Aquila (Roman)

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.

No legionary eagles are known to have survived. However, a number of other Roman eagles, either symbolizing imperial rule or used as funeral emblems, have been discovered.[1]

Ornament with Eagle, 100-200 AD, Roman, gold - Cleveland Museum of Art - DSC08277
Roman ornament with an aquila (100–200 AD) from the Cleveland Museum of Art
Roman aquila
A modern reconstruction of an aquila


The signa militaria were the Roman military ensigns or standards.[2] 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.[3][4] After the devastating Roman defeat at the battle of Arausio against the Cimbri and Teutons the consul Gaius Marius undertook an extensive military reform in 104 BC in which 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.[5]

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,[6] elevated on a gilt staff, to which a cross-bar was adapted for the purpose,[7] and carried by the draconarius.[8]

Another figure used in the standards was a ball (orb), supposed to have been emblematic of the dominion of Rome over the world;[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] The name of the emperor, or of him who was acknowledged as emperor, was sometimes inscribed in the same situation.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16] 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.

Apoteosis de Claudio (Museo del Prado E-225) 01
Eagle and weapons from an Augustan-era funerary monument, probably that of Messalla (Prado, Madrid)

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,[17] referre to retreat, and convertere to face about; efferre, or castris vellere, to march out of the camp;[18] ad signa convenire, to re-assemble.[19] 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, in front of the standards of the legion and cohorts, were called antesignani.[20]

In military stratagems it was sometimes necessary to conceal the standards.[21] 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.[22] A wounded or dying standard-bearer delivered it, if possible, into the hands of his general,[23] from whom he had received it signis acceptis.[24]

Lost Aquilae

Arch of Constantine

South attic
South attic

Arch of Constantine showing carvings of Aquila

Ancient imagery

Return of the Roman military standards
Detail of the central breastplate relief on the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta shows the return of the Aquilae lost to the Parthians. The return of the eagles was one of Augustus's notable diplomatic achievements.
Lens - Inauguration du Louvre-Lens le 4 décembre 2012, la Galerie du Temps, n° 058
Relief showing aquilla from the Arch of Claudius.
Denarius Mark Anthony-32BC-legIII
Denarius minted by Mark Antony to pay his legions. On the reverse, the aquila of his Third legion.
Germanicus Dupondius 19 2010354
Coin showing Germanicus holding an Aquila
Caligola, emissione bronzea, 37-41 ca. adlocui
Coin of Emperor Caligula showing Aquilla at the left.
Aureus Septimius Severus-193-leg XIIII GMV

Aureus minted in 193 by Septimius Severus, to celebrate XIIII Gemina Martia Victrix, the legion that proclaimed him emperor

Sestertius Philip 247-lv lxiii

Sestertius minted in 248 by Philip the Arab to celebrate the province of Dacia and its legions, V Macedonica and XIII Gemina. Note the eagle and lion, symbols on the reverse, respectively of legio V and legio XIII.

Augusto, aureo con tempio di marte ultore
Roman Coin showing the Aquila in the Temple of Mars the Avenger in Rome.</center
Vexilloid of the Roman Empire

Reconstruction of aquila on Roman vexillum

Emblem of 20th Legion Roof tile, Deva Victrix (Chester, UK), The Grosvenor Museum (8394899150)
Emblem of the 20th Legion Roof Tile
072 Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traianssäule, Tafel LXXII
"The Reliefs of Trajan's Column by Conrad Cichorius. Plate number LXXII: Arrival of Roman troops (Scene XCVIII); The emperor sacrifices by the Danube (Scene XCIX); Trajan receives foreign embassies" {Aquilla at the upper left}
Detail from the Arch of Constantine


  1. ^ Roman eagle found by archaeologists in City of London
  2. ^ Yates, James, "Signa Militaria" in Smith, William, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875, pp. 1044-1046 (*/Signa_Militaria.html)
  3. ^ The ox is sometimes confusingly described as a Minotaur. See Festus, s.v. Minotaur.
  4. ^ Theodore Mommsen, History of Rome, vol. 3, p. 459.
  5. ^ Flor. iv.12
  6. ^ Sidon. Apoll. Carm. v.409
  7. ^ Themist. Orat. i. p1, xviii. p267, ed. Dindorf; Claudian, iv. Cons. Honor. 546; vi. Cons. Honor. 566
  8. ^ Veget. de Re Mil. ii.13; compare Tac. Ann. i.18
  9. ^ Isid. Orig. xviii.3
  10. ^ see Causeus de Sig. in Graevii Thes. vol. x p2529
  11. ^ Josephus, B.J. ii.9 §2; Suet. Tiber. 48, Calig. 14; Tac. Ann. i.39, 41, iv.62
  12. ^ Sueton. Vespas. 6
  13. ^ Suet. July 62
  14. ^ Veget. l.c.
  15. ^ Bartoli, Arc. Triumph.
  16. ^ Prudentius cont. Symm. i.466, 488; Niceph. H.E. vii.37
  17. ^ Caesar, B. G. i.25, ii.25
  18. ^ Virg. Georg. i.108
  19. ^ Caesar, B. G. vi.37
  20. ^ Caesar, B. C. i.43, 44, 56
  21. ^ Caesar, B. G. vii.45
  22. ^ Florus, i.11
  23. ^ Florus, iv.4
  24. ^ Tac. Ann. i.42
  25. ^ a b Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 29
  26. ^ Cassius Dio 47, 35–36
  27. ^ Cassius Dio, 54.11
  28. ^ Velleius Paterculus, Vell. II – 97
  29. ^ Tacitus Annales 1, 60
  30. ^ Tacitus, ann. 2,25
  31. ^ Cassius Dio 60,8,7
  32. ^ Tacite, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, 41.
  33. ^ Dion Cassius, Histoire romaine, livre LXVIII, 9, 3.
  34. ^ Peter Schäfer (2003) The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome Mohr Siebeck ISBN 3-16-148076-7 p 118
  35. ^ Cassius Dio LXXI.2
  36. ^ Duncan B Campbell, The fate of the Ninth: The curious disappearance of Legio VIIII Hispana", Ancient Warfare

Further reading

External links


Aquila is the Latin and Romance languages word for eagle. Specifically, it may refer to:

Aquila (constellation), the astronomical constellation, the Eagle

Aquila (genus), a genus of birds including some eagles

Aquila (name), a given name or surname

Aquila (Roman), a Roman military standard

Forum of Augustus

The Forum of Augustus (Italian: Foro di Augusto) is one of the Imperial forums of Rome, Italy, built by Augustus. It includes the Temple of Mars Ultor. The incomplete forum and its temple were inaugurated in 2 BC, 40 years after they were first vowed.

Julius Aquila

Julius Aquila can refer to more than one figure of classical history:

Gaius Julius Aquila, Roman knight of the mid 1st century, and also a Roman consul from the late 1st century

Julius Gallus Aquila, Roman jurist, who probably lived in the 2nd century CE


The Reichsadler ("Imperial Eagle") is the heraldic eagle, derived from the Roman eagle standard, used by the Holy Roman Emperors and in modern coats of arms of Germany, including those of the Second German Empire (1871–1918), the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and the Third Reich (Nazi Germany, 1933–1945).

The same design has remained in use by the Federal Republic of Germany since 1945, albeit under the name Bundesadler ("Federal Eagle").

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of L'Aquila

The Roman Catholic Metropolitan Archdiocese of L'Aquila (Latin: Archidioecesis Aquilanus) is an ecclesiastical territory or diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy. It was erected as the Diocese of L'Aquila on 20 February 1257 by Pope Alexander IV and promoted to an archdiocese by Pope Pius IX on 19 January 1876. Pope Paul VI elevated it to the rank of a metropolitan archdiocese on 15 August 1972, with the suffragan sees of Avezzano and Sulmona–Valva.

The archdiocese's mother church and the seat of its archbishop is L'Aquila Cathedral. L'Aquila also contains the Basilica of San Bernardino da Siena. The current Archbishop of L'Aquila is Giuseppe Petrocchi, since June 8, 2013, and Giovanni D'Ercole, F.D.P. was named auxiliary bishop of L'Aquila on 16 November 2009.

Turkish crescent

A Turkish crescent, (also cevgen (Tr.), Turkish jingle, Jingling Johnny, Schellenbaum (Ger.), chapeau chinois or pavillon chinois (Fr.), chaghana) is a percussion instrument traditionally used by military bands. In some contexts it also serves as a battle trophy or object of veneration.

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