The Roman Eagle


Pliny calls the eagle the “most honorable (or honored) and strongest of all birds”, and Aelian remarks that it possesses the “keenest sight of all birds”, but the bird was not revered in antiquity solely out of admiration for its natural attributes, nor was it exclusively esteemed by the Romans.
Aristotle claims that the bird “flies high in order to see over the greatest area” and that “men call it divine among birds for this reason…”
To the ancients the eagle is thus divine, owing first to its closeness to the heavens as well as to the domineering and lordly manner with which Aristotle describes it looking over the earth.
It is easily seen then why the bird is heavily associated with the sky god Zeus/Jupiter, as well as the sky itself.
Indeed Greco-Roman poetry is rife with mentions of the connection, for example, Aeschylus describes eagles as “the winged hounds of Artemis’ Father”, and when speaking to Zeus, Priam calls the eagle, “the dearest of birds to you”.
These lines show that not only do the Greeks associate the bird with the god, but that the deity himself to some extent employs and favors the creature.
In fact, the eagle is so favored by Jupiter, that the sky god grants him preeminence among all the birds.
Pindar, in his odes, often grants to the eagle the epithets of “lord of the birds”, and “king of the birds”
This idea, the regal and divine status of the eagle, is not confined to Greek thought, however, and is transmitted into the Roman mythology
Horace explicitly states that, to the creature, “He, king of the gods, gave kingship over the far-ranging birds…”, indeed it seems difficult to find mention of an eagle without it being tied back to Zeus in much of Greco-Roman literature.
Ovid in his Metamorphoses reinforces this idea, taking it even a step further, for, in recounting Jupiter’s rape of Ganymede, he writes that “Jupiter found something he preferred to be rather than what he was.
But not just any bird would do, only the eagle…”, thus showing that the god actively identifies with the bird.
Jupiter then “cleft the air on his lying wings and stole away the Trojan boy, who even now… attends the cups of Jove”.
The god becomes an eagle, and thereby further associates the bird with himself.
But here is seen another facet of the raptor, its place not only as the creature of Jupiter, but also as a link between heaven and earth.
What is being displayed is thus the eagle’s (perhaps especially Roman) role in 'apotheosis', for “just as Jupiter is carried aloft by the eagle, so too is the deified emperor”, indeed, Herodian gives a description of the use of the bird during an imperial funeral ceremony: “…from the highest and topmost story an eagle is released, as if from a battlement, and soars up into the sky with the flame of the funeral pyre, taking the soul of the emperor from earth to heaven, the Romans believe”.
It is fitting to have the king of birds carry a king of men to its domain wherein the gods reside and subsequently the eagle acts as the conduit by which the emperor may be associated with the supernal and divine.
Cassius Dio confirms this practice of using an eagle to bear the emperor’s spirit to heaven.
So associated with supernatural forces and power was the eagle to the Romans that its body and image, according to their lore, actually possessed quasi-magical properties: a mixture of the brain or gall with Attic honey was a recipe for a cure for eye opacity – specifically for film on the eyes, dimness, and cataracts.
Aelian remarks that the mixture also enhanced visual acuity.
Thus by consuming the eagle one may gain its keenness of sight.
Additionally, Pliny reports the use of what he calls a “smaragdus” an amulet, or literally “emerald” that has been inscribed with the image of an eagle, which is supposed to assist the wearer when approaching a king as a suppliant as well as ward off hail and locusts.
Thus the eagle is seen to symbolize a great many powerful ideas and things, namely the sky, Zeus/Jupiter, and apotheosis.
As the symbol of the eagle is combined with that of the thunderbolt, the bird’s image takes on even more manifold meanings.


The thunderbolt or lightning bolt is one of the most prominent symbols of power and divine will in antiquity, being the chosen instrument of the king of the gods himself.
One of the earlier mentions of this is in Homer: “Zeus thundered terribly and let fly his white lightning-bolt… he hurled it to earth; and a terrible flame arose”.
This idea is continued in Roman thought as well.
For example when speaking of the Titans, Virgil remarks that they had been “cast down by a thunderbolt", the word used being fulmen.
He also uses periphrasis to describe the lightning a few lines down, calling it the flammas Iovis, which picks up its fiery nature that Homer mentions.
He then uses the word fulmen again, and finally, when speaking of how Jupiter “whirled/hurled” it, the word used is telum.
This solidifies the thunderbolt’s place as a missile in the hands of Jove, as the word is often used to mean “spear”, but this idea was not limited to epic, for it was so ingrained in the culture of the times that even philosophical and scientific prose includes traces of this mythological motif.
Seneca devotes a rather lengthy book of his 'Quaestiones Naturales' to the subject of “lightnings and thunders”.
In “De fulminibus et tonitribus”, the thunderbolt maintains its aforementioned status as weapon of divine fire.
He notes that in their classification of various types of lightning bolts, the Etruscans call them collectively 'manubrae' or “equipment”, and he himself defines a thunderbolt as “…a fire that has been compressed and hurled violently”, as well as being “…fiery or having the appearance of fire”
The word “hurled” here being “iactus”, which would be the same verb used to describe the throwing of spears, tela, which Virgil had used in place of fulmen.
The nature of lighting as being comprised of fire should be noted here.
In all, the lightning bolt was indeed very much viewed as a divine weapon which was aimed by the direct (and often destructive) will of the mighty Jupiter, and in fact Seneca states that, “the effects of lightning… leave no doubt that there is a subtle and divine power in it”.
Granted, Seneca did not likely think that an anthropomorphic entity was sitting in the clouds throwing lightning, but such a point is irrelevant to the validity of the ancient popularity of the idea of lightning as the magical armament of Jupiter.
Though he lists many phenomenal and fantastic feats that lightning performs, one of the most notable and peculiar is lightning’s effect on poison: “All the poison of venomous snakes and other animals in which there is death-dealing power is consumed when they are struck by lightning”.
Additionally, he claims that a body laden with poison is purged of it when struck by lightning, citing as evidence the fact that worms do not feed on a body killed by venom, but appear only after the corpse is struck by a thunderbolt.
This displays the conception that lightning is the ultimate supernal and celestial instrument, for it counters that which is lethal and chthonic (for snakes dwell within the earth), that which would cause one to be carried down to the underworld.
But perhaps even more fascinating is the seemingly dual nature of the thunderbolt, for “wine congealed by lightning either kills or causes insanity when drunk after it returns to its former state… there is a sickness-bearing power in lightning”.
Where in one scenario the divine fire purges venom of its lethality, in the next it acts almost as if it were poison itself.
Thus the thunderbolt has a dual nature of sorts.
Both these symbols, the eagle and the thunderbolt, take on more meanings when their prophetic significance is considered, therefore each will be discussed individually with respect to what they portend, after which they may be analyzed in conjunction with one another.


The eagle is the “bird of divination par excellence”, and it was seen as one of the few birds of omen in the ancient world.
The eagle portends the divine will of Jupiter himself, being favorable to the viewer if it is seen on the right, but ill if on the left.
More specifically, the bird as an omen usually signifies victory and triumph for one side or another in a conflict.
To ensure the success of his attempt to collect the body of his deceased son, King Priam asks Zeus to, “…send his most favorably ominous bird, his own swift bearer of omen… and let it fly by on the right… that he may go on to the ships… trusting in that mighty sign”.
 And so the “surest of winged omens” is dispatched, and the king makes it safely to the tent of Achilles.
More often, though, the eagle explicitly portends victory in battle, not just in any endeavor.
Earlier in the Iliad, Agamemnon implores Zeus for aid and receives a visit from “the most prophetic bird”.
When his army “saw the eagle that Zeus sent, their spirits rose and they counterattacked”.
The men are instilled with courage and zeal upon its arrival because the bird’s presence signifies the favor of Zeus, which ensures victory.
This status of the eagle is still employed in much later Greek thought and literature, for in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, a pair of eagles appear to the titular character and Menelaus “on the side of the spear-wielding hand”, which a prophet understands to signify the eventual “capture of the city of Priam”. 
But the idea of the eagle as a symbol of victory was not solely Greek, for Virgil writes that Juturna, “displays in the sky the strongest sign that ever dazed Italian minds… the golden eagle of Jupiter…” which made the, “…Italians eager to take up arms… confident in victory”.
The eagle is just as potent a portent of defeat in certain circumstances, however, such as when Zeus sends two eagles to the hall of Odysseus after Telemachus angrily asks his mother’s suitors to leave; the eagles, when over the assembled men, suddenly begin to fight in mid-air, tearing at each other with their talons and beaks.
A wise man named Halitherses then informs the suitors that a “great disaster is wheeling down on them”.
Much later, the bird again bids ill omen for the suitors of Penelope, as “an eagle… came from the heights and approached them all on the wrong side”
Again a man versed in omen remarks that, “clearly their plans for Telemachus’ killing will not go so well". 
So it is seen that the eagle does not only represent the heavens, but the very will of the heavens, and those that dwell there, and since the gods are indomitable, so too are any who have their favor, making the eagle just as much a symbol of victory as one of the sky, Jupiter, and apotheosis.


Lightning’s significance as a symbol is also deepened by its prophetic implications, and it is a particularly strong omen, perhaps even the strongest, if Seneca is correct.
Concerning the sources for the study of interpretation of thunderbolts, there are only three extensive treatments in Roman literature: Seneca the Younger’s, Pliny the Elder’s and Servius'.
All three authors’ classifications of lightning bolts could be generally reconciled to a reasonable schema, but more importantly that in almost all of the large number of passages of Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius examined for instances of portents, the thunderbolts present fell quite nicely into these categories.
But irrespective of classification, it is clear that thunderbolts were generally regarded as negative portents for of all the fulgural omens examined, only three were not purely negative.
Thus, there is no doubt that, like the eagle, “lightning foretold future events…” (Sen. QN. 2.32.1) and was a very recognizable symbol of divine will.
But it is not just any prodigy, for “whatever is foretold by lightning is unalterable and unchangeable by indication of another sign” (Sen. QN. 2.34.1), for its “power…supreme… annuls whatever other omens portend” (Sen. QN. 2.34.1).
A lightning strike is thus seen as the be all and end all in divination, which heightens its already large symbolic potency.
One might ask why this is the case; why this phenomenon above all others holds such a position – just as some might ask why the eagle is elevated to an analogous position among birds of omen (Sen. QN. 2.32.1).
It is because “lightning itself is part of fate” (Sen. QN. 2.34.4).
This is particularly interesting when taken with a later statement in which Seneca claims that to call Jupiter “Fate” will not be wrong (Sen. QN. 2.45.1).
If Jupiter is Fate, then his will is the will of Fate itself, making whatever is indicated by the actions he takes to hold the same importance.
While the exact and explicit views of Seneca may not be fully representative of the popular take on lightning strikes.
Fulgural divination did not differ much between authors, which seems to indicate a generally accepted system for the Romans.
An example of one of these many negative portents in which a lightning strike comes as a warning or an indication of impending doom is found in Suetonius: in Nero’s last year of power, the temple of the Caesars was struck by lightning, and the heads of all the statues subsequently fell off (Galb. 1).
Suetonius argues this was a clear indication of the fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (Galb. 1); it is as if Jupiter himself struck down the last of them with his divine fire.
But the idea of the thunderbolt as the destructive will of fate is not a Roman creation, but rather a very old Greek idea.
In his third 'Pythian', Pindar describes how Zeus blasted Asclepius and his newly revived patient with a thunderbolt for the former’s infraction of raising the latter from the dead, the god angry at this defiance of fate.
Henceforth, no one is able to be raised from the dead; it goes against the will of Jupiter.
It is clearly seen that whatever is linked to Zeus/Jupiter is also connected to fate and thus the sky God’s symbols are the surest indications of events to come.
The eagle and the thunderbolt, his bird and his weapon, are thus each powerful omens in their own right.
Now that their general symbolism and prophetic significance has allowed for a relatively full view of their iconic meanings, the two will be discussed together, especially with respect to the subtle dual nature of lightning as both venom-purging and venom-like.
to be continued