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The following was a 'crash course' written for a 'Hollywood Type' who was mounting a Roman Production. It's a good primer for the material and of course doesn't include any developments since it was written in 1996.
All of the illustrations contained herein were taken from THE ARMIES AND ENEMIES OF IMPERIAL ROME by Phil Barker. They were selected for their accuracy, and their suitability for electronic transmittal. Permission for commercial use must be obtained from that author.

Let me begin with a word about "flags". A flag is a specific type of standard made by attaching a decorated piece of cloth by its side to a vertical pole. American Civil War battle standards are flags. The U.S. flag is a "flag".

Recent archaeology has uncovered a Samnite mosaic with a 'flag-like standard' on it. But the Samnites weren't Roman. (They were a large tribe from southern Italy who almost absorbed Rome in 321 BC) And to me the 'flag-like standard' looks a lot like a dishrag tied to a stick. Some Roman standards did incorporate decorated cloth, but Romans didn't use "flags". Perhaps this is because they considered it an invention of the hated Samnites?

The best known of all Roman standards is the "eagle", consisting of a gold (later silver) eagle, on top of a flag pole, without the flag. Only the Roman Legions carried eagles, and each legion was only allowed to have one. They were religious as well as military symbols and incredibly important. The "Aquilifer" (Eagle Bearer) was an officer in the legion. He was also the legion's banker, on the theory that since he left the strong box in the presence of the eagle every night
any one who wanted to commit burglary would have to commit sacrilege too.

Figure #50 is the Aquilifer of the Legio XIV Gemina. (approx. 150-200 AD) He wears a short sleeve shirt that reaches his mid thigh. Over that he wears the "Lorica Hamata", a chain mail shirt much like the ones worn by the Vikings - except that it reaches farther down the thigh. Over that he wears a soft leather jerkin, which was probably dyed. The stripes at his shoulders and waist are "Pteruges" a protective/decorative device made from leather straps overlapping like roof shingles.

On funereal plaques (Roman headstones) all aquilifers of this period are depicted bare headed, not in the helmet plus animal skin hood worn by other standard bearers (see below). My personal opinion is that this merely reflects the artist's desire to show his subject's face; 1.) because equestrian statues of many emperors in full armor depict them bare headed, and 2.) because it would be nuts to go into something as dangerous as an ancient battle without a helmet. You'd get yourself killed, drop the eagle, the legion would take it as a bad omen and run for the hills!

Figure #50a is an average eagle of the period. The only difference being
it lacks the decorative wreath wrapped around the wings of #50. We may

therefore assume that the wreath is some kind of battle honor. Figure #50b is an eagle of the late Roman Republic. It is unusual in that the bird is portrayed full face rather than profile. The disks lower on the pole are probably another form of battle honor.

A lesser-known, but far more common standard of the Roman army was the "signum". Each legion was subdivided into 10 "cohorts" (the Roman version of a battalion) and there were 10 cohorts in a legion. Each cohort was divided into 6 "centuries", commanded by a "centurion". The centuries were grouped in pairs called a "manipulus", so 3 manipulus to a cohort. The junior, or rear, century carried a signum like that of figure #53. The senior, or front, century carried a signum like that of figure #52. Centuries were supposed to contain 100 men, but might have as few as 80. This means that a Roman cohort could have anywhere from 480 to 600 men, but it's commander probably considered himself lucky to have 500 men. "Manus" is the Latin word for "hand" so we may assume that a hand at the top of a pole is a "Manipular Signum" and a decorative spearpoint with wreath an "Ordinary Signum".

Figure #52 is a legionary "Signifer" (signum bearer). He wears the lorica hamata and a standard helmet with a bearskin hood tied over it. The aquilifer in figure #50 would wear the same kind of headgear into combat, but with a lionskin hood.

Compare figures 52 & 53. They are very similar, but #53 is not a legionarius, he is a signifer of an auxiliary cohort. This can be determined by the fact that his animal skin hood does not have a face on it. Auxiliaries started out as light infantry designed to screen the legions. Gradually they were issued obsolete legionary helmets and lorica hamata so that they eventually became faster-moving, rough-terrain legionarii. Auxiliaries were organized into centuries and cohorts, but their cohorts were not grouped into anything bigger. There was no such thing as an "Auxiliary Legion", although there could be just as many auxiliaries in a Roman field army as there were legionarii. When a Roman army is described as having 3 legions it doesn't mean that it has approximately 15,000 men (1 cohort of 500 X 10 cohorts X 3 Legions).

The army has around twice that many infantry, because it contains as many "auxilia" as legionarii. Then, if you add in the small number of cavalry usually attached to each an field army, your force of 3 legions finishes up much closer to 32,000 fighting men, without counting the slaves, servants and camp followers.

Note all the extra ribbons, disks, wreaths, etc. on the standards in figures 52 - 53. These are probably battle honors. Since every century in the Roman army would have a different history, every signum would look different. Compare the look of a signum with that of the eagles in figures 50a - 50c. There are few, if any, battle honors on the eagles. This is probably because the eagle stays next to the "Legate", the legion's commander, and he's usually safely at the back. A signum is up front with the centurions where the actual dying takes place.

A word about standards as communication devices. Every army in the ancient world, no matter how barbaric and disorganized, used its standards as a sort of primitive field radio. Even the Gauls knew that; 1.) the army standard is moving forward = everybody charge! and 2.) the army standard is moving back = everybody run away! The Romans were far more sophisticated than this.

As a hypothetical example let's say that Lawrence Olivier has been chasing Spartacus around Italy for the whole movie. In the climactic battle he lures Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and all their extras into a trap. But to make his plan work he must get his legions to encircle the rebel army. Olivier, in the back of the legion where he can't get hurt, leans down from his horse and says, 'Extend the right flank!' (Or something like that.) The legion's aquilifer picks up the eagle, waves it about in a recognizable pattern, and probably starts shouting, 'Extend the right flank.' Around him are drummers and horn players who start beating out a tune that might mean 'extend the right flank', or just 'incoming message look at the eagle'. Centurions throughout the legion look back over their shoulders and then start repeating, 'Extend the right flank'. Signifers, standing next to the centurions, begin imitating the aquilifer's motions with the signum and the musicians around them strike up the appropriate tune. Soon every legionnaire is close enough to the eagle or a signum to get the idea. They begin marching around the right flank, and poor Kirk Douglas is doomed.

This might also explain why there was so little cloth on Roman standards. If the Roman signals were as numerous, and complex, as we suspect then sheets of flapping cloth would only serve to confuse things.


Figures 56a - 56f show a series of nonmilitary standards. These were the sort of things that might be carried in religious or civic ceremonies and processions, although the Roman concept of religion was such that all ceremonies and processions were to some extent religious ones. These standards could be astrological, mythological, or portraits. Figures 56d - 56f are images of the reigning emperor. None of these standards have attached honors, because they are not the sort of thing taken into combat.

The closest thing the Romans had to a modern flag was the "Vexillum". It was made from painted or embroidered cloth suspended from a crossbar attached to a pole. To get a better idea look at figures 56g - 56l

When a vexillum was big enough and important enough to become a field army's standard it became a "Labarum." Figure #56j is the most famous of all labarum, that of the emperor Constantine I. It was very large, perhaps too big to be carried by cavalrymen.

Each troop of cavalry, a "turma", had a vexillum. Cavalry turma, 10 men, were grouped into "ala" (30 men), which may have had a vexillum or a signum. ALA were grouped into cavalry regiments (300 men) which must have carried a vexillum because a Roman cavalry regiment was called a "vexillum".

Under special circumstances legionarii might find themselves carrying a vexillum. When facing manpower shortages and in desperate situations the imperial administration would "borrow" a few cohorts from several different legions, lump them together, and send them off to fight the barbarians. Naturally an ad hoc army wouldn't be allowed to take any eagles with it, so each group from each legion would be issued a special vexillum. When the emergency was past the legionarii were supposed to return to their legions, but this didn't always happen. Frontier governors didn't want to give up extra troops. So these groups of several cohorts might become a sort of semi-permanent formation with a name describing their origin, "The Gallic-Illyrian Vexillum from the Danube Frontier" or some such nonsense.

We don't know why the Romans preferred a Vexillum over a flag, but we can hypothesize; 1.) The Romans were very conservative and didn't want to introduce the flag because it was a new idea. 2.) The crossbar held the vexillum in place so that it didn't flap around as much as a flag, and therefore interfered less with complex signals. 3.) The crossbar held the vexillum out flat, so that its image was always visible, unlike a draped flag.

Legionarii Costume
The following is a crash course on legionarii wardrobe. I have excluded information on auxiliaries, cavalry, allies, or barbarians and have described only the appearance of the fighting men of the legions.

Figure #1 is a late republican legionarius. This is what the guys who beat Hannibal dressed like. He wears a short sleeve shirt that comes to mid thigh. Over that he wears a "lorica hamata", or chain mail shirt. This is the same sort of protection that Vikings might wear, except it's longer in the waist. Over his shoulders is a second layer of chain mail to add extra protection from downward blows. He carries the "Pilum", a specially designed type of short range, heavy javelin. His helmet is bronze Montefortino style (copied from the Gauls). The large shield is made from layers of plywood and covered with painted leather.

Figure #2 is from just before the reign of Augustus, the first emperor. This is what a legionarius who invaded Gaul under Julius Caesar dressed like. The helmet design is the same, but it now covers more of the neck and cheeks. The shield has been shortened to make in more maneuverable. The stripes at his sleeves are "pteruges"; protective strips of leather that overlapped like roof shingles.

Figure #3 is from the early empire. The chaps massacred at the Teutoberger Wald looked like this. The helmet now covers even more of the neck and cheeks, and has evolved into the 'Imperial-Gallic' helmet. There are pteruges at the waist and more at the sleeves. The shield is smaller, lighter, and wraps around the body giving even more protection.

Figure #4 is from around 50 AD to 100 AD. He has the costume most familiar to film audiences. It is from SPARTACUS, CLEOPATRA, and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. He is a 'Hollywood Roman'. The pilum has received an added weight, just above the handgrip, to make it even more dangerous. The shield has been fine-tuned to perfection, and the helmet crest has been trimmed to a more manageable length. However the big change is the breastplate. This figure is no longer wearing the lorica hamata (chain mail shirt), but rather the "lorica segmentata" (segmented breastplate) made of iron bands linked together with leather straps and brass hinges.

Why the legions switched to the lorica segmentata is officially a mystery. It offers much better protection to vital areas of the torso, but covers less of the arms and legs than the lorica hamata. It was never issued to legions serving in the east, but the western legions all changed over early in the first century AD. My opinion is that the lorica segmentata is a response to the fighting style of the German barbarians in general and the disaster in the Teutoberger Wald in particular. German armies were ponderous, but determined. They would lumber up to you and then stand very close, beating you about the head and shoulders with swords and axes, refusing to go away. Think of a bunch (a very big bunch) of slow moving Vikings, not wearing any armor, grinding towards you like a big meat steamroller. The lorica segmentata was just the sort of thing to offer a bit more protection from the 'German' style of fighting. In the east, where people stayed at a respectable distance shooting arrows at you, it wasn't needed.
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