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Ancient Greece

Last modified: 2014-08-02 by ivan sache
Keywords: episema | semeia | foinikis |
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Episema, semeia and foinikis

In ancient times there where no flags; only the Scythians carried flags in war, similar with the ones we use today: "Scythian Signs, which they hold in war, cloths adorned with color, on which design of snakes are pictured, and which are hung from high poles" (exact wording from Suidae Lexikon, Byzantium, 2nd half of Xth century.

The Ancient Greeks in place of flags had shields bearing distinct and symbolic signs, which they called επισημα (episema), and through which they recognized their fellow-soldiers in battle. These signs were in the center of the shield, for example various symbolic figures (anchor, Herodotus (-) 74, Sphinx, etc.) and depictions of Gods, or words deemed appropriate to heroes (boastings, threats, etc.).

A very ancient example we have is the drama Seven upon Thebes (verse 641) of the tragic poet Aeschylus, which mentions:

Now for him whose name quarrel says
quickly we will know what end is meant to meet
the emblems and if they will bring him as King in Thebes
the golden letters which on his shield
along with his soul's great rage are deranging.

On their shields, like today in front of the flag, they gave their military oath, and that oath-giving was a sacred ceremony; such an oath was also the famous η ταν η επι τας (Come back with the shield, or on the shield [dead]). And the leaders' shields were works of art. The man who abandoned his shield ριπσασπις (ripsaspis), was disesteemed by all; and the greatest dishonor was a shield fallen into the hands of the enemy.

The episema of the shields were generally the symbols of a clan or a city, like, for example, the letter Λ or the Dioscouroi (Castor and Polydeuces) for the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), Hercules' bat for the Boeotians and Arcadians, the Eagle for the Epirotes and the Macedonians, the letter M for the Messinians, the trident for the Mantineians, the Sphinx for the Thebans, the Pegasus for the Corinthians, the owl for the Athenians (symbol of their goddess-protector, Athena), the crescent with a star before it for the Byzantines (symbol of Byzantium's goddess-protector, Artemis), etc.

Although on land shields with their episema were used instead of flags, the use of flags on ships seems to be an ancient custom, as portrayed on the early-era Mycenaean amphora of Phylakopi, Mylos island.

The flags of ships were also called episema and were usually hoisted on the foremast; the historian Herodotus mentions (H', 88) that during the sea fight of Salamis, while Artemisia was pursued by an Athenian ship and was in danger, it sank the ship of Damasithymus (king of Kalynda, a city of Karia), in order to be saved; and it was really saved because the Athenians thought that Artemisia had deserted and ceased pursuit. The observers seated with Xerxes confirmed the fact saying that they recognized Artemisia's ship by its episema.

The same historian (Herodotus H', 92) mentions the sign of the Admiral as σηζειον (semeion).

Similar episema are also mentioned by Plutarch, who also mentions παρασεμα (parasema, decorations), which were the distinctive signs and symbols of each city or ship. Finally, Thucydides (A, 49, and ST, 31) instead of mentioning the word episema, mentions the word semeia. And when these were hoisted by the standard-bearer, who always followed the leader, they signaled the initiation of battle, while when they were lowered they signaled its cessation. Another sign is mentioned which when hoisted by order of the general or the admiral proclaimed the initiation of battle. It was a piece of red cloth and was called φοινοκις (foinikis). It started as a signal of the Athenians and the Greeks of Sicily. It then was adopted by the Macedonians and later by the Romans and the Byzantines.

In conclusion, the episema, the semeia, and the foinikis were the military flags of the ancient Greeks.

Nevertheless, in times of peace, Greeks must have had signals/flags displayed in their castles and their ships; because when they lost their freedom and the Roman signs were displayed in all Greek lands, the local signs were displayed alongside. Every big city with the nearby smaller ones had its own sign/flag, which was proudly hoisted on all area's ships. In Byzantium and the Propontis (modern Sea of Marmara) red color dominated along with the crescent, symbol of goddess Artemis, protector of Byzantium.
In the coastal areas of Asia Minor dominated green with the shining sun, in Miletus the lion, and in other areas blue, white, yellow, etc. with comets, stars, weapons, various mottos with wishes, boastings, or threats against pirates.

Translated and adapted by Dimitris Kiminas & John Ayer from a book by Pr. Nikolaus Zafiriou, published in 1947

Greek early "naval ensign"

In his book Jadransko more u sukobima i borbama kroz stolježa (The Adriatic sea in conflicts and battles through centuries; Marijan tisak, Split, 2004), the historian Grga Novak (1888-1978) describes the Greek ships since about the IVth century BC towards the rise of Rome as follows:

[The main mast was at the front of the ship often at the bow itself] During the battle the war ships would lower the main mast, all except the commanding ship, so that various signals could be hoisted from it. [I assume that these signals would be in form of flags, though not necessarily. However it seems that signal flags are implied, as shall be seen further on.]
[after describing how the sails were made...] Egyptians, Phoenicians and Greeks were fond of dyeing their sails. Black was the symbol of sorrow, purpure or reddish meant that there was an admiral or the rulers aboard. There were also sails with painted inscriptions and mottoes.
Each ship had at the top of the mast a flag, while the admiral's ship had a special signal. During the night this spot would be signaled with a light. The admiral's ship would also have a light at the stern. During the battle all the ships would hoist their common state flag so to differ from the enemy ships. Signals for the start of the battle, for the change of course, stopping, encompassing of the enemy fleet, disembarkment of troops and so on were, no doubt signaled with flags.
[describing a typical battle conduct - before the battle admiral would confer with his captains] During the battle the commands were issued by flags. A raised red flag was signal for the attack against enemy. Lowering of that flag was signal either for retreat or for the interruption of the battle. Both were also commanded with flags in other colours or in other positions that were told to trierarchs [captains] immediately before the battle, so that the enemy would not be able to know the signals and act accordingly.

Željko Heimer, 29 January 2005