Use in the Roman army
The word vexillum is a diminutive of the Latin word, velum, meaning a sail, which confirms the historical evidence (from coins and sculpture) that vexilla were literally "little sails" i.e. flag-like standards. In the vexillum the cloth was draped from a horizontal crossbar suspended from the staff; this is unlike most modern flags in which the 'hoist' of the cloth is attached directly to the vertical staff. The bearer of a vexillum was known as a vexillarius or vexillifer.
Just as in the case of the regimental colors or flag of Early Modern Western regiments, the vexillum was a treasured symbol of the military unit that it represented and it was closely defended in combat. It was the main standard of some types of unit, especially cavalry; however, it was regarded as less important than a legion's aquila or eagle, and may have represented a sub-division of a legion, though this is not entirely clear from surviving sources (see vexillatio).
General and later use
The term "vexillum" (plural "vexilla") is used more generally for any object such as a relic or icon used as a standard in battle, & may be considered the offensive equivalent of the more defensive palladium in this context.
Nearly all of the present-day regions of Italy preserve the use of vexilla. Many Christian processional banners are in the vexillum form; usually these banners are termed labara (Greek: λάβαρον) after the standard adopted by the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine I which replaced the usual spearpoint with the "Chi-Rho" symbol ☧. For example vexillum is used by the Legion of Mary as the term for its standards. A small version is used on the altar and a larger one leads processions. In the Middle Ages the type of banner draped from a horizontal crossbar became known as a gonfalon.
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