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The double-headed eagle as a symbol in the Byzantine Empire: myths and realities

By Georgios Theotokis

In Byzantine heraldry and vexillology, the double-headed eagle (or double-eagle) is a charge associated with the concept of Empire – the heads represent the dual sovereignty of the emperor both in secular and religious matters and/or dominance over both East and West. After the Holy Cross, perhaps no other symbol has been associated more closely with the history and fate of the Byzantine Empire than the double-headed eagle motif, to the point that it has been ‘chiseled’ in modern imagination as being the ‘official flag’ of the empire up to its dying days in 1453. However, how accurate is this association, and how informative our sources are about this?

Symbols and insignia (Greek: σημεῖα) were various emblems with different symbolic significance for the audience that was used to express the social and political position of an individual or an institution. These emblems should not be confounded with heraldry, which provided a readily interpreted system of symbols to represent familial and individual identity, and came to connote aspects of privileged social status, patronage, and ownership. Moreover, the use of heraldic insignia as a symbolic representation of families did not develop in Byzantium to a great extend as in the West before the Fourth Crusade; the broad range of images (Christ, the Virgin, the Cross, various saints) found on seals are – in fact – personal rather than familial. Following the Byzantine restoration of 1261 one find any trace of heraldry in the empire. Yet, different symbols and insignia/emblems had a profound significance and influence in the public imagination in Byzantium throughout the history of the empire and – perhaps – the most well-known of them was the double-headed eagle.

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It is easy to imagine that the history of the double-headed eagle, as depicted in flags and labara, or carved in church walls and colonnades, or in castle and palace gates, can be traced back to the imperial Roman single-headed eagle. An aquila, or eagle, was the standard of a Roman legion. Fixed to the top of a spear or pole, and usually made of silver, or bronze, and with outstretched wings, the legionary aquila was probably of a relatively small size, since a standard-bearer (signifer) under Julius Caesar is said in circumstances of danger to have wrenched the eagle from its staff and concealed it in the folds of his girdle.

These “eagle-bearers” (Greek: ὀρνιθόβορας), were still attested in the 6th-century military manual known as the Strategikon of Maurice [Book XII. B. 7, 11, 17], and their duties, according to George Dennis, were probably those of an ‘aide-de-camp’ or orderly, and they were supposed to be unarmed. Eagle-topped scepters were also a frequent feature of consular diptychs, and they can be seen in coins too until the reign of the emperor Philippicus Bardanes (AD 711-13).

Yet, the double-headed eagle has been depicted in various cultures and periods since at least the 3rd millennium BC. That this motif appears on Hittite monuments in central Anatolia has been cited since their discovery by Charles Texier in the early 19th century, but modern historians have simply claimed that the monumental art of the Hittites was so impressive that it was copied by later peoples for their coats of arms. The Hittite walled city of Alaca Hüyük was important as a ceremonial center during to the 14th-13th centuries BC, and the double-headed eagle is prominently displayed on the eastern section of the Sphinx Gate grasping two prey animals, likely hares. Both sections of the Sphinx Gate display the double-headed eagle supporting figures, although the inside face of the western section has been worn down so that the image is not as visible.

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Photo by Ingeborg Simon / Wikimedia Commons

Recent research by Jesse D. Chariton has shown that the use of the double-headed eagle motif followed the westerly route from Mesopotamia to Anatolia sometime at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. That is because we have a Babylonian seal impression, probably from the third millennium BC, which displays a double-headed eagle over a king. Sumerian literature may also shed light on the origin of the double-headed eagle in Mesopotamia. Of particular interest are the Sumerian thunderbird Imdugud, and the morphology of its representations, and it is shown in some cases as a lion-headed bird grasping antelopes in its talons. Therefore, there is clear evidence that ancient Near Eastern cultures had used the double-headed eagle motif for millennia before Rome or the Crusades.

Imdugud – Eagle of Lagash – Wikimedia Commons

To return to the discussion about the use of this motif in Byzantium, in spite of the common belief that the two-headed eagle was used as the official flag of the Byzantine Empire, there is absolutely no shred of evidence to support that! The single- and double-headed eagles both appear from around the middle 12th century onward in the decoration of buildings built by members of the imperial family of the Komnenoi, such as the single-headed eagle from the Theotokos Kosmosoteira at Pherrai, western Thrace, commissioned by the sebastokrator Isaakios Komnenos in 1152. The double-headed eagle appears commonly throughout the Palaiologan period, as for example in a well-known plaque from the Metropolis of Mystras in the southeastern Peloponnese.

Photo by sailko / Wikimedia Commons

However, this motif was not used exclusively in Byzantium, and we can see the two-headed eagle appearing in mosques, fortresses, palaces and Anatolian Seljuk caravanserais as a magical (animistic) and protective symbol of strength. Mainly we see it in profusion during the reigns of the Grand Seljuk Sultans of Rûm Alaeddin Keykubad I (1219-1237), and his son and successor Gıyaseddin Kay Khusraw II (1237-1246). This usage declined sharply after the Battle of Köse Dağ in 1243, as many Seljuq traditions of pre-Islamic origin were abandoned, including the depiction of animals.

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A bicephalous bird ornament in a relief of the Divriği Great Mosque and Hospital, Sivas (13th century) – Wikimedia Commons

The Palaiologan emperors used the double-headed eagle as a symbol of the senior members of the imperial family. The emperor is always distinguished by his richly jeweled regalia, like in the famous Athonite chrysobull of 1374 where Alexius III of Trebizond wears purple and jewels, while his consort’s garment is decorated with double-headed eagles.


Alexios III of Trebizond and his wife Theodora Kantakouzene, wearing a robe with embroidered golden double-headed eagles – Wikimedia Commons

Occasionally a souppedion or cushion appears below the imperial feet, on which an eagle is represented, as in portraits of Michael VIII (reigned, 1261-82; with single-headed eagles) or Andronikos II (reigned, 1282-1328; with double-headed eagles). The only occasion the double-headed eagle appears on a flag is on the ship that bore Emperor John VIII Palaiologos to the Council of Florence, as mentioned by Sphrantzes and confirmed by its depiction in the Filarete Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. Furthermore, the eagle (gold on a red background) was also used by the semi-autonomous Despots of the Morea and by the Gattilusi of Lesbos, who were Palaiologan vassals and had been married into the Palaiologos family; the relief at the Castle of Mytilene that was under the Gattilusi from 1355 to 1462, portrays the family cypher of the Palaiologoi (left), the Byzantine double-headed eagle (centre) with the Gattilusi coat of arms on its breast, and the eagle of the Doria family.

Relief at the Castle of Mytilene, showing the family cypher of the Palaiologoi (left), the Byzantine double-headed eagle (centre) with the Gattilusi coat of arms on its breast, and the eagle of the Doria family (right) – photo by Tedmek / Wikimedia Commons

The presence of the double-headed eagle of the Palaiologos in the Greek Empire of Trebizond (1204-1461) and in the neighboring Greek principality of Théodoro, in southern Crimea (fell to the Ottomans in 1475), is little-known and, indeed, Western portolans of the 14th–15th centuries use the double-headed eagle (silver/golden on red/vermilion) as the symbol of Trebizond rather than Constantinople. Single-headed eagles are also attested in Trapezuntine coins.

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Other Balkan states followed the ‘Byzantine model’: chiefly the Serbians, but also the Bulgarians and Albania under George Kastrioti (better known as Skanderbeg), while after 1472 the eagle was adopted by Muscovy and then Russia. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople and Mount Athos, and the Greek Orthodox Churches in the diaspora under the Patriarchate also use a black double-headed eagle in a yellow field as their flag or emblem.

Yet to attribute the double-headed eagle motif to Byzantium is erroneous; first, this motif had a multi-cultural history of several millennia before the Byzantines through Rome inherited it; and second, there is absolutely no iconographical or literary evidence that would associate the use of this motif as the official device-flag of the Byzantine Empire. Yet, why this myth persists may be the biggest mystery!

Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of the Eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He has published numerous articles and books on the history of conflict and warfare in Europe and the Mediterranean in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. His latest book is Twenty Battles That Shaped Medieval Europe. He has taught in Turkish and Greek Universities; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Byzantine Studies Research Centre, Bosphorus University, Istanbul. 

Click here to read more from Georgios Theotokis

Top Image: Emblem of the Palaiologos dynasty – Wikimedia Commons

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