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Byzantine Empire

Last modified: 2013-11-24 by ivan sache
Keywords: byzantine empire | eagle: double-headed (black) | firesteel | cross (red) | cross (yellow) | letters: b (four) | palaiologos | komnenos | book of all kingdoms |
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The Byzantine Imperial flag

[Byzantine Imperial Flag]

Byzantine Imperial flag - Image by António Martins, 27 January 1999

The Byzantine Imperial flag is yellow with a black crowned double-headed eagle.
The double-headed eagle was the symbol of the Palaiologos, the last Greek-speaking "Roman" dynasty to rule from Constantinople. Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos recaptured Constantinople from the Crusaders in 1261, from a state based in Asia Minor; the double-headed eagle symbolized the dynasty's interests in both Asia and Europe, and was kept despite the fact that virtually all of the Asian possessions were gobbled up by the Ottomans within a generation of the recapture of the city. Michael's descendants stayed on the Byzantine throne until the city and the Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
The double-headed eagle had in the two centuries of Palaiologos 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

The Greek book I Istoria tis Ellinikis simaias (The History of the Hellenic Flag) mentions clearly the origin of the double-headed eagle. The first double-headed eagle flag was made by Emperor Komnenos. In the Emperor's region of birth (Cappadocia), a local superstition mentions a beast whose name was Hagka (pronounced "haga") and which was a gigantic eagle with two heads. Hagka would strike in the night stealing the livestock of the farmers and kill their owners.
Emperor Komnenos, bringing some sort of superstition with him, or maybe just to show a fierce ruling dynasty, as well as an eagle that would protect both the eastern and westeren borders of the Empire, addopted it for his Empire.
Flags were in use like today, but were banners. The banner with a porphyr red background and golden eagle was the war flag of the Empire, whereas the yellow-black was the Imperial flag used in peacetime.
In the beginning the eagle had no crown and her mouth, wings and claws were open, showing the eagle ready to attack. The eagle looked like that of today's Albanian flag. Later a sword (romfaia) and the Globe of Orthodoxy were added.
The Crowns were added by the Palaiologos dynasty, one crown for Nikaia (the original royal city of the Dynasty) and one for Constantinople (after its liberation from the Latins).

Kleonikos Tsakiris, 23 October 2005


Flag of the Byzantine Empire shown in the "Book of All Kingdoms" (14th century)

[Byzantine Empire 14th century]         [Byzantine Empire 14th century]

Flag of the "Empire of Constantinople"
Left, after the 2005 Spanish transcription of the "Book of All Kingdoms" - Image by Eugene Ipavec, 7 January 2010
Right, after Neubecker's rendition of the "Book of All Kingdoms" - Image by Santiago Dotor, 10 October 1998

The "Book of All Kingdoms" [f0fXX], of 1350, tells the voyages of an anonymous Castilian friar and is illustrated with 113 flag images, referred to (though seldom described) in the text.
The 95th flag mentioned and illustrated in the "Book of All Kingdoms" [f0fXX] is attributed to the "Empire of Constantinople", the Byzantine Empire).
The 2005 Spanish illustrated transcription of the "Book" [f0f05] shows a quartered flag, I and IV, white with a red cross, II and III, red with a yellow cross couped, with each of its quarters taken by a yellow chain link; the flag is shown in the ogival default shape of this source. The design of the II and III quarters is identical to four other Byzantine flags in this source.
The anonymous author of the "Book" describes the flag thusly: E el emperador de Costantinopla há por señales un pendón a cuarterones, los dos cuartos blancos con cruzes bermejas, e los otros dos cuarterones son bermejos con sendas cruzes de oro e con cuatro eslabones de oro d'esta manera (The Emperor of Constantinople has for device a flag quarterly, 1st and 4th argent a cross gules, 2nd and 3rd gules a cross or between four chain links or).
The depiction of the flag in the 2005 edition matches the one given in the Hakluyt Society edition (1912) [f0f12] of the "Book", which sources the same design to manuscript "S" [f0fXXs], while from manuscript "N" [f0fXXn] is shown instead a samnitic shield, thickly edged in black, quartered red and white with golden crosses fleury (?) on quarters I and IV and red such crosses on quarters II and III, the golden crosses added with two (not four) annulets (not links) each: on quarter I, on the II and IV cantons made by the cross, and on quarter IV, on the II and III cantons made by the cross.

Neubecker (Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning [neu77]) shows a square rendition of the flag from the "Book of All Kingdoms". He shows the yellow cross throughout and with a green fimbriation, while neither the 1912 nor 2005 transcriptions show such features. The 2005 transcription, however, shows the cross througout on the four other Byzantine flags.

According to Neubecker, the flag consists of a combination of the St. George Cross (red on a white field) with the arms of the ruling Palaiologos family (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 (King of Kings, ruling over Kings).

António Martins & Santiago Dotor, 18 December 2007

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 Palaiologos. It has nothing to do with four Β's (Greek or Serbian Cyrillic alphabet).

Zoran Nikolić, 14 July 2004


Other Byzantine flags shown in the "Book of All Kingdoms" (14th century)

[Byzantine flag]

Flag of "Salonica" / "Lodomago" / "Greece" / "Castelle" - Image by Eugene Ipavec, 21 December 2007

The 94th flag mentioned and illustrated in the "Book of All Kingdoms" [f0fXX] is attributed to "Salonica". In the same source, the 96th flag is attributed to "Lodomago", which the Hakluyt Society edition (1912) [f0f12] of the "Book" identifies as Recrea*; the 97th flag is attributed to "the real Greece and Empire of the Greeks" (la vera Grecia e el imperio de los griegos); and the 103rd flag is attributed to "Castelle, which the Hakluyt Society edition (1912) of the "Book" identifies as Sinop.

The 2005 Spanish illustrated transcription of the "Book" [f0f05] shows the same flag for the four places, a red flag with a yellow cross throughout, each of its quarters being taken by a yellow chain link (the bottom fly one round and the other squarish); the flag is shown in the ogival default shape of this source.
The anonymous author of the "Book" describes the flags thusly:
- "Salonica": E el rey d'esta Salonico há por señales un pendón bermejo con una cruz de oro e cuatro eslabones de oro d'esta manera (The King of Salonica has for his device a red flag with a yellow cross and four chain links);
- "Lodomago": E el rey dende há por señales un pendón bermejo con una cruz de oro e cuatro eslabones de oro d'esta manera (The King has for his device a red flag with a yellow cross and four chain links - Translation from the Hakluyt Society edition (1912) of the "Book");
- "Greece": E há por señales un pendón bermejo con una cruz de oro e cuatro eslabones de oro tales (And it has for device a red pendon with a golden cross with four golden chain links like these - Translation from the Hakluyt Society edition (1912) of the "Book");
- "Castelle": Sus señales son un pendón bermejo con una cruz de oro e cuatro eslabones de oro tales (Its device is a red flag with a golden cross between four chain links - Translation from the Hakluyt Society edition (1912) of the "Book").

António Martins, 17 December 2007

* It must have been the called Heraclea Perinthus, now Marmura Eregli, in Turkey. The November 1917 National Geographic article [gmc17] has excerpts showing that the author supposedly visited Recrea (Heraclea) while voyaging from Gallipoli to Constantinople : "Then I went along the seacoast to a city they call Recrea (Heraclea) and thence to the city of Constantinople..." (p.398).
Heraclea Perinthus fits that location precisely.

Ned Smith, 26 December 2007