Having recently watched the movie The Eagle, I wanted to write an article on Roman Legionary Standards. The premise of The Eagle is that the ninth legion, stationed in Britain, ventured north of Hadrian’s Wall, was ambushed and defeated. In the process of the legion being mostly wiped out, the Roman Standard was taken from the legion. The son of the centurion who lost the standard seeks to redeem his family’s honor by recovering the standard his father lost. The main character, Marcus Aquila, ventures beyond the Wall and searches throughout northern Britannia for the lost Eagle Standard. Marcus goes to great lengths, putting his life on the line throughout the movie, but eventually recovers the standard. Although this story is fanciful, it is not entirely outside the realm of truth. The purpose of the movie is to show no matter how great the lengths, a true Roman would do almost anything to recover a lost standard.
It is important to understand what exactly the standard was and why it was so important. A Roman Standard was a staff with an animal that had great mythological importance attached atop it. After the military reforms of Gaius Marius, the standard would exclusively have an eagle sitting atop the staff. The Eagle standard was removable from the staff. This can be seen in The Eagle as Marcus Aquila only recovers the Eagle. Standards had multiple functions in battle. One function was to serve as a rallying point for Roman soldiers. Another was to serve as the symbol of the power of Rome. The standard symbolized many Roman virtues such as honor, ambition, and strength. Since the standard was the symbol of Roman honor, its loss meant not only the loss of the battle, but the loss out Roman dignity by way of the legions who fought the battle.
The loss of a standard would be considered catastrophic for Romans. It could be as devastating if not more devastating than the casualties sustained in battle. The late Republican army, early Imperial army believed in the notion of Imperium sine fine. This meant the empire without end. Roman armies from the Second Punic War on marched throughout the Mediterranean and into mainland Europe relatively unfettered. Although the were some strong enemies, eventually all were crushed. Therefore the standard embodied the unending advance of Rome wherever it was carried. Such conquests bred an air of invincibility among the people and armies of Rome. Thus the loss of a standard went completely against the notion of Imperium sine fine, and meant that people could call into question Roman invincibility. This could not be tolerated. Being superior was central for what it meant to be Roman. The superiority of Rome made citizens happy to be Romans, and outsiders envious of Romans. Therefore if the standard was lost, Roman superiority was lost, and faith in the Roman system was lost.
The battle of Carrhae and its aftermath embodies the Roman obsession with Legionary Standards. During the battle of Carrhae, the wealthy member of the Triumvirate Crassus was defeated by a Parthian army. Seven Roman Legions were sent into disarray. As a result the Parthians captured seven Roman Standards. This humiliated Rome. The name of Crassus became synonymous with Roman shame. It became the goal of Julius Caesar and later Marc Antony to recover the lost standards. Marc Antony in 37 BC marched with an estimated 100,000 Roman and allied troops into Parthia for the sole purpose of recovering the lost standards of Carrhae. Antony found himself entrenched in a prolonged quagmire against the Parthians and had to turn back. Although Antony’s foray against Parthia did not end until 30 BC, the official end of the war was in 20 BC. In 20 BC the sole ruler of Rome, Augustus, was able to negotiate, not recapture through battle, the return of the seven lost Standards from the Parthians. The honor associated with returning the standards was so great that it was treated as if the Romans had won a war to regain them.
Standards proved to be very symbolic for the Roman people. The standard was the symbol of an unending empire. Standard symbolized the Roman notion of being the self-designated leaders of the world. The ambition to be great was a common thread throughout the long history of Rome. This ambition was rooted in the strong sense of honor Romans had about being Roman. Thus although it may seem frivolous today to worship such an object, to Romans, honor was everything. Thus there was no sacrifice that was too high pay to protect the symbolic honor of Rome, the standards.