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Byzantine Empire

Last modified: 2004-02-28 by ivan sache
Keywords: byzantine empire | eagle: double-headed (black) | firesteel | cross (red) | cross (yellow) | cross (blue) | cross (white) |
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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 Paleologue cross with the four "B"s). 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's" 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]by Santiago Dotor

This is the flag of the Byzantine Empire, from a major source of information on the flags of the XIVth century, the Conoscimento de todos los Reinos [lcr]. This 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 B. In the latter case they form the initial letters of the Paleologues' motto:

King of Kings, ruling over Kings

[Byzantine motto]

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

Santiago Dotor, 10 October 1998


The Byzantine double-headed eagle

How similar did this 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 theWest (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


Reconstituted Byzantine flags

Some "flags" of the Byzantine Empire are displayed in the Cretan Naval Museum in Hania (Chania). Crete was part of the Byzantine Empire from 395 until 1204.
The flags are square (or nearly-square rectangles), hung from flagpoles projecting at an angle from the museum wall, just like modern flags. I don't know how historically accurate that was - presumably not. The museum didn't depict any Roman-like standards along with them.

Bruce Tindall, 20 May 1996


Standard of Constantine the Great (323)

The flag has a white field with a blue couped cross. In each corner of the cross is the letter "B"; those to the left of the cross are backwards.

Bruce Tindall, 20 May 1996

Constantine the Great (270/288-337) was Roman Emperor from 306 to 337. He established Christianism as the official religion of the Empire and founded Constantinople, later the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, as the "Second Rome". Attributing to Constantine a flag with the arms of the Paleologues is probably an anachronism.

Ivan Sache, 25 October 2003

[Byzantine naval flag]by Ivan Sache

A similar flag, but forked, is described in Hellenic Flags [kok97], as:

"Another flag used by the navy in the same [Byzantine] period. Replica, Hellenic Maritime Museum."

Norman Martin, 26 February 2000


Byzantine flag after 395

[Byzantine red flag]by Ivan Sache

The flag was red with a white couped cross. Thin diagonal rays extend from the upper left and right corners of the cross. The Greek letter "P" (rho) is above the cross, in white.

Bruce Tindall, 20 May 1996

The "diagonal rays" are actually the Greek letter "X" ("chi"). The chi-rho symbol is an abbreviation for the name "Christ" (XPICTOC in Greek.)

Phil Cleary, 22 July 2000

[Byzantine yellow flag]by Ivan Sache

A similar flag but with different colours is described in Hellenic Flags [kok97], as:

"Military and naval flag at the time of Constantine the Great. The cross and the symbols of Christianity have replaced the Roman eagle. Replica, Hellenic Maritime Museum "

Norman Martin, 26 February 2000


Standard of Nikiforos Fokas (963-969)

[Fokas' standard]by Ivan Sache

The flag is like the preceding ones, but with a blue instead of red field.

Bruce Tindall, 20 May 1996

Nikiforos Fokas (912-969) was Emperor from 963 to 969. He conquered Cilicia, Cyprus and a part of Syria. He was murdered by Jean I Tzimiskes (925-976, Emperor from 969 to 976).


Standard of Constantine XI Paliologos (1449-1453)

A yellow field with a black double-headed eagle holding an orb and a sword.

Bruce Tindall, 20 May 1996

Constantine XI (1403-1453) was the last Byzantine Emperor (1449-1453). He was killed during the seizure of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II.

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