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Byzantine Empire

Last modified: 2006-03-04 by ivan sache
Keywords: byzantine empire | eagle: double-headed (black) | firesteel | cross (red) | cross (yellow) | letters: b (four) | paleologue |
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Flags attributed to the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire most probably had no flag, since when flags started being established the Empire fell to the Turks and ceased to exist, but if it had one it must have been similar to the one flown by the Autonomous Greek Orthodox Church (the Byzantine cross with the four B-shaped firesteels). However, many people here in Greece think of the eagle flag as the Byzantine flag, as the double-headed eagle is a well known later Byzantine symbol.

Yannis Natsinas, 22 July 1999

The original flag of the East Roman Emperors is the flag that contains the four B-shaped firesteels on the red background with the gold cross. The flag used by the Empire itself was the black double-headed eagle on a yellow background.

John Kakos, 28 December 2000

Flag shown in the Conoscimento de todos los Reinos (XIVth century)

[Flag in XIVth century]

Flag of Byzantine Empire, XIVth century - Image by Santiago Dotor, 10 October 1998

This is the flag of the Byzantine Empire, as shown by a major source of information on the flags of the XIVth century, the Conoscimento de todos los Reinos [lcr]. The flag consists of a combination of the St. George Cross (red on a white field) with the arms of the ruling family of the Paleologues (1258-1453).

The four charges in the corners of each of the other two crosses can be seen either as firesteels, as in the badges of the Order of the Golden Fleece, or as the Greek letter Β. In the latter case they form the initial letters of the Paleologues' motto:

Βασιλευς Βασιλεων Βασιλευων Βασιλευσιν,
that is,
King of Kings, ruling over Kings

Source: Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning by Ottfried Neubecker [neu77]

Santiago Dotor, 10 October 1998

The Byzantine cross

In the Orthodox Church, the cross that has been seen by Constantine the Great (270/288-337) is a very important symbol. Before the battle at Saxa Rubra (Milvian Bridge) he is said to have seen in the sky a very bright cross ("bright as many stars"). The message that he's been heard was: In hoc signo vinces. There is a difference between this cross of victory (Constantine won the battle) and the cross of crucifixion. In addition, it is also a representation of the bright cross they believe that will appear in the sky at the end of the World (Matthew 24:30).
There are several different ways to represent brightness of that cross. One of them is with diagonal rays, the second is with the Greek letters IS HS NI KA (Jesus Christ is victor). The third way is with four firesteels. The cross with four firesteels is an old Byzantine/Orthodox symbol and should not be connected to the Paleologues (the last ruling family). It has nothing to do with four Β (Greek or Serbian Cyrillic alphabet).

Zoran Nikolić, 14 July 2004

The Byzantine double-headed eagle

How similar did the Byzantine eagle look to the Russian double-headed eagle, the supposed descendant of the Paleologues eagle?

Some background for it: Michael VIII Paleologue adopted this symbol after he had reconquered Constantinople from the Crusaders in 1261. It represented looking towards the East (Asia Minor, traditional power center of the Byzantine-government in exile after the IVth Crusade) and the West (newly reconquered land in Europe).
The double-headed eagle had in the two centuries of Paleologue rule become identified not just with the dynasty but with the Empire itself and, more generally, with institutions and cultural ideas outside the Byzantine Empire that still remained centered on Constantinople.
Most obvious of these is the Greek Orthodox Church, centered in theory in Istanbul to this day, and so it is not surprising that the Church would use the flag.

Less obvious is the reason for its use by the Russians. In 1453 a flood of Byzantine churchmen and nobles fleeing the Ottomans ended up in Moscow, center of the last free major Orthodox polity. This more or less coincided with the adoption of the title of czar (Caesar, or Emperor) by the former Princes of Suzdal who had been ruling from Moscow and had united much of the Russian-speaking world. Moscow began to be referred to as "the Third Rome" (Constantinople being the second), and the Czars saw themselves as successors in the Orthodox world to the Byzantine emperors. Thus the adoption of the double-headed eagle by them.

Josh Fruhlinger, 27 January 1999

The double-headed eagle is much older than Paleologues and Christianity, but in that time it became the symbol of entire Empire. Different colors of eagle had different rank. Some authors said that the gold eagle was reserved for royal family. Silver represented the second rank (despots, sevastokrators - the highest feudal title). Black eagles were used during the war. There again, yellow (gold) was reserved for the Emperor, all other ranks and units had different colors.

Zoran Nikolić, 14 July 2004