Object: Bronze Eagle

Bronze Eagle
Roman (?)
Unknown location
Unknown date
Materials: Bronze

This eagle is standing at 1.75 in. (4.4 cm) high with wings tuck to its sides. The body is 1 in. (2.5 cm) wide and including the tail is 2 in. (5.1 cm) long.  It has a hole that goes partway through it, beginning underneath the head. The hole indicates it was likely attached to something.  There are details of feathers on the head, breast, wings, and tail.  The head and wings are shiny in areas where the surface was worn or handled.

Eagles were an important Roman symbol.  They appear as companions of the god Jupiter (Zeus) in art and literature. In fact, Roman emperors adopted the eagle symbol when they appeared in art in the guise of Jupiter. Since eagles accompanied Jupiter, they were symbols of power, which the Roman emperors and the Roman army used to indicate victory and strength. The army carried Aquila, eagle-standards, as an emblem of the legion. Previously, wolves, Minotaurs, horses, and boars had also been used on standards. Marius’s reforms, named for Roman General Gaius Marius, at the end of the 2nd c. A.D. however, made the Aquilae the only animal used for standards. On standards the eagle is made of gold and is shown with outspread wings standing on a thunderbolt. The eagle was mounted on a long pole so it could be carried as a visible and imposing sign of the Roman army.

In war camps and fortresses the Aquila was prominently placed in the chapel within the headquarters building.  Soldiers venerated the Aquila as their divine protector (proprium legionis numen). The greatest disaster for a Roman legion was to have its Aquila stolen, which only happened when they were defeated by an enemy.  One infamous example of the loss of the eagle-standard was the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, when German groups decimated several legions and took the Aquilae.

Another fascinating example of how important eagles were in Roman iconography involves the story of the emperor Octavian (also known as Augustus) and his fiancée Livia. One story of an eagle says that while Livia was engaged to the emperor Octavian, an eagle dropped a white hen into her lap. The hen was unharmed and holding an olive twig in its mouth. Augurs, who divined the future from bird behavior, instructed her to care for the bird and its offspring and to plant the olive twig. From then on, the Emperor Augustus and his successors carried a branch from the olive tree that grew and wore the branch as a garland when they held a triumphal procession.


Works Cited

McKeown, J. C.

            2010 A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts                    from the World’s Greatest Empire. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Toynbee, J. M. C.

            1973 Animals in Roman Life and Art. New York: Cornell University Press.

[Chelsea Cinotto]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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