This page created 29 March 2014, and last modified: 2 May 2014 (Arch of Galerius Hercules shield added)
In the western half of the empire, the second-most senior unit of the legiones palatina is the Herculiani seniores, under the Magister Peditum in his Italian command. Its shield pattern as shown in various manuscripts is as below:
This patterns shown an unusual amount of variation between the various manuscripts, not aided by the suspicion that the Froben manuscript has probably got this pattern swapped with that of the adjacent Ioviani seniores, which also shows significant variations. The shield pattern is one of a set of four very similar patterns, with the two paired iuniores units being in the east, under the command of the first Master of the Soldiers in the Imperial Presence, and the two paired seniores units in the west, as these patterns taken from the Paris manuscript clearly show:
What is being shown here is probably not a bird, as such, but the image of a legionary standard in the form of an eagle, since the images of the two iuniores units show clear signs that they are standards (being surmounted by a wreath in the case of the Ioviani iuniores, and being perched on a short cross-bar, in the case of the Herculiani iuniores).
Legionary eagle standards seemed to have taken a variety of forms. To the left is that of Legio III Cyrenaica, as depicted on a denarius of Marcus Antonius struck in 32 BC (picture from http://www.cngcoins.com under CCA 3.0 license). In the middle is that of Legio IIII Flavia from the Portonaccio Sarcophagus of ca. 190 AD (picture from National Museium of Rome under CCA 3.0 license). On the right is that of Legio I Minerva, from Trajan's column (picture by Peter Rockwell, and taken from www.stoa.org).
Unfortunately no legionary aquila has survived to the present day, although a non-legionary Roman eagle has been recovered from Silchester in Britain, minus its wings.
Bizarrely, Grigg in his 1979 paper (Portrait-Bearing Codicils in the Illustrations of the Notitia Dignitatum?, Robert Grigg, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 69. (1979), pp. 107-124) maintained that although the "Iovii and Ioviani, for example would be appropriately represented by some form of eagle" (an eagle being an attribute of Jupiter), he stated that the fact that the Herculiani iuniores was also represented by an eagle, and not by a figure of Hercules, was prima facie evidence its pattern was in error! In his 1983 paper (Inconsistency and Lassitude: The Shield Emblems of the Notitia Dignitatum, Robert Grigg, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 73. (1983), pp. 132-142) he repeated the claim that a unit named after Hercules should feature either "Hercules or one of his well-known attributes", but provided no basis for this bare assertion.
The original Herculiani legion was a Tetrarchic creation of the last quarter of the 3rd century. Interestingly, the Arch of Galerius (one of the Tetrarchs), shows two shield patterns that apparently belong to the original Ioviani and Herculiani units: one shows an eagle, while the other, as depicted below, shows Hercules, readily identifiable by his club and lion skin.
Clearly by the time of the Notitia, this exact shield pattern was no longer in use. One possible point at which it could have been superseded would have been when the unit was split into seniores and iuniores; and advantage of showing each unit's standard would have been that the clearly pagan image of Hercules would no shown in an increasingly christianised military hierarchy.
As an aside, the Bodleian version (O) of the pattern for the Herculiani seniores is possibly my favourite pattern in the entire Notitia; so much so that I regularly wore a tee-shirt featuring it as a graduate student.
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