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Roman Empire - Historical Flags (Italy)


Last modified: 2021-08-24 by rob raeside
Keywords: italy | rome | roma | roman empire | vexillium | labarum |
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Labarum of Emperor Constantine
image by Eugene Ipavec, 29 June 2006

SPQR has been used on several modern reconstructions of Roman flags and vexilloids, see for instance the eagle (aquila) standard on the page of the re-enactment group "Legio XXIV" (<>). However, as far as it is known, the SPQR, though used widely in inscriptions, was never used on any kind of flags in antiquity. The main reason would be: These flags were basically military standards for the respective military units, and not *national* flags. As the soldier all belonged to the Roman army, which was in essence marked by the whole system of flags, they didn't need a reminder. These flags (vexilla as well as signa of different units) contained other inscriptions, though; in most cases these would be short forms of the name of the unit, for instance "LEG II AUG" for "Legio II Augusta", a legion stationed in Britain. A vexillum with this inscription can be seen on the "Bridgeness distance slab" from the time of emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD)
M. Schmoger, 14 April 2002

From 'Flags' by A. Macgeorge, Glasgow, 1881 [mcg81]:
"The vexillium was a standard composed of a square piece of cloth fastened to a cross bar at the top of a spear, sometimes with a fringe all round, and sometimes fringed only below, [see here], or without a fringe, but draped at the sides, [see here]. When placed over the general's tent it was a sign for marching, or for battle. The labarum of the emperors was similar in form, and frequently bore upon it a representation of the emperor, sometimes by himself and sometimes accompanied by the heads of members of his family. [ ] That which Emperor Constantine bore was what, in his time, was the only recognized Christian emblem - the first two letters of our Lord's name - the Greek X and P. [see here]. The labarum was made of silk. The term is sometimes used for other standards, and its form may be recogized in the banners carried in ecclesiastical processions. The labarum, like the vexillium, had sometimes fringes with tassels or ribbons."
David Prothero, 7 March 2006

See modern creations for re-enactment at <> and <> for more details.
Jan Mertens, 8 March 2006

Most modern reproductions seem to favor designs with a graphic representation of the legion's symbol in addition to the lettering - does this have a historical basis, and are there any period depictions of such a vexillum?  
Also, according to a paper on the slab at <>, "One example of the cloth [vexillum] survives and is now in the Pushkin Museumof Fine Art in Moscow (Rostovtzeff 1942). This was acquired, and therefore presumably found, in Egypt." Does anyone know if there are any photos of this online?
Eugene Ipavec, 30 June 2006

Vexillum of the Legio II Augusta

image by Eugene Ipavec, 30 June 2006

The vexillum of the Legio II Augusta is based on the bas-relief on the "Bridgeness distance slab" in the UK, visible at <>.
Eugene Ipavec, 30 June 2006

Vexillum of the Legio XIII Gemina

image by Eugene Ipavec, 30 June 2006

The vexillum of the Legio XIII Gemina. I used a period source; the vexillum is shown on a 3rd century coin at <>. The details came from the photo of a modern reconstruction at Encarta, which may perhaps be more authentic than those of reenactors.
Eugene Ipavec, 23 March 2006

Marcus Agrippa's Flag

A special case must be Marcus Agrippa's flag, awarded by Augustus. This is mentioned in Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars", I quote from the Robert Graves translation (rev. Michael Grant), issued in Penguin Classics, ch. 25 of 'Augustus': "Marcus Agrippa earned the right to fly a blue ensign in recognition of this naval victory off Sicily."
I can provide more bibliographical info here but the interesting thing is to compare this version with others (and with the original text).
See, for instance at <> "The Lives of the Twelve Caesars", a Gutenberg e-text (translation Alexander Thomson rev. T. Forester): XXV. (...) "He presented M. Agrippa, after the naval engagement in the Sicilian war, with a sea-green banner."
Jan Mertens, 7 February 2005

The original text refering to the vexillum of Marcus Agrippa is indeed from C. Suetonius Tranquillus: "De Vita Caesarum", chapter 25: "M. Agrippam in Sicilia post navalem victoriam caeruleo vexillo donavit." [1] (He awarded M. Agrippa in Sicily after the naval victory with a sky-coloured vexillum) (my translation)
It is important to stress the fact, that this vexillum (flag) was obviously awarded as a military decoration, because in the sentences before Suetonius described the other military decorations that had been awarded (several crowns, collars etc.). There are other instances known of the awarding of a vexillum as military decoration to high-ranking officers [2]. However, it is totally unknown, how this decoration was displayed, i.e. if the actual flag was openly displayed or if some miniature form was worn with the uniform, for instance.
The colour of the vexillum awarded to Agrippa is certainly a problem, because the word "caeruleus" literally means "sky-coloured". The word, however, was used in a wide variety of contexts, meaning very different, usually rather dark colours: "dark-colored, dark blue, dark green, cerulean, azure, dark, gloomy, dun, sable, black, dark green, green, greenish". [3]
[1] C. Suetonius Tranquillus: De Vita Caesarum. at <>.
[2] [mxf81].
[3] Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary. at <>.
M. Schmöger, 7 February 2005

As far as my limited knowledge goes, the word vexillum referred specifically to the flag carried by the Roman cavalry. If there was no other usage, would it not be reasonable to assume that this decoration was displayed in a similar manner? For example that he could have been preceded by a bearer carrying this caeruleun vexillum before him in processions or on parades like the triumph? Did he have one for this victory? Presumably we can only speculate at this distance in time unless some one can come up with a classical reference explaining the whole thing.
Andries Burgers, 8 February 2005