The Aquila is one of the most recognizable Roman symbols. Coming from the Latin word aquila or “eagle”, the Imperial Aquila symbol is the famous perched eagle with wide-spread wings, typically used as the military standard or banner of the Roman legions.
The symbol has several variations based on its representation. Sometimes its wings are lifted high, pointing to the sky, other times they are curved. Sometimes the eagle is shown in a protective pose, guarding something below it with its wings. Nevertheless, the Aquila is always an eagle with outstretched wings.
The symbol is so notorious that it has even outlived the Roman empire. To this day it’s used as the emblem of various countries and cultures like Germany which view themselves as descendants of the Roman empire. That’s not just because eagles are such an appealing symbol visually, however, nor is it only because some countries want to be associated with ancient Rome. A large part of it also lies in the power of the Aquila symbol itself.
The Aquila legionnaire banner was much more than just a military standard. It’s well documented that the Aquila was raised to a quasi-religious status in the eyes of the Roman military. The practice of keeping an army’s soldiers faithful to a banner is certainly not something unique to the Roman legions, of course, but they arguably did it better than anyone else in history.
To lose an Aquila standard was exceptionally rare and grave, and the Roman military used to go to great lengths to retrieve a lost Aquila banner. Probably the most famous example is the devastating loss at the Teutoburg Forrest in the year 9 AD where three Roman legions were wiped out and their respective Aquilas – lost. The Romans were said to have spent decades periodically searching through the region for the lost banners. Ironically, none of the dozens of original Aquilas have survived – they were all lost at one point in history or another.
The aquilifier or “eagle-bearer” was the legionary tasked with carrying the Aquila. That was one of the greatest honors a soldier could receive other than being promoted in rank. Aquilifiers were always veterans with at least 20 years of service and were also highly skilled soldiers as they had to not only carry the Imperial Aquila but protect it with their lives as well.
The Aquila and Rome’s Other Military Symbols
The Aquila wasn’t the only type of military banner in the Roman legions, of course, but it was the most valued and used one during the height of both the Roman republic and empire. It was a part of the Roman army almost from its very inception.
The very first Roman standards or ensigns were simple handfuls or manipulus of straws, hay or fern, fixed atop poles or spears. Soon after that, however, with the expansion of Rome, their military replaced these with the figures of five different animals –
- A Wolf
- A Boar
- An Ox or a Minotaur
- A Horse
- An Eagle
All five of these standards were regarded equally for quite some time until the major military reform of consul Gaius Marius in 106 BCE when all four of them except the Aquila were removed from military use entirely. From then on, the Aquila remained the single most prized military symbol in the Roman legions.
Even after Gaius Marius’ reforms, other military symbols or Vexilla (banners) were still used, of course. The draco was the standard flag of an imperial cohort carried by its draconarius, for example. There was also the Roman Emperor’s Imago symbol, or his “image”, carried by the Imaginifier, a veteran soldier like the aquilifier. Each Roman century would also have their own signifier to carry.
All these symbols were meant to help the Roman soldiers organize better and quicker both before and during a battle. That’s the common purpose of a military banner in any army, after all. But none of them holds a meaning as special as that the Aquila held for all Roman legionnaires.
The Aquila remains one of Rome’s most recognizable symbols and an important link to its past. Even today, Aquila’s continue to be representation of Roman heritage and history.