By Sheila Cook Volunteer Guide

The Roman Standard

The Roman standard (signum) was a type of flag or banner, attached to a pole. It performed several essential functions within the army and created an important visual aspect. Standards were used by both legionary and auxiliary troops, such as those stationed at Vindolanda. Each legion had one eagle standard, and also adopted its own totemic animal to distinguish it from other legions.  Legions based in Britannia included the Legio II Adiutrix, with a Capricorn and a Pegasus, Legio VI Victrix, a bull, and Legio XX Valeria Victrix, a boar.

Within a legion cohorts and units had their own standards of various types. Each century would have its own standard with a signifer (standard bearer). The rectangular-shaped vexillum, made of red cloth, was used for auxiliary units, and may have been the one used at Vindolanda. The vexillum named the cohort, along with its unit number and other information relating to the unit’s titles.  Sometimes an image of a figure or an animal would be put in the centre of the standard, and a decorated finial was placed at the top of the pole. In 1971. a bronze finial was found buried under the floor of a house in the vicus at Vindolanda. This beautiful bronze artefact, which is in the shape of a horse with its right front leg raised, has become an emblem for the Vindolanda Trust, and a copy cast of it was gifted to Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Vindolanda in 1998.

The military standard represented not only the legion or cohort which carried it but the army and the citizens of Rome in general. For soldiers it was the ultimate disgrace to lose their standard or signifer in battle, bringing lasting dishonour to the whole unit. As an example, the annihilation of three legions in the Teutoburg forest caused the loss of several standards and led to decades of retaliation by the Romans.

Many aspects contributed to the central importance of the standard in military life, the first one being religious and spiritual. The Imperial historian and politician Tacitus says that the army venerated the standards as if they were gods. Tertullian, an early Christian writer and polemicist, who, according to Church tradition, was thought to be the son of a Roman centurion, expressed disgust at their veneration above all else, saying that the Roman soldier adored and deified his standard, preferring it to Jupiter himself (Ad Nationes 1.12). However, Nock believes that the standards were not equivalent to gods, and explains: ‘neither standards nor emperors were thought to hear your prayers, as were Jupiter (sic) or (…) even the little local Celtic and Germanic deities (…)  The standards were symbols, not divine entities.’

A second key aspect was that soldiers from all over the Empire were recruited as auxiliary troops. Troops stationed at Vindolanda over the centuries came from Belgium, Northern France, the Netherlands, and Northern Spain among other regions. The standards acted as a unifying symbol for these recruits, who came from different religious and cultural backgrounds.  Battle standards were not unique to the Roman army and would have already been familiar to many recruits. The way in which they were revered would, however, have seemed very alien to some troops, and would also have served as a constant reminder of their allegiance to their new life. The Roman standards were central to the regimental psyche, uniting the soldiers round a central cause, and embodied the distinctiveness of the military life and society to which the recruit now belonged. Haynes points out that:

 ‘These new stimuli did not necessarily compete to win […] allegiance away from the beliefs with which he was raised; they could complement them, but they inevitably changed […] perceptions of the gods and the world around him.’ 

Another essential function of the standards was identification and communication, especially in battle. Each legion or unit had a specific standard enabling it to be identified quickly and easily. The standard was also used in conjunction with trumpets and cornets as a means of communication in battle. Sounding of these instruments could be followed by visual signals using the standard, indicating what action the troops should take.

If troops, or part-troops known as vexillations, were on manoeuvres their standard would accompany them. We have first-hand evidence of this in the Vindolanda tablets: Masclus, a decurion of a cavalry detachment, writes to his prefect Flavius Cerialis, enquiring if all or only half of his men are to return with the standard to the crossroads. After asking for instructions, his letter continues with perhaps the main reason for this communication: ‘Farewell. My fellow-soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent.’ (Tab Vindol 628) Similarly, when we learn that a vexillation of 337 men, including two centurions, from the Vindolanda garrison of the First Cohort of Tungrians is at Corbridge, we can be sure that they would have been accompanied by their standards. (Tab Vindol 154).

When striking camp, the first thing the army did was to stake the pole of the standards into the ground. All Roman military camps were built to a similar pattern around this focal point. A central altar was set up in the middle of the rows of tents, flanked by the military standards. In more permanent forts, a central shrine or space for the insignia was found inside the principia or headquarters building. The principia was the nerve centre of the whole fort, and in 3rd and 4th century Vindolanda it consisted of an open courtyard, a well, and a cross hall where the whole garrison gathered to be addressed by their commanding officer on a podium at one end of the hall. At the side of the cross hall was a suite of rooms, including armouries and pay offices, with a shrine (sacellum or aedes) known as the Chapel of the Standards, in the centre. South of the aedes a was strongroom for the fort’s cash reserves. The Chapel of the Standards was the sacred and spiritual heart of the fort, and had soldiers guarding it round the clock, not least to make sure the fort’s cash stayed safe. Devotional practices to the standards were carried out here on a regular basis.

Rose festivals

As you will already know if you have been following our blogs about Roman festivals, there were a large number of occasions throughout the year, such as the Emperor’s birthday and Saturnalia, which were celebrated by the whole population, both military and civilian. However, there also existed some exclusively military festivals. Our most important source of information for these religious practices comes from the Feriale Duranum papyrus found in the Syrian desert.  This calendar, which probably dates from about 225-74 AD records the official religious ceremonies celebrated by an anonymous auxiliary regiment stationed at Doura-Europos. Any significant event in the life of the troops would normally be marked by the performance of some rite to the signa: for example, the anniversary of a legion’s formation was marked with garlanding of the eagle and other standards (coronatio signorum) with fresh flowers such as roses and violets.  Other occasions when the standards would be adorned with live flowers included lustrations (a ritual purification aimed at preserving and restoring order), the beginning of a campaign, victories, rituals in times of crisis, and Imperial holidays.

The Rosaliae signorum, when the military standards were adorned with roses, were celebrated by the Roman army on two dates in May as days of public prayer or supplicatio. The first of these dates was on May 10th, and the second one occurred on the last day of that month, with both festivals involving the whole military community. The army would seek the continuing favour of the gods with a procession, public prayers and offerings or sacrifices. Drawing upon what is known about Roman festivals in general, Hoey envisaged the proceedings as following:

‘There was held a parade of the troops forming the garrison. This would take place in the courtyard of the praetorium, or in the praetorium itself where the commander of the garrison probably harangued the soldiers. The signa would be (…)  grouped by the altar where the supplicatio was to be performed. On this occasion the festival was of such a kind that the main ceremony consisted in decking something with roses. What more natural choice than the signa? … And then what more natural name for the festival than rosaliae signorum?’ (Hoey, Rosaliae Signorum).

Two main interpretations have been proposed for this festival. The first relates to the cult of the dead. There is evidence from the 1st to 3rd century AD that points in the direction of soldiers commemorating dead comrades: flowers, especially roses, were used for this purpose so frequently that the graveside ceremonies were also called rosaliae.  

The rose of all flowers was particularly associated with spring and early summer, so it was only natural that it would play a significant part in the celebrations of the other numerous spring festivals at this season. It has also been suggested that the rosaliae were lustrations to mark the start of the year’s campaigning season. The second, more likely interpretation of the rosaliae, is therefore that a festival which welcomed the return of spring, possibly linked with other traditional festivals celebrating the resurrection of the earth.  (I can’t help thinking of the poor quartermaster if the weather was as unpredictable in Northumberland then as it is now. It would have caused a real headache for him to source sufficient roses to decorate the standards!)

In the civilian world rosaliae acquired the status of festivals for public celebration. The fact that a ceremony of this name exists in the military religious calendar shows that it was more than just a civilian carnival. The religious ceremony which took place was not directed at any particular god, but rather made the standards the focal point and the recipient of the cult act of worship. Once the official ceremonies were completed, these festivals would no doubt have provided an occasion for joyous banqueting, merrymaking and celebration.

Rosaliae is celebrated every May at the Roman Army Museum. 

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

Bibliography

Haynes I. P.   The Romanisation of Religion in the Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army from Augustus to Septimius Severus   Britannia, Volume 24, November 1993,

Hoey A.S.  Rosaliae Signorum    The Harvard Theological Review, January 1937

Nock D.   The Roman Army and the Roman Religious Year  The Harvard Theological Review

October 1952

Roman Inscriptions of Britain    https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/

Roman standard     https://www.ancient.eu/Roman_Standard/

Rosalia    Wikipedia