In Rome, the standards were an important part of the army. The Roman Standards contained many symbols: an eagle, a god, the Emperor, a wolf, a Minotaur, a horse, a boar, a ram, and others. The eagle was the symbol of the Roman legion. The standard bearer was called the Signifer.
Standards for Roman Army
Roman Standards were one of the most striking visual aspects of the Roman army, tall poles topped with various insignia and symbols, including many types of animals. During the Empire, the image of the emperor was also added to many standards. The standards were not just for show; they served important practical functions as well.
Each century, cohort, and legion had its own standard; during battle and other activities, these were held by officers called standard bearers (general term signifier) who were marked out from other soldiers by the animal-head skins they wore on their heads, which can be clearly seen on this relief from Trajan’s column.
Symbols of Republican Legions
The honor of carrying these “Standards” was entrusted to veteran legionaries who generally were serving their extended enlistments after 20 years of service. In Republican times, several icons such as the Eagle, Wolf, Bear, Boar or 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.
The Roman Standards helped to keep the units together since the soldiers could see them above the action. Standards also helped to preserve the cohesiveness and pride of each unit, as they represented a concrete symbol of that unit’s achievements. They were also used in various religious rituals designed to promote unity.
Roman Standard Eagle
The most important standard in each legion was the legionary eagle (also visible in this relief), made of a precious metal (usually silver) and symbol of the power of Rome and the honor of the legion.
To lose the legionary eagle in battle was a terrible disgrace, and leaders like Augustus who succeeded in recovering captured legionary eagles capitalized on the propaganda value of the event. The eagle standard was carried by a special standard bearer (aquifer) who wore a lion-skin headdress.
Famous Roman Standards for of Aquila
The most famous “Standard” was the “Aquila” (Eagle), the symbol of a Legion, which was carried at the head of the Legion formation when on the march by the “Aquilifer” and was staunchly protected on and off the field of battle. A legion which lost its Aquila or had it fall in battle was disgraced. The Aquila emblem generally had up-raised wings surrounded by a laurel wreath. It was mounted on a narrow trapezoidal base, which had horizontal stylized unicorns and lightening bolts extending from the sides.
Roman Signum and Vexillum
For a Legion, the “Aquilifer” bore the Aquila-Eagle, while the “Imaginifer” carried the Imago of the Emperor. 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 maile armor instead of Segmentata plate armor and generally are depicted wearing the heads and hides of Wolves “Lupae”, Bears “Ursae”, and in the case of a legion, maybe a Lion “Leo”, over their helmets and armor.