“May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks.”*
A week or so ago while my DH and I were taking a brief stroll at our cottage, we heard a lot of unusual bird calls. Much to our surprise and delight, we discovered a group of about five (!) bald eagles soaring above us. When a large flock of crows tried to drive them off, aerial high-jinks ensued, and needless to say the eagles got the better of the engagement. A few days later, I came across my eagles on a local news site:
Now that’s something you don’t see every day! The whole experience got me thinking about eagles as symbols, which naturally brought to mind Roman legionary standards.
Sometime in the 1st century BC, probably when Marius reshuffled the army, the legions started carrying their famous eagle standards. For Romans, the eagle was the greatest symbols of pride and identity. To lose one to the enemy was worse than death, although it happened on several famous occasions. The first Roman Emperor, Augustus, won himself massive public approval by negotiating the return of standards taken by the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. The scene appears front and center on his famous statue from Prima Porta.
The two central figures on the breastplate show the handover clearly.
The Romans went to great lengths to recapture lost standards. They even managed to recover the three taken by the Germans in the Teutoburg forest during the famous massacre in 9 AD. A century later, a panel from Trajan’s Column depicted soldiers carrying the standards (with added battle honors) on campaign against the Dacians in what is now Romania.
And still later, they appear prominently in this scene from the Arch of Constantine, though that emperor is said to have replaced the eagle with a cross after he converted to Christianity.
Certainly, the Roman eagle and all it stood for inspired America’s founding fathers, who (after much debate) chose the eagle to symbolize American freedom and spirit. Everything from the presidential seal to the quarter has the eagle on it.
Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey (oh, the memes that could have been!), but there was no denying the majesty of the bald eagle. Add to that the Roman connection and you have a mighty cool national symbol.
If you are intrigued by Roman legionary standards, I recommend that you watch “The Eagle”, starring Channing Tatum as the son of a commander who lost both his life and his legion’s eagle in the desolate ‘heart of darkness’ that was Roman Britain.
It’s a good, old-fashioned adventure movie based on the novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.
Have a great weekend!
Incidentally, while it’s tornado season in flyover country, we’re seesawing from spring to winter. This week the temperature dropped 40 degrees in 24 hours (from 63 on Wednesday to 22 on Thursday). Today we have a high of 12 with an overnight low of -3, and by Tuesday it should be in the 50s again. Planning what to wear is a real challenge!
*J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit. Given how often he used them to save the day, Tolkien clearly thought eagles made the perfect deus ex machina.