, left, open, or with two fingers, or with one finger only open. The hand is on the summit of the spear or shaft. In other standards the top ornament is a small shield, oval, and sometimes it is of other shapes and is surrounded by a wreath. It stands on a short cross bar immediately below the shaft head, and to this bar two narrow strips or thongs are hung, ending in trefoil buttons or ornaments of metal. In some cases small banners, or tablets with pictures on them, surmount the standards. In the composition representing the first passage of a river, there are pictures on the standards, the subjects being images of various divinities. Sometimes there is a small eagle in a wreath, or a plain wreath or a patera. The short cross bar below the top ornament is always seen, even when there is no particular top ornament and the lance's point is shown. Below the cross bar comes a series of round pateras seven or eight in number. In other cases these alternate with busts of emperors, each within a wreath; in others with an eagle, a mural crown or two, a square plate or round drum, having rostra or ships' beaks on each side. Where there are varieties of ornaments of this kind, one below the other, an horizontal torus or block with the edge cut into leaves separates them. Below all is a semi-globe ornamented in the same way, having something of the appearance of a thick short tassel. The round devices were supposed to be significative of the world, and to show the Roman dominion over it. The ancient notion  p31 as to the shape of the earth being that it was a circular plane, not a globe. Other ornamental cross bars occur at intervals on some of the standards. The cohort standard was a piece of cloth fringed with gold, fastened to a cross bar longer than that of the standard just described (below the spear head), which was shown fastened; a dragon was embroidered on this banner, hence called a draco. The force under Trajan's command included ten cohorts of Praetorian guards, and these banners where they occur are perhaps those belonging to that body.

The most important of all the standards was the eagle. It was guarded by a double cohort 960 strong. In these sculptures the eagles have sometimes a mural crown over the wings. All the eagles were of bronze; two have been discovered and are now in the Erbach collection. It was of a size small enough to be concealed about the person, and instances are known of the aquilifer breaking it off the staff lest it should fall into the hands of the enemy. The top of the pole is fitted with a square bracket moulded with beads in relief and the eagle stands on it. In the opening scene where the army crosses the bridge of boats, there are two eagle bearers aquiliferi, but the eagle itself is wanting in one case having been lost under Domitian. This eagle was restored at the conclusion of the war.

The eagle is not the only animal seen on a standard. In No. XXXIV will be seen a staff and bracket of the same form as those of the aquilae but surmounted by an 'aries' a ram. It was emblematic of siege operations and many sieges were carried out in the course of the first, and more during the second war. Till the time of the second consulship of Marius, B.C. 104, eagles, wolves, minotaurs, horses and boars had been used as insignia of the cohorts. He decided that in future eagles only should be retained and that only one should be taken into action.33

The Author's Notes:


Portica suspensos portabat longa maniplos

Unde maniplaris nomina miles habet.

Ov. FastiIII.º

33 Michel Angelo Causeo de la Chausse de Signis Mil. ap. Graev. X.1529. I do not know of the existence of a legion eagle. Those mentioned are small, and belong to standards of cohorts or manipuli.

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Page updated: 30 Aug 20