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 p1044  Signa Militaria

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1044‑1046 of

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

SIGNA MILITA′RIA (σημεῖα, σημαίαι), military ensigns or standards. The most ancient standard employed by the Romans is said to have been a handful of straw fixed to the top of a spear or pole. Hence the company of soldiers, belonging to it, was called Manipulus [Exercitus, p500B.] The bundle of hay or fern was soon succeeded by the figures of animals, of which Pliny (H. N. X.4, s5) enumerates five, viz. the eagle, the wolf, the minotaur (Festus, s.v. Minotaur.), the horse, and the boar. In the second consul­ship of Marius, B.C. 104, the four quadrupeds were entirely laid aside as standards, the eagle being alone retained. It was made of silver, or bronze, and with expanded wings, but was probably of a small size, since a standard-bearer (signifer) under Julius Caesar is said in circumstances of danger to have wrenched the eagle from its staff and concealed it in the folds of his girdle (Flor. IV.12).

Under the later emperors the eagle was carried, as it had been for many centuries, with the legion, a legion being on that account sometimes called aquila (Hirt. Bell. Hisp. 30),º and at the same time each cohort had for its own ensign the serpent or dragon (draco, δράκων), which was woven on a square piece of cloth (textilis anguis, Sidon. Apoll. Carm. V.409), elevated on a gilt staff, to which a cross-bar was adapted for the purpose (Themist. Orat. I. p1, XVIII. p267, ed. Dindorf; Claudian, IV. Cons. Honor. 546; VI. Cons. Honor. 566), and carried by the draconarius (Veget. de Re Mil. II.13; compare Tac. Ann. I.18).

Another figure used in the standards was a ball (pila), supposed to have been emblematic of the dominion of Rome over the world (Isid. Orig. XVIII.3); and for the same reason a bronze figure  p1045 of Victory was sometimes fixed at the top of the staff, as we see it sculptured, together with small statues of Mars, on the Column of Trajan and the Arch of Constantine (see the next woodcut, and Causeus de Sig. in Graevii Thes. vol. X p2529). Under the eagle or other emblem was often placed a head of the reigning emperor, which was to the army the object of idolatrous adoration (Josephus, B. J. II.9 §2; Suet. Tiber. 48, Calig. 14; Tac. Ann. I.39, 41, IV.62). The name of the emperor, or of him who was acknowledged as emperor, was sometimes inscribed in the same situation (Sueton. Vespas. 6). The pole, used to carry the eagle, had at its lower extremity an iron point (cuspis) to fix it in the ground, and to enable the aquilifer in case of need to repel an attack (Suet. Jul. 62).

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[image ALT: An engraving of a relief from the Arch of Constantine in Rome.]
[image ALT: An engraving of a relief from the Arch of Constantine in Rome.]

The minor divisions of a cohort, called centuries, had also each an ensign, inscribed with the number both of the cohort and of the century. By this provision, together with the diversities of the crests worn by the centurions [Galea], every soldier was enabled with the greatest ease to take his place (Veget. l.c.).

In the Arch of Constantine at Rome there are four sculptured panels near the top, which exhibit a great number of standards, and illustrate some of the forms here described. The annexed woodcut is copied from two out of the four. The first panel represents Trajan giving a king to the Parthians: seven standards are held by the soldiers. The second, containing five standards, represents the performance of the sacrifice called suovetaurilia (Bartoli, Arc. Triumph.).

When Constantine had embraced Christianity, a figure or emblem of Christ, woven in gold upon purple cloth, was substituted for the head of the emperor. This richly ornamented standard was called labarum (Prudentius cont. Symm. I.466, 488; Niceph. H.E. VII.37).

Since the movements of a body of troops and of every portion of it were regulated by the standards, all the evolutions, acts, and incidents of the Roman army were expressed by phrases derived from this circumstance. Thus signa inferre meant to advance (Caesar, B. G. I.25, II.25), referre to retreat, and convertere to face about; efferre, or castris vellere, to march out of the camp (Virg. Georg. I.108); ad signa convenire, to re-assemble (Caesar, B. G. VI.37).º Notwithstanding some obscurity in the use of terms, it appears that, whilst the standard of the legion was properly called aquila, those of the cohorts were in a special sense of the term called signa, their bearers being signiferi, and that those of the manipuli or smaller divisions of the cohort were denominated vexilla, their bearers being vexillarii. Also those who fought in the first ranks of the legion before the standards of the legion and cohorts were called antesignani (Caesar, B. C. I.43, 44, 56). A peculiar application of the term vexillarii is explained on p507B.

In military stratagems it was sometimes necessary to conceal the standards (Caesar, B. G. VII.45). Although the Romans commonly considered it a point of honour to preserve their standards, yet in some cases of extreme danger the leader himself threw them among the ranks of the enemy in order to divert their attention or to animate his own soldiers (Florus, I.11). A wounded or dying standard-bearer delivered it, if possible, into the hands of his general (Florus, IV.4), from whom he had received it (signis acceptis, Tac. Ann. I.42). In time of peace the standards were kept in the Aerarium under the care of the Quaestor.

We have little information respecting the standards of any other nation besides the Romans. The banners of the Parthians appear to have had a similar form to that of the Romans, but were more richly decorated with gold and silk [Sericum.] A golden eagle with expanded wings was the royal standard of Persia (Xen. Cyrop. VII.1 §4, Anab. I.10 §12). The military ensigns of the Egyptians were very various. Their sacred animals were represented in them (Diod. I.86), and in the paintings at Thebes we observe such objects as a king's name, a sacred boat, or some other emblem, applied to the same purpose (Wilkinson, Man. and Cust. vol. I p294). The Jewish army was probably marshalled by the aid of banners (Ps. xx.5;  p1046 Cant. vi.4; Is. xiii.2); but not so the Greek, although the latter had a standard, the elevation of which served as a signal for joining battle, either by land (Polyaen. III.9 §27; Corn. Nepos, XI.2 §2) or by sea (Thucyd. I.49). A scarlet flag (φοινικίς) was sometimes used for this purpose (Polyaen. I.48 §2).

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