Learning from Roman Army Re-Enactors

Condensed and adapted by Patrick Genna from www.legionxxiv.org/signum
Originally published in The Vexilloid Tabloid #33, April 2012

The website above, home to a Roman Army re-enactor group in Pennsylvania, has an extensive gallery of images of replica military equipment, including flags and vexilloids. The 24th Legion “defends the  Frontiers  of Ancient Rome in the Mid-Atlantic Province of North America”.

The word vexillum is for us a Western variation used to describe the modern flag, but it began with Rome.

The Century, Cohort, and Auxiliary units of a Roman Legion carried several different styles of Vexilla (banners), Signa, and other types of “Standards”.

Leg XXIV Vexillum Top
Leg XXIV Vexillum Top

These various standards were considered sacred objects representing the spirit and soul of the unit. They were decorated with garlands and sacred oils on special days and occasions.

The honor of carrying these “Standards” was entrusted to veteran legionaries who generally were serving their extended enlistments after 20 years of service.

The New Legion XXIV Vexillum banner of March 2003. 
The New Legion XXIV Vexillum banner of March 2003.

In Republican times, several icons such as the Eagle, Wolf, Bear, Boar, and Minotaur were carried as the symbols of Republican Legions. Consul Marius established the Eagle or Aquila as the sole symbol of a Roman Legion as part of his “reforms” of the Roman Military in 106 BC.

Commander Marsallas with a Bear (Ursus) pelt over his Gallic-C helmet.
Commander Marsallas with a Bear (Ursus) pelt over his Gallic-C helmet.

For a Legion, the Aquilifer bore the Aquila/Eagle. Each Century and Cohort unit would have a Signifer to carry its Signum and a Vexillarius to bear the unit’s Vexillum banner. These standard bearers wore mail (hamata) armor instead of segmentata plate armor and are generally depicted wearing the heads and hides of Wolves (Lupae), Bears (Ursae), and in the case of a legion, perhaps a Lion (Leo), over their helmets and armor. This may have demonstrated the dominance of Rome over the forces of nature.

The Signa of Legion XXIV (PA, left) and Legion XX (MD, right).
The Signa of Legion XXIV (PA, left) and Legion XX (MD, right).

In the Castra (fort) or other unit encampment, the standards of the Legion and its Units were housed in the Shrine or Treasury portion of the Principia (headquarters) building; where they were guarded day and night. The poles for the various standards would have a butt spike to allow them to be stuck in the ground and many had a handle or “grab” to extract them from the ground and to carry them more easily while on the march.

Hand grab
Hand grab

Each Imperial Legion would also have an Imago, carried on a staff at the head of the Legion by a Imaginifer.  The Imago was a three-dimensional metal portrait representation of the Emperor then in power, or the Emperor who had “raised” the Legion.

An Imago of Legion XXIV representing no particular emperor or deity,  constructed in 2006 by Joe & Thomas Perz, assigned to the Legion's Mid-West “Vexillation”. 
An Imago of Legion XXIV representing no particular emperor or deity, constructed in 2006 by Joe & Thomas Perz, assigned to the Legion’s Mid-West “Vexillation”.

Astrological images would sometimes be carried as well by the various Cohorts, Centuries, or Auxiliary units within the Legion.  These astrological icons such as a bull, ram, or goat were carried on a separate pole standard or were mounted on other standards such as the Signum. They generally represented the period of the Zodiac under which the unit had been formed.  Some icons could also refer back to tribal origins.

Legion XXIV’s Bull  Imago
Legion XXIV’s Bull  Imago

Draco Standards were adopted during the Late Empire, 250-400 AD, and were generally carried by cavalry units.  The hollow head, in the form of a toothed dragon or snake head, was formed from metal and when carried by a rider at a gallop, the wind passing through it would extend a cloth tube tail attached to the neck of the head.  The air stream passing through a Draco head carried “at speed” could create a hissing, whistling, or droning sound.  The Draco was carried by the Draconarius rider of a cavalry unit. Draco standards were also used in cavalry Gymnasia (games), such as the Hypakka where points were scored for strikes (by dummy javelins thrown by team of “Aggressor” riders) on the tailpiece of the Draco standards carried by the Draco team acting as “targets”.

Legion XXIV’s Draco Standard shows off in a stiff autumn breeze at the Historic Soldier Event in Burlington, New Jersey, October, 2007.
Legion XXIV’s Draco Standard shows off in a stiff autumn breeze at the Historic Soldier Event in Burlington, New Jersey, October, 2007.
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Author: SDM

Ethnography * Technology * Design

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