Vexillology Information, Part 3 of 4

(more about the study of flags and their significance)

More about the Origins of Flags

The Romans also appreciated other attributes of their symbols:

  • Like their language, legal system, coinage, weights and measures, roads, and water systems, the vexilloids of Rome were a means of substituting a political and cultural unity for the military strength which had originally created the empire.
  • Whenever they appeared, the ensigns of the legions were a visible sign of the power and majesty of the Roman state, they indicated that the protection of its laws and courts was available, that peace and order would reign as long as they remained in control.
  • "Few public spectacles were so lavishly conceived and executed as the Roman triumph, and the sight of the legionary Eagles on their standards, irrevocably implanted a belief in both the conqueror and vanquished that Rome had a divine mission, that it was invincible, and that it would remain forever. These impressions were reinforced by the sight of flags and regalia captured from other peoples which were always paraded in Rome."

    Flags Through the Ages and Across the World by Whitney Smith;
    McGraw-Hill Book Company; New York; 1975; page 38.
  • On the battlefield Roman standards were expected to play specific functions.
  • Sometimes a commander would give his troops an even greater reason to fight harder by ordering his legion's Eagles to be thrown into the ranks of the enemy, thus forcing his men to get them back.
  • The massing of the Roman troops with their glittering standards helped to create a sense of awe and fear in the enemy.
  • Signal flags were also employed to indicae tactical maneuvers, the position of troops, and the general progress of an engagement.
  • Other civilizations, contemporary and earlier, used the vexilloid form for their various purposes

  • The vexilloid form and the political, military, and religious functions characteristic of Roman flags are repeated in many other contemporary or earlier civilizations of Asia from the eastern end of the Mediterranean to the Pacific.
  • Standards with astral symbols of religious significance appeared in Indian and Mesopotamian cultures about four thousand year ago.
  • A sun and moon standard was recorded in Phoenician in the fifth century B.C.; in the same era Greek navies were known to have used a signal flag to mark the ship of an admiral or the command to attack.
  • Vexilloids from Iran dating to the fourth and third centuries B.C. include both a totemic animal at the top of the pole and a cloth flag (hanging from a cross-bar) that had distinctive emblems: eagles, falcons, suns, stars, and geometric designs apparently being the most common.
  • Records indicate that cloth was not the primary ingredient as a flag medium that it has held over the last thousand years.
  • Leather, wood, metal, and other materials were used quite frequently, leading to a diversity of flag shapes that have been lost.
  • Although the Bible says (Numbers II:2) “Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard with the ensign of his father’s house,” we do not know with certainty what these emblems looked like; however, we can still appreciate their social functions.
  • It seems that we owe the Chinese two characteristics of flags that are now universal: their lateral attachment to the staff and a focus on the cloth of a flag.
  • While vexilloids of diverse and imaginative shapes are seen in early Chinese manuscripts, the importance of a flag that could be light in weight, yet large; strong enough to last for a reasonable amount of time in outdoor usage; and capable of being dyed or painted to achieve symbolic variations were all of great significance for later flags.
  • While they were usually known for their military uses (signaling, indicating rank, and terrorizing the enemy) Chinese flags also appeared in temples and religious processions.

  • Silk Flags Spread from China to the Near East

  • It seems clear that multicolored flags in the Western world are basically an innovation introduced at the time of the Crusades and inspired by Arab use.
  • "Popular traditions of flag symbolism are not arbitrary; they are promoted and reinforced (if not actually invented) by governments, their rulers finding advantage in one interpretation over another."

    —Whitney Smith, Flags Through the Ages and Across the World
  • Arabs had vexilloids, including an eagle standard apparently based on the Roman model; yet, even before the rise of Islam in the early seventh century, they were displaying flags of white and black.
  • Although the Chinese tended to associate every color with philosophical and religious concepts, the Arabs seemed to have invented the technique of associating specific colors with dynasties and individual leaders.
  • Regardless of actual origin, the dynastic colors of the Arab flags were claims to legitimacy through association with the Prophet Muhammad.
  • More recently, a new interpretation has arisen among Arabs, based on the words of the poet Safi al-Din al-H’ily:
  • “White are our deeds, black our fields of battle; our pastures are green, but our swords are red with the blood of the enemy.”

  • So it is that in this present century the four traditional colors have been given equal recognition as “authentic”; religious sanction, Arab honor, and the promotion of common political goals apparently continue to be Islamic goals; as seen in their flags.
—Compiled from information located in
Flags Through the Ages and Across the World by Whitney Smith;
McGraw-Hill Book Company; New York; 1975; pages 36-56.

Here is more Information about the Origins of Flags and Vexilloids, Part 4 of 4.

Also see the vexillogical word entries about flags at this vexill- unit.