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Emblems of Empire Volume 60 Number 3, May/June 2007
by Jarrett A. Lobell

Hidden for centuries, unique symbols of Roman power emerge from beneath the imperial city.


The top of a ceremonial lance found on the Palatine Hill in Rome (©Pasquale Sorrentino)

In a small trench on the northeast slope of the Palatine Hill, in an underground chamber once covered with thick ancient pavement, a team of archaeologists from Rome's University La Sapienza has made the discovery of a lifetime: a silk- and linen-wrapped poplar wood case covering three bronze pikes, a scepter, five javelins, and four spheres, three of glass and another of blue chalcedony, a type of quartz. "At first we thought the poles were the tops of an iron gate. When we found them we saw that they were in such good condition that they seemed modern, not ancient," says excavation director Clementini Panella. But what they actually uncovered are the first known examples of signa (standards), as well as an imperial scepter, among the most important symbols of power for the ancient Romans. "This is an exceptional find," says Panella, who has been working for several years in this area about 250 yards from the Colosseum. "These pikes, javelins, this scepter, and the spheres constitute an extraordinary treasure that every classical archaeologist hopes to find. Until yesterday we only were able to read about these objects and see them on coins, sculpture, and ivories. Today we have them in our hands."

Signa were wood or metal javelins and pikes, topped with, among other things, animal figures, the emperor's image, or a military unit's flag. For the Roman army, signa functioned as something akin to regimental colors, and it is impossible to overstate both their actual and symbolic importance. On the field they were used as a rallying point, to distinguish battle positions, for signaling, to boost a legion's spirit, as a reference point for troop positions, and for soldiers to recognize each other. The signa also played an important part in the military's religious festivals, and had their own shrines called sacella, where they were anointed in oil, draped in garlands, and accorded honors. With only slight exaggeration, the late-second-century or early-third-century Tertullian wrote that "The religious system of the Roman army is entirely devoted to the worship of the standards."

Jarrett A. Lobell is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America