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An aquilifer was a soldier signifer bearing the eagle standard of a Roman legion. The name derives from the type of standard, aquila meaning "eagle" (which was the universal type used since 106 BC), and fers, related to the Latin word for bringing or carrying. Before that time, the wolf, boar, bull and horse were also used. The eagle standard was the most important possession of the legion, and its loss was a terrible disgrace.
The aquila emblem generally had up-raised wings surrounded by a laurel wreath. It was mounted on a narrow trapezoidal base and mounted on a pole that was held aloft.
The aquilifer's position was accordingly one of enormous prestige, and he was ranked immediately below the centurions and above the optiones, receiving twice the pay of an ordinary legionary (Brunt 1950). Aquilifer carried a small circular shield called a parma that could be strapped on if his hands were already full (Allen 1908).
Aquilifers were very easily recognizable not only because of their standard but because they always wore a type of fur: as wolf fur was worn by the vexillarius and bear fur by the signifer, a lion fur was given to the aquilifers. The furs were worn as capes with the head of the animal strapped to the helmet of the bearer.
Examples of aquilifers in Commentarii de Bello Gallico
The idea that great disgrace would fall upon a legion should its eagle fall into enemy hands or the symbolism of its passage being barred by enemies places aquilifers in a key position—that of maintaining a legion's honor.
An aquilifer plays an important role in the landing of Roman soldiers in Britannia, as accounted by Julius Caesar. In De Bello Gallico IV.25, Britons put up stiff resistance against the Roman landing party, therefore the legionaries delay to avoid engaging with the enemy. To spur on the troops, the aquilifer shouts out, so that all the soldiers can hear him, that despite the common lack of initiative, he would have fulfilled his office for both Julius Caesar his general and for the public (pūblicae) thing (reī) (i.e. for the republic); he then immediately jumps from the ship and makes his way to the shore with the eagle so that others may be inspired to follow him. The text reads as such:
"'Desilite,' inquit, 'commilitiones, nisi vultis aquilam hostibus prodere; ego certe meum rei publicae atque imperatori officium praestitero.' Hoc cum voce magna dixisset, se ex navi proiecit atque in hostes aquilam ferre coepit" (Mueller and Julius Caesar 2013,[page needed].).
Unfortunately for the Romans, chaos ensues as soldiers from different divisions group themselves to the closest standard rather than their assigned one, disturbing battle formation greatly (Julius Caesar 1994–2000).
Few aquilifers are recorded individually in history. An exception to this is Lucius Petrosidius, who is mentioned by Caesar in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, his first hand account of the Gallic Wars. The Latin text says "Ex quibus Lucius Petrosidius aquilifer, cum magna multitudine hostium premeretur, aquilam intra vallum proiecit; ipse pro castris fortissime pugnans occiditur" (Julius Caesar 1914, V:37), which translates to "From which Lucius Petrosidius, an Eagle-bearer, although hard pressed by a great multitude, threw the eagle behind the wall. He was killed most bravely fighting for the camp" (Miller 1922, pp. 139–140; Gill 2018).
- List of Roman army unit types
- The Eagle (2011 film) – The protagonist seeks to retrieve the lost eagle of the 9th legion from the hands of Caledonian tribesmen.
- "Pay and Superannuation in the Roman Army," by P.A. Brunt; Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. 18, (1950), pp. 50–71.
- "The Advancement of Officers in the Roman Army," by George H. Allen; Supplementary Papers of the American School of Classical Studies in Rome, Vol. 2, (1908), pp. 1–25.
- Caesar: Selections from His Comentarii De Bello Gallico Mueller, by Hans-Friedrich Mueller and Julius Caesar. Edited by Donald E. Sprague and Bridget S. Dean. Mundelein, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers (2013).
- Commentarii de bello Gallico, by Gaius Julius Caesar. Edited by T. Rice Holmes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, (1914).
- The Gallic Wars, by Julius Caesar, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn. Internet Classics Archive by Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics (1994–2000.
- Directing Study: Educating for Mastery Through Creative Thinking, by Harry Lloyd Miller. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons (1922).
- “Caesar's Books, the Gallic Wars” by N. S. Gill. ThoughtCo.com (2018).