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Imperial Standards, Palatine Hill, Rome Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
by Jarrett A. Lobell

Imperial Standards • Rome


The discovery of Roman imperial standards on Palatine hill was a first for classical archaeology.


Conservator Esmerelda Senatore fits a green glass sphere on a scepter that may have belonged to the emperor Maxentius. (Images: ©Pasquale Sorrentino)

It isn't often that classical archaeologists make a discovery that fills a gap in our knowledge of the Greco-Roman past. But the recent find of a poplar case containing a set of the ancient Roman signa imperii (imperial standards) and the scepter of a Roman emperor did just that.

Clementina Panella, an archaeologist from Rome's Univeristy La Sapienza, discovered the ancient box and its unprecedented contents while digging in an underground chamber on the northeast slope of the Palatine hill. Until the discovery, classical archaeologists, including myself (!), were only able to read about these objects in the ancient sources and see them on coins and sculptures. But Panella's discovery allows us to actually see the precious signa that functioned like regimental colors on the battlefield and as symbols of the emperor's power and authority off it.

Until last year no imperial signa and only five fragments of military signa had ever been found. We didn't know, for example, that the shafts of the javelins were decorated, or that the globes that sometimes sat on top of the shafts were colored. The incredibly well preserved gold and green glass and blue chalcedony globes were a complete surprise. The discovery invites us to envision a Roman emperor marching on to the battlefield or parading through Rome wielding these extraordinary emblems of empire.

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© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America