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Byzantine Empire

Last modified: 2001-01-20 by ivan sache
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Byzantine Empireby Santiago Dotor

This is the flag of the Byzantine Empire, from a major source of information on the flags of the fourteenth century, the Conoscimento de todos los Reinos. This flag of the emperor of Constantinople consists of a combination of the [St.] George Cross (red on a white ground) with the arms of the ruling family of the Paleologues.
The four charges in the corners of each of the other two crosses can be seen either as fire steles, 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:

Paleologue motto

King of kings, ruling over kings

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

Santiago Dotor, 10 October 1998

See also:

The flag wrongly attributed to the Byzantine Empire

The "eagle" flag is sometimes indiscriminately used in Greece as a Byzantine flag, i.e. as if it were the flag of the Byzantine Empire which it is NOT.
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 twin-headed eagle is a well known later Byzantine symbol.

Yannis Natsinas, 22 July 1999

Considering the cross, with four B's, the Serbian cross is most certainly derived from this one.

Zeljko Heimer, 21 May 1996

Tentatively 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 A.D. 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 (A.D. 323)


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

[Byzantine naval ensign]by Ivan Sache

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

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

Norman Martin, 26 February 2000

Byzantine flag after A.D. 395

[Byzantine flag AD 395]by Ivan Sache

A red field with a white couped cross. Thin diagonal rays extend from the upper left and right corners of the cross. The Roman letter "P" is above the cross, in white.

Bruce Tindall, 20 May 1996

The "P" is in fact the Greek letter rho, which does look like a Roman "P." And I would guess that the "diagonal rays" are actually the Greek letter chi ("X"). The chi-rho symbol is an abbreviation for the name "Christ" (XPICTOC in Greek.)

Phil Cleary, 22 July 2000

[Byzantine flag]by Ivan Sache

A similar flag but with different colours is described in Helenic 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 (A.D. 963)

[Standard of Nikiforos Fokas]by Ivan Sache

Same as preceding, but blue instead of red.

Bruce Tindall, 20 May 1996

Standard of Constantine XI Paliologos (A.D. 1452)

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

Bruce Tindall, 20 May 1996

The double-headed eagle

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

Some background for it: Michael VIII Paliologos 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 4th Crusade) and theWest (newly reconquered land in Europe.)
The double-headed eagle had in the two centuries of Paliologan 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, 22 May 1996 and 27 January 1999

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