Some soldiers in the Roman army had the special job of being a standard bearer. A standard was a sign carried on a pole which stood for the legion, or a small part of the legion called a century, which was 80 men.
The standards were very important to the soldiers. They weren't just signs for the men to follow into battle, or to say which legion or century they were. They were sacred symbols, holy to the men. If the standard got lost they got very upset and thought they would have bad luck in battle. The century might even be disbanded!
Types of Standard
There were three main types of standard. Each legion had an eagle, or aquila, carried by an aquilifer. The picture right shows how the aquilifer of the tenth legion was the first man ashore when the Romans invaded Britain in 55BC. He would have given the men confidence in their attack.
The aquila was made of silver and gold in the time of Julius Caesar (who is on the ship in the picture). Later they were made entirely of gold (on a wooden pole). The eagle was often shown with a thunderbolt in its claws. It was carefully guarded and did not leave the camp unless the whole legion set out.
Below is a modern aquilifer reenactor with his eagle. He is wearing a lion skin headdress.
The three types of standard - left to right: a signum, aquila, and vexillum. These are based on carvings on Trajan's column (see photos to the right).
One type of standard, called an imago, showed the emperor. He was seen as more than human, almost a god. In some cases emperors were actually deified (made into gods) and worshipped after their death. There were religious holidays on their birthdays, the days they became emperor and the dates of their victories in battle. In time there were so many of these holidays that some had to be quietly dropped from the calendar.
There were many other standards, as
you can see from the pictures on this page. Each century (80 men) had its
own standard, called a signum. Signa had lots of symbols
attached to the pole. Many were discs with indented circles.
Carving on Trajan's column
Another type of standard was the
vexillum. This was a flag attached to the top of the
pole. One type had the name and number of the legion on it. Others were
used by detachments serving away from the legion. You can see a vexillum
in the photo below of Trajan's column.