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N.S. Gill

The Roman Eagle

By October 5, 2005

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A research question from the Ancient/Classical History forum:
    "Did the eagle stand for the Roman empire and if so, did its graphical representation instill fear and respect in the ordinary man on the street, like the Nazi eagle did in 1940s Germany? In other words, was the power of the empire invested in a symbol which was universally recognized as the imprimatur of the realm?
Do you have an answer? Please post in the Roman Eagle discussion thread.
Dando-Collins' Caesar's Legion


January 12, 2007 at 11:20 am
(1) pete says:

read the eagle of the ninth

January 12, 2007 at 12:00 pm
(2) NSGill says:

Thanks for posting. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain trilogy is definitely worth reading. I believe Irene Hahn will be hosting online book discussions of the series sometime this year.

August 7, 2009 at 12:44 pm
(3) Mike Tittensor says:

The Eagle was one of the standards adopted by the legions although the timing of their first usage is not certain. Other inspirations included the charging boar and later lions.

The legions used them as a battle focus and rallying point (see Caesar’s description of the invasion of Britain). They were the focus and the honour of the legion. In the modern age it is difficult to comprehend the importance of the battle standard to troops. The British army stopped carrying them in battle in the Nineteenth Century.

As to seeing them on the streets. WEll, apart from the occasional civil war, the only time troops were permitted inside the city was during celebratory triumph parades. Anything else was sacrilegious.

The Eagle was also the symbol of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and traditionally was portrayed carrying lighting bolts in its claws.

So, no, I don’t think there’s any evidence that the Roman battle standards would inspire fear in the common populace. The Roman army was initially drawn from the common people. The legionaries were citizens and rarely conscripts.

One of the clever things that Goebbels did was to take powerful historical imagery and twist it to suit the code of National Socialism.

One caveat. The Eagle of the Ninth, although an excellent story, is fiction. The Ninth Legion was never lost in Britain. After serving its time in Britain it was rotated out to Syria.

August 7, 2009 at 12:54 pm
(4) ancienthistory says:
June 10, 2011 at 3:11 pm
(5) Marc says:

I can’t say for sure if it instilled fear into the man in the street any more than a national flag today would. It most likely instilled fear and hatred in the enemies of Rome. It was definitely a powerful symbol of Rome.

The Nazis used classic symbols such as the swastika and eagle. Traditionally, the eagle was linked to the Sun, the most powerful high-flying bird for the most powerful and important star. The Nazis ruined the swastika for modern use but the eagle still remains politically correct, i.e., the American Eagle.

If you like Roman iconography, check out the Roman eagle pendant at Duncroft Masterworks.

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