Byzantine flags and insignia
For most of its history, the Byzantine Empire did not know or use heraldry in the West European sense. Various emblems (Greek: σημεία, sēmeia; sing. σημείον, sēmeion) were used in official occasions and for military purposes, such as banners or shields displaying various motifs such as the cross or the labarum. The use of the cross, and of images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and various saints is also attested on seals of officials, but these were personal rather than family emblems.
The single-headed Roman imperial eagle continued to be used in Byzantium, although far more rarely. Thus "eagle-bearers" (ὀρνιθόβορας), descendants of the aquilifers of the Roman legions, are still attested in the 6th century military manual known as the Strategikon of Maurice, although it is unknown whether the standards they carried bore any resemblance to the legionary aquilae. On coins, the eagle ceases to appear after the early 7th century, but it is still occasionally found on seals of officials and on stone reliefs. In the last centuries of the Empire it is recorded as being sewn on imperial garments, and shown in illuminated manuscripts as decorating the cushions (suppedia) on which the emperors stood.
The emblem mostly associated with the Byzantine Empire, however, is the double-headed eagle. It is not of Byzantine invention, but a traditional Anatolian motif dating to Hittite times, and the Byzantines themselves only used it in the last centuries of the Empire. The adoption of the double-headed eagle has sometimes been dated to the mid-11th century, when the Komnenoi supposedly adopted it from Hittite rock-carvings in their native Paphlagonia. This, however, is clearly erroneous: although as a decorative motif the double-headed eagle begins to appear in Byzantine art during the 11th century, it is not securely attested in connection with the Emperor and his family until well into the 13th century, under the Palaiologan emperors. Prior to that, in the late 12th and throughout the 13th century, the eagle was used in northern Syria and Upper Mesopotamia: the Artuqid sultans of Amida used it as their insigne, the coins of the Zengid dynasty sported it, and Saladin and the Seljuq sultan Kayqubad I likewise used it as a decorative motif in their buildings.
The Palaiologan emperors used the double-headed eagle as a symbol of the senior members of the imperial family. It was mostly used on clothes and other accoutrements, such as the boots of Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine emperor, recorded by George Sphrantzes. The only occasion it appears on a flag is on the ship that bore Emperor John VIII Palaiologos to the Council of Florence, as mentioned by Sphrantzes and confirmed by its depiction in the Filarete Doors of St. Peter's Basilica. Within the Byzantine world, the eagle (gold on red background) was also used by the semi-autonomous Despots of the Morea and by the Gattilusi of Lesbos, who were Palaiologan vassals. The double-headed eagle was used in the breakaway Empire of Trebizond as well, being attested imperial clothes but also on flags. Indeed, Western portolans of the 14th–15th centuries use the double-headed eagle (silver/golden on red/vermilion) as the symbol of Trebizond rather than Constantinople. Single-headed eagles are also attested in Trapezuntine coins, and a 1421 source depicts the Trapezuntine flag as yellow with a red single-headed eagle. Apparently, just as in the metropolitan Byzantine state, the use of both motifs continued side by side. Other Balkan states followed the Byzantine model as well: chiefly the Serbians, but also the Bulgarians and Albania under George Kastrioti (better known as Skanderbeg), while after 1472 the eagle was adopted by Muscovy and then Russia. In Western Europe, the Holy Roman Empire likewise adopted the double-headed eagle in the mid-13th century, under Frederick II Hohenstaufen, and used it side-by-side with the single-headed version.
The double-headed eagle with the Palaiologos family cipher
Michael VIII Palaiologos standing on a suppedion decorated with single-headed eagles
John VI Kantakouzenos standing on a suppedion decorated with gold-embroidered double-headed eagles
Manuel II Palaiologos with his family. The two younger sons wear red robes with gold double-headed eagles
During the Palaiologan period, the insigne of the reigning dynasty, and the closest thing to a Byzantine "national flag" (Soloviev), was the so-called "tetragrammic cross", a gold or silver cross with four letters beta "B" (often interpreted as firesteels) of the same colour in each corner.
As an insigne, the cross was already in frequent use in Byzantium since Late Antiquity. Since the 6th century, crosses with quartered letters are known, especially from coinage, forming the acronyms of various invocations, e.g. quartered "X"s for Σταυρὲ Χριστοῦ χάριν χριστιανούς χάριζε ("Cross of Christ bestow grace on the Christians") or the letters CΒΡΔ for Σταυρὲ σου βοήθει Ρωμανόν δεσπότην ("Thy Cross aid the Lord Romanos"). Images of flags with crosses quartered with golden discs survive from the 10th century, and a depiction of a flag almost identical to the Palaiologan design is known from the early 13th century.
The tetragrammic cross appears with great frequency in the 14th and 15th centuries: it appears on Byzantine coins during the joint rule of Andronikos II Palaiologos and his son Michael IX Palaiologos, on several Western portolans to designate Constantinople and other Byzantine cities, above one of the windows of the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, and is mentioned by the mid-14th century writer Pseudo-Kodinos as "the customary imperial banner [flamoulon]". On coins, the "B"s were often accompanied by circles or stars up to the end of the Empire, while Western sources sometimes depict the Byzantine flag as a simple gold cross on red, without the "B"s. The symbol was also adopted by Byzantine vassals, like the Gattilusi who ruled Lesbos after 1355, or the Latin lords of Rhodes Vignolo dei Vignoli and Foulques de Villaret. It was placed on the walls of Galata, apparently as a sign of the Byzantine emperor's—largely theoretical—suzerainty over the Genoese colony. Along with the double-headed eagle, the tetragrammic cross was also adopted as part of their family coat of arms by the cadet line of the Palaiologos dynasty ruling in Montferrat. It was also adopted in Serbia, with slight changes.
The interpretation of the emblem's symbolism hinges on the identification of the four devices either as letters or as firesteels, a dispute where even contemporary sources are inconsistent. Thus a late 15th-century French source explicitly refers to them as letters, but a mid-14th century Sevillan traveller and pseudo-Kodinos both call them firesteels (πυρέκβολα, pyrekvola, in Greek). Nevertheless, as Ph. Grierson points out, the use of letters by the Greeks as symbols was a long-established practice, and their identifications as firesteels probably reflects Western influence. The two traditional readings of the four "B"s, Βασιλεὺς βασιλέων βασιλεύων βασιλεύουσιν and Βασιλεὺς βασιλέων βασιλεύοντων βασιλεύει (both meaning "King of Kings ruling over the kings/rulers") were demonstrated by the Greek archaeologist and numismatist Ioannis Svoronos to be later interpretations by the 17th-century historian Marcus Vulson de la Colombière. Svoronos himself proposed three alternate readings: Σταυρὲ βασιλέως βασιλέων βασιλεῖ βοήθει ("Cross of the King of Kings aid the emperor"), Σταυρὲ βασιλέως βασιλέων βασιλευούσῃ βοήθει ("Cross of the King of Kings aid the ruling city [Constantinople]"), and Σταυρὲ βασιλέως βασιλέων βασιλεύων βασίλευε.
Personal and family insignia
Unlike the Western feudal lords, Byzantine aristocratic families did not, as far as is known, use specific symbols to designate themselves and their followers. Only from the 12th century onwards, when the Empire came in increased contact with Westerners because of the Crusades, did heraldry begin to be used among Byzantines. Even then however, the thematology was largely derived from the symbols employed in earlier ages, and its use was limited to the major families of the Empire. Far more common, both in seals and in decorations, was the use of cyphers or monograms (sing. συμπίλημα, sympilēma), with the letters of the owner's personal or family name arranged around a cross.
Another very Western design could be found on one of the now-demolished towers of the seaward walls of Constantinople, which had been restored by Andronikos II Palaiologos r. 1282–1328) and bore that emperor's emblem, a crowned lion rampant holding a sword. Another example of the influence of the east was the frequent use of the star and crescent moon symbol, which appears on coins, military insignia and, perhaps, as a sometime municipal emblem of the imperial city. The symbol was clearly of eastern origin, dating from at least the second millennium BCE in Moab and Sumer.
It is known that Anna Notaras, daughter of the last Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire Loukas Notaras, after the fall of Constantinople and her emigration to Italy, made a seal with her coat of arms which included Two Lions holding above the crescent a cross or a sword.
Military flags and insignia
The Late Roman army in the late 3rd century continued to use the insignia usual to the Roman legions: the eagle-tipped aquila, the square vexillum, and the imago (the bust of the emperor on a pole). In addition, the use of the draco, adopted from the Dacians, was widespread among cavalry and auxiliary units. Few of them seem to have survived beyond the 4th century, however. The aquila fell out of use with the breaking up of the old legions, the imago was abandoned with the adoption of Christianity, and only the vexillum and the draco are still occasionally attested in the 5th century and beyond. Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) inserted the Chi-Rho emblem in Roman military standards, resulting in the so-called labarum. In iconographical evidence, this commonly takes the form of the Chi-Rho embroidered on the field of a vexillum, but literary evidence suggests also its use as a symbol at the head of a staff. The labarum, although common in the 4th and 5th centuries, vanishes entirely in the 6th, and reappears only much later in altered form as part of the imperial regalia.
In the late 6th-century Stratēgikon attributed to Emperor Maurice, two kinds of military flags appear: the triangular pennon or phlamoulon (φλάμουλον, from Latin: flammula, "little flame"), and the larger bandon (βάνδον, from Latin and ultimately Germanic bandum). The pennons were used for decorative purposes on lances, but the Stratēgikon recommends removing them before battle. According to literary evidence, they were single or double-tailed, while later manuscript illuminations evidence triple-tailed phlamoula. The bandon was the main Byzantine battle standard from the 6th century on, and came even to give its name to the basic Byzantine army unit (bandon or tagma). Its origin and evolution are unknown. It may have resulted from modifications to the draco or the vexillum, but it appears in its final form in the Stratēgikon, composed of a square or rectangular field with streamers attached.
According to the Stratēgikon, the colours of the standard reflected a unit's hierarchical subordination: the banda of the regiments of the same brigade (moira, droungos) had a field of the same colour, distinguished by a distinctive device, and the regiments of the same division (meros or tourma) of the army had the same colour on their streamers. Each moira and meros also had their own flag, as well as the army's commanding general (stratēgos). These were on the same pattern but of larger size, and possibly with more streamers (the Stratēgikon depicts flags with two to eight streamers). Maurice further recommends that the flag of the centre meros, led by the deputy commander (hypostratēgos), should be more conspicuous than those of the other merē, and that the flag of the commanding general (or the emperor, if he was present) should be the most conspicuous of all. In addition, the Stratēgikon prescribes a separate standard for the baggage train (touldon) of each moira. The standards were not only used for distinguishing units, but also as rallying points and for conveying signals to the other formations. In the Byzantine navy, likewise, each ship had its own standard. As with their land counterparts, they were also used to convey signals. In the 10th century, the cross became a more prominent symbol, and was often used as a finial instead of a spear point. Under Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963–969) large crosses of gold and jewels were used as standards, perhaps carried on a pole or otherwise displayed on the flags. In addition, the use of pieces of the True Cross is often mentioned in military parades.
In the late Byzantine period, the writer Pseudo-Kodinos records the use of the Palaiologan "tetragrammic cross" (see above) on the imperial ensign (Greek: βασιλικόν φλάμουλον, basilikon phlamoulon) borne by Byzantine naval vessels, while the navy's commander, the megas doux, displayed an image of the emperor on horseback.
From the 6th century until the end of the empire, the Byzantines also used a number of other insignia. They are mostly recorded in ceremonial processions, most notably in the 10th-century De Ceremoniis, but they may have been carried in battle as well. When not used, they were kept in various churches throughout Constantinople. Among them were the imperial phlamoula of gold and gold-embroidered silk, and the insignia collectively known as "sceptres" (σκῆπτρα, skēptra), which were usually symbolical objects on top of a staff. A number of them, the so-called "Roman sceptres" (ῥωμαϊκὰ σκῆπτρα, rhōmaïka skēptra) resembled to old vexilla, featuring a hanging cloth (βῆλον, vēlon, from Latin velum). Further insignia of this type included the eutychia or ptychia (εὐτυχία or πτυχία), which probably bore some representation of Victory.
A further group, collectively known as skeuē (σκεύη), is mentioned in the De Ceremoniis, mostly old military standards handed down through the ages. They were the laboura (λάβουρα), probably a form of the labarum; the kampēdiktouria (καμπηδικτούρια), descendants of the batons of the late Roman drill-masters or campiductores; the signa (σίγνα, "insignia"); the drakontia (δρακόντια) and the banda. Thedrakontia are clearly the descendants of the old Roman draco, and the term draconarius for a standard bearer survived into the 10th century. It is not certain, however, what the later standards looked like. According to the description of Niketas Choniates, they still included the windsock that was the draco′s distinctive feature, but this may be a deliberate archaicism. At any rate, the use of the dragon as an image is attested well into the 14th century.
Kodinos also enumerates various banners and insignia used in imperial processions: one named archistratēgos (ἀρχιστράτηγος, "chief general"); another with images of renowned prelates and eight streamers known as oktapodion (ὀκταπόδιον, "octopus"); another in the form of a cross with the images of St. Demetrius, St. Procopius, St. Theodore Tiro and St. Theodore Stratelates; another depicting St. George on horseback; another in the shape of a dragon (δρακόνειον, drakoneion); and another with the emperor on horseback. A pair of each was carried in processions, while only a single example was taken along on campaign. These in turn were preceded by the dibellion (διβέλλιον), the emperor's personal ensign, whose name – most likely a mixed Greek-Latin compound meaning "double velum" – apparently describes a forked pennon, evidently of Western European origin.
Arms of Andronikos II Palaiologos, located in the now demolished sea walls of Constantinople, sketched by Mary Adelaide Walker in the 19th century.
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