This cover image features the coats of arms for Egypt, Libya under the Gaddafi regime and finally Romania, all of which are former Roman territories which follow the same trend but didn’t come up in the post. I wrote this essay originally about 5 years ago when I was really stoned and thinking about history. So, you know, I’m posting it here for the intrigue value and because I think the general theme still applies but don’t take it too serious, okay?
I was just looking at the coats of arms of some of the great powers through European history and it’s undeniable; the desire to recapture the power and glory of the Roman Empire has dominated the Western identity. Everyone wants to be the successor, the “Third Rome” after Roma and Constantinople.
In the 800’s, With the coronation of Irene of Athens as Empress of the Byzantine Empire, the Catholic Church (believing a woman could not rule and therefore the title “Emperor of the Romans” was up for grabs) granted Charlemagne the title of Roman Emperor. This lead to the creation of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, a medieval spin-off of the Western half of its Ancient namesake. The HRE was ironically made up of territory that was largely never Roman in the original empire’s time. It was made up of the descendants of the Germanic people, who arguably did more than anyone to overrun the Empire in the first place. This was the Second Rome in the sense that it was a wholly new state carrying on the legacy of its original. Meanwhile Byzantium was the Second Rome in the sense that it was a great city which became the new de facto capital of the original empire after Roma itself lost significance. In any case, both had a double-headed eagle as their insignia, symbolizing the Empire’s control over secular and religious matters. It was an evolution of the Roman Aquila, the eagles atop the military standards of the old Roman legions.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the city of Muscovy (Moscow) would claim to be the successor state to the Byzantines and the “Third Rome.” The Schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, between the East and West halves of the Empire when both still existed, was now further exacerbated by these two entirely new countries claiming lineage to each respective half of the ancient Roman empire and its religion. The Western lineage was re-founded on the conquests of a great man (Charlemagne), like Caesar and Augustus before him. The East was re-founded on a great city, like the establishment of Constantinople itself so long ago. Now again I must stress, neither Germany nor Russia were ever part of the original Roman state in the first place.
The history of the European Middle Ages is in some ways the continuation of the Dominate (unapologetically autocratic rule), feudalism and Christianity–all concepts which began in the later period of the Empire and defined its culture for its final 2 centuries (12, counting the East). It’s the story of rich aristocrats and kings trying to conquer as much territory as possible, and claiming to have authority even over people’s religious affairs. With the renaissance and later Enlightenment eras, we see the resurgence of the poetry, pagan mysticism, art as well as the ideas of liberty and equality which defined the earlier Principate and old Republic.
Out of the Enlightenment ideals came the American and French Revolutions. America, with its Eagle Coat of Arms and the name “Senate,” for its legislature, was in many ways intended to carry on the tradition and glory of the old Roman republican model. America had a well-constructed Constitution to prevent or delay the fall into chaos and tyranny which plagued its predecessor. And France…the French Revolution is like Roman history in a microcosm; the overthrow of a King, the Republic that descends into conscriptions, and finally the creation and death of an Empire. And look at their own Imperial Coat of Arms–again, that iconic eagle, reminder of the eternal Roman legacy. A mocking gesture from a great power of the past, which the Western world seemed unable to overthrow or equal in greatness. Napoleon himself destroyed the archaic HRE. After its dissolution, the long tradition of German dualism (Prussia and Austria competing for control over the lesser German states) came to a head in the creation of the German Empire through Bismarck’s conquests. Look at all three of these states’ Coat of Arms.
All the Western world would clash in WWI, and all the old empires and dynasties claiming to be Rome’s successors–direct continuation or spiritual offshoots–would come crumbling down. The Romanov dynasty in Russia would perish, the German Empire and its Kaiser (derived from “Caesar”) would be defeated and the Ottoman Empire (whose leaders styled themselves Kayser-i Rum ie Caesar of Rome since the fall of Constantinople) would be totally destroyed. (The Ottomans didn’t use an eagle which kinda defeats the theme here, but they did also think of themselves as a Roman successor state.) World War I was in many ways a perfect inversion of Rome’s legacy: A) the Pax Romana descending into total war across the continent, B) the offensive superiority of the old legions descending into the defensive and futile trench warfare, C) the uniting of the Western world under one man had become a feud between various petty warlords each governing a small fraction of the ancient state’s territory.
Afterwards, Hitler and Mussolini would again turn to old Roman glory and iconography to legitimize their regimes and inspire their people. Notice, again, the eagles, as well as Hitler emphasizing Roman architecture and art. Notice also that Mussolini spoke openly of his state as the “Third Rome.” Meanwhile the new Bolshevik Russia was eager to strip itself of all imperial regalia and ideology, including the Eagle and identity of being the New Rome. But they still remained a successor state to an Empire that had also called itself the “Third Rome” for nearly 500 years by this point. They still had pseudo-imperialistic pursuits (global communism) and were a direct continuation of the old dynasty’s authoritarianism in many ways. You might see WWII then, as the Great War of the Eagles, and the war of Roman succession. The homeland of the original city, the third-generation Western successor state, second-generation Eastern successor state, and first-generation republican offshoot an ocean away came together to finally duke it out in the most terrible conflict in human history. The Eastern front, could be seen in many ways as the long awaited fight between the two Empires which had taken it upon themselves to uphold the Roman legacy.
By contrast, was Mussolini’s Italy really the Third Rome? They were comparatively weak and irrelevant, just as the history, lineage, and memory of Rome had grown far larger than the original city or Italian territory by this point. Roman identity, and the expectations of domination and greatness it inspired, were long since a plague on all the western world. The real deciding battles of the 20th century were between the children of the two European “Second Romes.” You might even say all of European history for the past ~1700 years (since the official split of the ancient empire into East vs West) had been building up to this incredible climax.
We all know how that story ends, with Europe once again sharply and formally divided among East and West (via the Iron Curtain) like in Rome’s last days and yet another Empire–this time the Soviets–collapsing through mismanagement and corruption just as the ancient state did. And just to make a mockery of us all and show how little we have learned, modern Germany and Russia continue to use those infernal eagles in their new insignia.
The bloody and contradictory nature of our Roman predecessors–between the idyllic romanticism of the republic/Principate as well as blatant subjugation and monotheism of the Dominate/Byzantine–has been so pounded into our culture that we may never escape. The arbitrary administrative decisions of a few emperors over a thousand and a half years ago continue to have far reaching consequences in a dramatic example of the butterfly effect. It’s a contradictory identity to be a Westerner; one of democratic freedom, personal ambition and the potential of individual men…yet also one of tyranny, conquest, and submission of others in the pursuit of military glory. It’s a vicious dichotomy which destroys us from within.
So what does this all mean? It’s a cyclical story. One and another country trying to eat the other in the name of being the best, the dream of uniting the known world under a single flag again as Rome had done. Yet paradoxically, all it has done is divide us all and cause destruction and competition among Europe–far from the Pax Romana.
I propose to you that this is not the story of Eagles, but in a sense the story of fish. Pisces, specifically, always circling the other in competition, always the cycle of rise and decline of empires mirroring Rome–but none coming anywhere close to its power or influence.
The imperialism, monotheism, cyclical hierarchy of the powers, it all must stop. And I sincerely hope it will someday, when the Aquarian Age comes. Perhaps the way forward is not to worship the Roman Aquila, but to heed the less admired Carthaginian and even Mongol vexilloids. With the latter, let us remember how fragile even a united Europe would’ve been to the golden horde had Ogedei not perished at that key moment, and completed his invasion. No matter how strong you are, there will always be someone stronger. Perhaps, had it not been the German tribes, we’d be learning of how the Mongols caused the fall of Rome–you cannot change the inevitable collapse of such a large and inefficient bureaucracy.
Let us look to the Carthaginian version of the Aquila (a sun and crescent moon, symbol of Ba’al Hammon) and learn from that instead. What I mean is, let us recognize the fleeting nature of the tides, the rising and setting of the sun…the inevitability that even the brightest stars collapse in on themselves given enough time. Observe the Sun and Moon and see there our future. It is not for us to struggle for dominance of Earth, but to explore the final frontier and study the heavens. We ought not to idolize the victor, but support and cherish the underdog, like Carthage itself, the ultimate historical underdog. True strength is not subjugation, but perhaps clemency and nurturing the downtrodden.
Interesting and well written study of an important symbol in heraldry and vexillogy. The only one you glaringly left out were the Eagles carried by Napoleon’s armies across Europe. I guess they were actually a revision of the old Roman Aquila . Still to capture an Eagle from Napoleon’s forces was a rare and highly esteemed accomplishment. There is an episode of the Sharp series about the quest to capture an eagle in honor of a brave fallen leader, Sharp’s Eagle is one of my favorite episodes of the series. Another interesting and well written piece. Good job as usual Cassandra.