Aquila, better known in Masonic parlance as the Roman Eagle, was considered in ancient times to be a symbol of strength, courage, and immortality. The signa militaria[i] of the Roman military under Gaius Marius (104 BC), the war standard was made of silver or bronze and served more as a holy war relic than mere militaristic emblem of the Roman Legions.
Wells, in his Masonic short talk of 1915, says of the eagle that as it was adopted by the Romans upon their banners it
…signified magnanimity and fortitude, or as in the ancient Sacred Writings, swiftness and courage.
In antiquity, the Romans were not the first to make use of the eagle as an emblem of war, as, Wells cites, the Persians, under Cyrus the Younger[ii], had borne the Eagle upon their spears as a standard.[iii]
In a more modern parlance France, Russia, Prussia, Germany, and the United States have each in turn adopted the Eagle, variously, as a National symbol of identity adorning the U.S. dollar, today, in a style reminiscent of its depiction on similar Roman coinage from when it was adopted into western material culture.
Albert Mackey in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry says of the eagle that it is a symbol of great antiquity calling into reference Egyptian, Greek, and Persia symbolism where the bird was sacred to the sun.
Among the Pagans it was an emblem of Jupiter, and with the Druids it was a symbol of their supreme god. In the Scriptures, a distinguished reference is in many instances made to the eagle; especially do we find Moses (Exodus xix, 4) representing Jehovah as saying, in allusion to the belief that this bird assists its feeble young in their flight by bearing them upon its own pinions, “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.” Not less elevated was the symbolism of the eagle among the Pagans. Thus, Cicero, speaking of the myth of Ganymede carried up to Jove on an eagle’s back, says that it teaches us that the truly wise, irradiated by the shining light of virtue, become more and more like God, until by wisdom they are borne aloft and soar to Him.
While Mackey goes deep into the meanings behind the eagle, the suggestion that the Masonic Apron is more noble than the Roman Eagle implies that its receipt is an honor, greater than being a member of the famed Roman Legion which may lend itself to some pull to particular military association with Masonry today. An interesting consideration of the Roman Legion was their early and then later composition.
In the early period of the empire, the legion was composed of levied soldiers who supplied their own equipment that would form as needed disbanding when not. Essentially, to serve meant you were a citizen of the empire. When the Rome army began to experience inadequate staffing because of income or property qualifications of its citizenry, Consul Gaius Marius removed the prequalifications of service (wealth and social class) allowing all free people of the empire eligible for the army. This change created the first volunteer professional standing army. That openness to everyone regardless of class of social standing is a parallel we find amongst the ranks of Freemasonry today.
Some suggest that the Roman Eagle was a European Trade Symbol coming from the Hanseatic League. A confederation of merchant guilds that stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period (c. 13th to 17th centuries), the Hanseatic league evolved to protect economic interests and diplomatic privileges along trade routes, cities and countries where its members did business. . One Masonic source says of the Hanseatic League that,
…its members had their Headquarters at Lubeck, and adopted the Arms of Lubeck which at this time was the Roman Eagle and appears on the Seal of the Hanse. They also called themselves Knights of the Holy Roman Empire.[iv]
The Leagues coat of arms is of a double headed eagle, rather than an Aquila eagle, so this connection to the Apron seems less legitimate other than its being a pre-enlightenment trade guild, similar to the guild of the Golden Fleece.[v][vi]
An interesting parallel in the Hanseatic League connection is the guilds factory rules which one could find Masonic parallels including:
- No man older than fifty years or younger than eighteen winters could be received.
- Anyone who committed what had been forbidden was to be cast out, and driven from the community.
- No one should have a woman within the burgh
- be absent from it for three nights
These rules helped the league work in foreign countries as they “… formed among the alien populations in which they were placed semi-monastic establishments”[vii]
Yet, in this double headed eagle, we can still find some parallels to draw with the Roman Eagle.
Mackey says of the emblem,
The Eagle Displayed, that is, with extended wings, as if in the act of dying, has always, from the majestic character of the bird, been deemed an emblem of imperial power. Marius, the consul, first consecrated the eagle, about eight years before the Christian era, to be the sole Roman standard at the head of every legion, and hence it became the standard of the Roman Empire ever afterward.
As the single-headed Eagle was thus adopted as the symbol of imperial power, the double-headed Eagle naturally became the representative of a double empire; and on the division of the Roman dominions into the eastern and western empire, which were afterward consolidated by the Carlovingian race into what was ever after called the Holy Roman Empire, the double-headed Eagle was assumed as the emblem of this double empire; one head looking, as it were, to the West, or Rome, and the other to the East, or Byzantium.
He goes on to enumerate the orders of knighthoods that adopted the double headed eagle including, The Prussian Order of the Black Eagle and the Order of the Red Eagle, both, Mackey says, are “outgrowths of the original symbol of the Roman Eagle.”
Of the double headed eagle, Mackey goes on to say that its adoption was probably first introduced as a symbol into Freemasonry in 1758. He says,
In that year the Body calling itself the Council of Emperors of the East and West was established in Paris. The double-headed eagle as likely to have been assumed by this Council in reference to the double Jurisdiction which it claimed, and which is represented so distinctly in its title.
Quoting from the transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, pages 214, volume xxiv, 1911, Mackey says of the adoption of the Scottish Rite usage,
The most ornamental, not to say the most ostentatious feature of the insignia of the Supreme Council, 33 , of the Ancient and Accepted (Scottish) Rite, is the double-headed eagle, surmounted by an imperial crown. This device seems to have been adopted some time after 1755 by the grade known as the Emperors of the East and West; a sufficiently pretentious title. This seems to have been its first appearance in connection with Freemasonry, but history of the high grades has been subjected to such distortion that it is difficult to accept unreservedly any assertion put forward regarding them. From this imperial grade, the double-headed eagle came to the “Sovereign Prince Masons” of the Rite of Perfection. The Rite of Perfection with its twenty-five Degrees was amplified in 1801, at Charleston, United States of America, into the Ancient and Accepted Rite of 33, with the double-headed eagle for its most distinctive emblem. When this emblem was first adopted by the high grades it had been in use as a symbol of power for 5000 years, or so. No heraldic bearing, no emblematic device anywhere today can boast such antiquity. It was in use a thousand years before the Exodus from Egypt, and more than 2000 years before the building of King Solomon’s Temple.
The quote, which is quite extensive, gives a sort of psudo-parrallel to antiquity linking the Scottish-Rite double headed eagle to the Babylonian era through a pair of terra cotta cylinders[viii] that depicts a proto-eagle in the form of a lion headed bird.
The long quote reads:
The story of our Eagle has been told by the eminent Assyriologist, M. Thureau Dangin, in the volume of Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie (1904). Among the most important discoveries for which we are indebted to the late M. de Sarzec, were two large terra cotta cylinders covered with many hundred lines of archaic cuneiform characters These cylinders were found in the brick mounds of Tello, which has been identified with certainty as the City of Lagash, the dominant center of Southern Babylonian ere Babylon had imposed its name and rule on the country.
The cylinders are now in the Louvre (see below) and have been deciphered by M. Thureau Dangin, who displays to our wondering eyes the emblem of power that was already centuries old when Babylon gave its name to Babylonia. The cylinder in question is foundation record deposited by one Gudea, Ruler of the City of Lagash, to mark the building of the temple, about the year 3000 B.C., as nearly as the date could be fixed. The foundation record was deposited just as our medals, coins and metallic plates are deposited today, when the corner stone is laid with Masonic honors. It must be born in mind that in this ease, the word cornerstone may be employed only in a conventional sense, for in Babylonia all edifices, temples, palaces, and towers alike, were built of brick. But the custom of laying foundation deposits was general, whatever the building material might be, and we shall presently see what functions are attributed, by another eminent scholar, to the foundation chamber of King Solomon’s Temple.
The contents of this inscription are of the utmost value to the oriental scholar, but may be briefly dismissed for our present purpose. Suffice it to say, that the King begins by reciting that a great drought had fallen upon the land. ” The waters of the Tigris,” he says, ” fell low and the store of provender ran short in this my city,” saying that he feared it was 3 visitation from the gods, to whom he determined to submit his evil ease and that of his people. The reader familiar with Babylonian methods that pervade the Books of the Captivity will not be surprised to learn that the King dreamed a dream, in which the will of the gods was revealed by direct personal intervention and interlocution. In the dream there came unto the King “a Divine Man, whose stature reached from earth to heaven, and whose head was crowned with the crown of a god, surmounted by the Storm Bird that extended its wings over Lagash, the land thereof.” This Storm Bird, no other than our double-headed eagle, was the totem as ethnologists and anthropologists are fain to call it, of the mighty Sumerian City of Lagash, and stood proudly forth the visible emblem of its power and domination. This double-headed eagle of Lagash is the oldest Royal Crest in the world.
As time rolled on, it passed from the Sumerians to the men of Akhad. From the men of Akhad to the Hittites, from the denizens of Asia Minor to the Seliukian Sultans, from whom it was brought by Crusaders to the Emperors of the East and West, whose successors today are the Hapsburgs and Romanoffs, as well as to the Masonic Emperors of the East and West, whose successors today are the Supreme Council, 33, that have inherited the insignia of the Site of Perfection.
“GudeaZylinder” by Ramessos – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Interesting in its attempt at drawing a parallel to antiquity, in a modern context, it is challenging to find the same level of depth to so abstract an emblem, especially one that is superior to the other. But, a final consideration to include would be a symbolic one, for which we turn to Cirlot, from his Dictionary of Symbols[ix].
In his work, he suggests the symbol of the eagle as a symbol of height “… of the Spirit, as the sun, and of the spiritual principals in general” suggesting it linked to the symbolism found in Egyptian hieroglyphics, where “the Eagle represents the letter A–the first—pertaining to the warmth of life, the origin, the day.”
Cirlot writes “…the eagle is also identified with the father figure” representing heroic nobility. And, in religious terms, In the Vedic tradition, the eagle as the Messenger or in other art forms as “the emblem of the Thunderbolt.”
According to St. Jerome the Eagle is the emblem of the Ascension and of prayer. Since it can fly higher than any other bird, it is regarded as an expression of Divine Majesty. It is said to dominate and destroy baser forces. Thus making it the symbol of Imperial power.
Truly, the Lambskin Apron is greater and more noble emblem of strength, courage and power than the imperial symbol of powers, Aquilla, the Roman Eagle.
[i] Signa Militaria
[ii] Cyrus the Younger
[iii] Citing Chambers Encyclopedia from 1864
[iv] The Roman Eagle
[v] Theoretical and Practical Positions of the Church
[vi] [image] Memorials of Old London by P. H. Ditchfield
[vii] Memorials of Old London Volume I, p225
[viii] Gudea cylinders
[ix] Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols eagle