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The History of Flags

Last modified: 2011-12-31 by rob raeside
Keywords: vexillology | history | iran | ancient egypt | rome |
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There are, in fact, authentic flags design of ancient peoples: Smith 75, in his introductory chapters, shows an actual photo of a metal flag from Iran, ca. 3000 BC, and reconstructions of vexilloids shown on ancient Greek coins, Egyptian tomb carvings, etc. These are not exactly the rectangular cloth of today, but remarkably similar and surely source material for designs. All these date to before the Christian era, so they certainly quality as "ancient." Smith also reconstructs, perhaps with a chuckle, a rag tied to a stick which might have been a "flag" of earliest Neanderthal or their kin in the caves. What is remarkable about so many of these is their simplicity ... one of the great virtues of good vexillography, I submit.
William E. Dunning, 26 March 1998

For those interested in Medieval flags, there is a web page of Ninth to Seventeenth Century Flags. Donna Hrynkiw provides some basic info about flags between the Ninth and Seventeenth Centuries, plus some definitions as to the name of various shaped flags and banners. While simplistic, it does provide material I'd not seen before.
Al Fisher, 16 March 1998

I have been told that national symbols as they are understood today did not exist in antiquity, and that, if a realm such as the Roman Empire had a national central symbol at all, that symbol was the head of state himself. In the case of Ancient Rome, it is very evident that that realm was very fond of the eagle and the she-wolf.
Juan Jose Morales, 31 October 2009

As a general statement this seems pretty accurate. The aquila of the legions, for example, had quasi-religious status, were certainly bound up with the military pride and supremacy of the Roman Empire and could well be said to represent Rome to those people conquered by them, but I very doubt that they were considered a "national central symbol" or anywhere near that.

I have heard it argued (and I don't know enough to contradict the statement) that the era of national symbolism (in its modern sense) began with the Stars and Stripes, although the use of national symbols at sea could be said to have begun with the adoption of the red cross on white of Genoa in (from memory) the end of the twelfth century.
Christopher Southworth, 1 November 2009

Albeit the ancient realms did not have national symbols in the present sense, and they were also not really states in the modern sense with vast
bureaucracies, I think the vexilla of the Roman legions, the eagle and the SPQR motto can be seen as national symbols of the Roman Empire. In countries like ancient Egypt and ancient Israel, religious symbols likely doubled as national symbols, just like many countries in our days have religious symbolism in their flags.

Nothing says a modern state has to have a national flag or a national coat of arms, but they all have a flag and most have some sort of arms just because most people feel this is part of being a state. And how would you represent a state without a flag outside the UN building in New York?
Elias Granqvist, 1 November 2009