An aquila, or eagle, was a prominent symbol used in ancient Rome, especially as the standard of a Roman legion. A legionary known as an aquilifer, or eagle-bearer, carried this standard. Each legion carried one eagle.
The eagle was extremely important to the Roman military, beyond merely being a symbol of a legion. A lost standard was considered an extremely grave occurrence, and the Roman military often went to great lengths to both protect a standard and to recover it if lost; for example, see the aftermath of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where the Romans spent decades attempting to recover the lost standards of three legions.
The signa militaria were the Roman military ensigns or standards. The most ancient standard employed by the Romans is said to have been a handful (manipulus) of straw fixed to the top of a spear or pole. Hence the company of soldiers belonging to it was called a maniple. The bundle of hay or fern was soon succeeded by the figures of animals, of which Pliny the Elder (H.N. x.16) enumerates five: the eagle, the wolf, the ox with the man's head, the horse, and the boar. In the second consulship of Gaius Marius (104 BC) the four quadrupeds were laid aside as standards, the eagle (Aquila) alone being retained. It was made of silver, or bronze, with outstretched wings, but was probably of a relatively 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. 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). Each cohort had for its own ensign the serpent or dragon, which was woven on a square piece of cloth textilis anguis, elevated on a gilt staff, to which a cross-bar was adapted for the purpose, and carried by the draconarius.
Another figure used in the standards was a ball (orb), supposed to have been emblematic of the dominion of Rome over the world; and for the same reason a bronze figure of Victoria 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. Under the eagle or other emblem was often placed a head of the reigning emperor, which was to the army an object of worship or veneration. The name of the emperor, or of him who was acknowledged as emperor, was sometimes inscribed in the same situation. 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.
The minor divisions of a cohort, called centuries, also each had an ensign, inscribed with the number both of the cohort and of the century. This, together with the diversities of the crests worn by the centurions, enabled each soldier to take his place with ease.
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 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
When Constantine 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. The labarum is still used today by the Orthodox Church in the Sunday service. The entry procession of the chalice whose contents will soon become holy communion is modeled after the procession of the standards of the Roman army.
Even after the adoption of Christianity as the Roman Empire's religion, the Aquila eagle continued to be used as a symbol. During the reign of Eastern Roman Emperor Isaac I Komnenos, the single-headed eagle was modified to double-headed to symbolise the Empire's dominance over East and West.
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, referre to retreat, and convertere to face about; efferre, or castris vellere, to march out of the camp; ad signa convenire, to re-assemble. 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.
In military stratagems it was sometimes necessary to conceal the standards. Although the Romans commonly considered it a point of honour to preserve their standards, 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. A wounded or dying standard-bearer delivered it, if possible, into the hands of his general, from whom he had received it signis acceptis
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Besides the Serpent and Eagle symbols, there were also the Imago (a Standard displaying the image of the emperor), the Manus (an open hand at the top of the banner), the Vexillum (a rectangular cut cloth of a certain color, sometimes with a number, attached to a pole), and Banners which designated military hierarchy (a red banner, for example, would designate a general). The Vexillum designated the type of unit (legion or cohort) and which legion it was. The Manus of the open hand symbolized the loyalty of the soldiers and the trust they had in their leaders. The Imago reminded the troops of the emperor they fought for and symbolically stood for the will of Rome among them. A Standard would have more than one banner on it except for the Vexillum which was used to direct the troops' movements. The story of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 CE) and the Roman response to that defeat emphasizes the importance of the Standard to Rome. Under the reign of Augustus, in 12 BCE, the Roman legions were ordered into the region of Germania where they tried to accomplish what Julius Caesarhad toyed with doing some forty years earlier: the subjugation of the land. Since the people of Germania were tribal, and there was no united front to wage war against, the armies of Rome could gain no foothold in the region. In 9 CE, the Roman general Quinctilius Varas was assigned the governorship of Germania, even though it was not conquered, and set about trying to collect taxes and tribute. This upset many of the populace, but especially a young German named Arminius who was a trusted member of Varus' staff. Arminius choreographed an elaborate plan by which the Roman legions would have to march through the Teutoburg Forest, where their tactics and training could little help them, and then ambushed them. The legions were massacred on the third day of their march and all three Standards were lost to Rome. In c. 16 CE the Roman general Germanicus (15 BCE-19 CE) led his troops into Germania, in defiance of Augustus' dictate that the Rhine should be the boundary of Rome, to retrieve the Standards lost by Varas' defeat. Augustus was dead by then and Tiberius ruled Rome but, still, the previous boundary stood. Historians since have agreed that Germanicus' campaign was driven by revenge, his desire to rally the troops around him and, as a symbol of their personal loyalty to him and to Rome, the retrieval of the Standards. He massacred as many of the indigenous people as he could in retribution for the Roman defeat and recovered two of the three Standards lost in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. While the people of Rome applauded his victories, he was denied advancement by Tiberius for acting outside of the established policy and also, no doubt, for engaging in a campaign which would have contributed to Germanicus' popularity at Tiberius' expense.
While not directly treating the Teutoburg Forest campaign, in the modern day Hollywood films such as Centurion(2010) and The Eagle (2011) have made much of the Roman Standard and its significance to the military, and the people, of ancient Rome. The Eagle, especially, addresses the so-called `Massacre of the Ninth Legion' in Britainand the loss of the Eagle Standard. In reality, there was most likely no massacre of the 9th legion. The most common date given for their disappearance is 117 CE, but extant Roman records show members of the 9th still in service after that date. If the 9th Legion was lost, then it was later than 117 CE, but it has been suggested that the 9th was disbanded and its soliders re-assigned to other legions. The loss of the Eagle of the Ninth Legion, however, remains a symbol of the spirit and vitality of the military unit it represented. The stories and films regarding attempts to find it celebrate the lengths to which one should go to preserve the honor of one's person, family, country, and brothers-in-arms and, whether those stories are true, they testify to the potent symbolism of the Roman Standard.
There is a way of battle. In the end the shield walls must meet and the slaughter will begin and one side will prevail and the other will be beaten down in a welter of butchery, but before the blades clash and before the shields crash, men must summon the nerve to make the charge. The two sides stare at each other, they taunt and insult each other. The young fools of each army will prance ahead of the wall and challenge their enemy to single combat, they will boast of the widows they plan to make and of the orphans who will weep for their fathers’ deaths. And the young fools fight and half of them will die, and the other half strut their bloody victory, but there is still no true victory because the shield walls have not met. And still the waiting goes on. Some men vomit with fear, others sing, some pray, but then at last one side will advance. It is usually a slow advance. Men crouch behind their shields, knowing that spears, axes and arrows will greet them before the shields slam together, and only when they are close, really close, does the attacker charge. Then there is a great bellow of noise, a roar of anger and fear, and the shields meet like thunder and the big blades fall and the swords stab and the shrieks fill the sky as the two shield walls fight to the death. That is the way of battle.
And Cnut broke it.
It began in the usual way. My shield wall stood at the very edge of the ford which was no more than twenty paces across. We were on the western bank, Cnut’s men were arriving from the east and, as they reached the crossroads, they dismounted. Boys took the horses and led them to a pasture while the warriors unslung their shields and looked for their battle-companions. They were arriving in groups. It was plain they had hurried and were strung out along the road, but their numbers grew swiftly. They gathered some five hundred paces from us where they formed a swine-head. I had expected that.
‘Confident bastards,’ Finan muttered.
‘Wouldn’t you be?’
‘Probably,’ he said. Finan was to my left, my son to my right. I resisted the temptation to give Uhtred advice. He had practiced the shield wall for years, he knew all I had to teach him, and to repeat it now would only betray my nervousness. He was silent. He just stared at the enemy and knew that in a few moments he would have to face his first battle of the shield-walls. And, I thought, he would probably die.
I tried to count the arriving enemy and reckoned the swine head held about five hundred men. So, they outnumbered us two to one, and still more men were coming. Cnut and Sigurd were there, their banners bright above the shields. I could see Cnut because he was still mounted, his pale horse somewhere deep in the big wedge of men.
A swine-head. I noticed that not one man had come forward to look at the ford which told me they knew this stretch of country, or someone in their army knew it. They knew about the ditch-like river and they knew that the west-leading road had a shallow ford which would be easy to cross and so they did not need to make any exploration. They would just advance, and Cnut had formed them into the swine-head to make that advance irresistible.
The shield wall is usually straight. Two straight lines that crash together and men struggle to break the opposing line, but a swine-head is a wedge. It comes fast. The biggest and bravest men are placed at the point of the wedge and their job is to smash through the opposing shield wall like a spear shattering a door. And once our line was broken the wedge would widen as they hacked along our lines and so my men would die.
And to make sure of that Cnut had sent men to cross the river north of us. A boy rode down from the ridge where the houses burned to bring me that bad news. ‘Lord?’ he asked nervously.
‘What’s your name, boy?’
‘You’re Grindan’s son?’
‘Then your name is Godric Grindanson,’ I said, ‘and how old are you?’
‘Eleven, Lord, I think.’
He was a snub-nosed, blue-eyed boy wearing an old leather coat which had probably belonged to his father because it was so big. ‘So what does Godric Grindanson want to tell me?’ I asked.
He pointed a tremulous finger north. ‘They’re crossing the river, Lord.’
‘How many? And how far away?’
‘Hrodgeir says there are three hundred men, Lord, and they’re still a long way north and more of them are crossing all the time, Lord.’ Hrodgeir was a Dane whom I had left on the ridge so he could keep watch on what the enemy did. ‘And, Lord…’ Godric went on until his voice faltered.
‘He says there are more men to the west, Lord, hundreds!’
‘They’re among trees, Lord, and Hrodgeir says he can’t count them.’
‘He hasn’t got enough fingers,’ Finan put in.
I looked up at the frightened boy. ‘Shall I tell you something about battles, Godric Grindanson?’
‘Yes please, Lord.’
‘One man always survives,’ I said. ‘He’s usually a poet and his job is to write a song which tells how bravely all his companions died. That might be your job today. Are you a poet?’
‘Then you’ll have to learn. So when you see us dying, Godric Grindanson, you ride south as fast as you can and you ride like the wind and you ride till you’re safe and you write the poem in your head which tells the Saxons that we died like heroes. Will you do that for me?’
‘Go back to Hrodgeir,’ I told him, ‘and tell me when you see the horsemen from the north or the ones from the west getting close.’
He went. Finan grinned. ‘Bastards on three sides of us.’
‘They must be scared.’
‘Shitting themselves, probably.’
I was expecting Cnut to ride to the ford, bringing his war-leaders with him to enjoy his insults. I had thought to have his son at my side with a knife at his throat, but rejected the thought. Cnut Cnutson could stay with Æthelflæd. If he stayed with me I could only threaten him, and if Cnut dared me to cut the boy’s throat, what would I do? Cut it? We would still have to fight. Let him live? Then Cnut would despise me for being weak. The boy had served his purpose by luring Cnut away from the East Anglian borderlands to this corner of Mercia and now he must wait till the battle was done to learn his fate. I gripped my shield and drew Serpent-Breath. In almost every clash of the shield walls I preferred Wasp-Sting, my short sword that was so deadly when you were being forced into the embrace of your enemy, but today I would begin with the longer, heavier blade. I hefted her, kissed her hilt, and waited for Cnut’s arrival.
Only he did not come to insult me, nor did any young men come forward to challenge us to single-combat.
Instead Cnut sent the swine-head.
Instead of insults and challenges there was a great roar of battle-shout from the mass of men assembled under the banners of Cnut and Sigurd, and then they advanced. They came down the road fast. The land was flat, there were no obstacles and they kept their tight formation. Their shields overlapped. We saw the painted symbols on the shields, the shattered crosses, ravens, hammers, axes and eagles. Above those broad round shields were helmets with face-guards so that the enemy seemed to be black-eyed, steel-clad, and in front of the shields were the heavy spears, their blades catching the day’s half-clouded light, and beneath the shields hundreds of feet trampled the ground in time to the heavy drums that had started to beat the war-rhythm behind the swine-head.
No insults, no challenges. Cnut knew he outnumbered me by so many that he could afford to divide his army. I glanced to my left and saw still more horsemen crossing the ditch far to the north. Some five or six hundred men were pounding towards us in the swine-head, and at least that many were now on our side of the river and ready to fall on our left flank. More men, those on slower horses, were still arriving, but Cnut must have known that his swine-head would do the necessary work. It thundered towards us and as it came closer I could see faces behind the cheek-pieces, I could see eager eyes and grim mouths, I could see Danes coming to kill us.
‘God is with us!’ Sihtric shouted. The two priests had been shriving men all morning, but now they retreated behind the shield wall and knelt in prayer, their clasped hands lifted to the sky.
‘Wait for my order!’ I called. My shield wall knew what they must do. We would advance into the ford as the swine-head reached the far bank. I planned to meet the charge almost halfway across the river and there I planned a slaughter before I died. ‘Wait!’ I shouted.
And I thought Cnut should have waited. He should have let his swine-head wait until the men to the north were ready to attack, but he was so confident. And why not? The swine-head outnumbered us and it should have shattered our shield wall and scattered my men and led to a slaughter by the river, and so he had not waited. He had sent the swine-head and it was almost at the far bank now.
‘Forward!’ I shouted, ‘and slowly!’
We went forward steadily, our shields overlapping, our weapons held hard. We were in four ranks. I was in the front and at the centre, and the point of the swine-head came straight at me like a boar’s tusk ready to rip through flesh and muscle and sinew and mail to shatter bone and spill guts and wreath the slow river water with Saxon blood.
‘Kill!’ a man shouted from the Danish ranks and they saw how few we were and knew they would overwhelm us and now they quickened, eager to slay, cheering as they came, their voices raw with threat, their shields still touching, their mouths grimaces of battle hate, and it was as if they raced to reach us in the certainty that their poets would sing of a great slaughter.
An excerpt or chapter from "THE PAGAN LORD" of Bernard Cornwell