One of the most famous objects found at the Roman town of Silchester, not far from Reading, is a meticulously sculpted bronze eagle.
Whilst this proud bird stands at just 15cm tall, and misses both its wings, it has loomed large in our national consciousness ever since its excavation in the 19th century.
In this blog, learn the story behind the Silchester eagle. Read about the discovery of this remarkable object, the significance of eagles in imperial Rome and military standards, and how this mighty bird continues to capture our imagination today.
In ancient Rome, the eagle was known as the king of birds. It was a symbol of imperial power, and therefore represented courage, strength and immortality.
Most famously, the eagle, or aquila, featured on the standard of the Roman Legions. The standard bearer, the Aquilifer, would carry the eagle into battle. This was a hugely prestigious position within the Roman Legion.
The eagle was found in the Basilica, the public meeting place, in the centre of the Roman town of Calleva Artebatum. It was found on the 9th October 1866 during excavations by Rev J. G. Joyce. Rev Joyce was the rector of Stratfield Saye, and was very interested in archaeology. He excavated at the site from 1864 to 1878 and recorded his work with fine illustrations in his three-volume journal.
Joyce thought that he had found a great legionary eagle, buried in debris when the Basilica was destroyed. Maybe it was hidden for safekeeping?
Today, we believe the eagle was actually part of an official civilian statue, and ended its life as a piece of scrap waiting to be melted down.
Made in the 2nd century AD by a skilled craftsperson, the eagle is posed with its head raised and turned to the right. It would have had outstretched wings. The careful modelling of the feathers on the body suggests that the wings must have been extended and raised. In 1962, Jocelyn Toynbee described the eagle as ‘by far the most superbly naturalistic rendering of any bird or beast as yet yielded by Roman Britain’.
The eagle was repaired during its lifetime, when replacement wings and probably new feet were fitted. It was then damaged again when it lost its wings and suffered damage to its replacement feet.
The curve of the underside of the feet suggests that the eagle’s claws once grasped a globe, probably held in the hand of a statue of an emperor or a god, like Jupiter (the god of the sky, within whose grasp the eagle would have surely found its natural home).
The Silchester eagle was a significant inspiration behind Rosemary Sutcliff's popular children’s books The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch.
The books focus on the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana), who vanished from Roman records after 120AD. Sutcliff imagines what would have happened when the Legion's eagle was lost. This is because the loss of an eagle was of enormous importance in Imperial Rome. It represented not just the defeat of a Legion, but of Rome itself. When eagles were captured by enemy forces, bloody battles would be fought to regain them.
Whilst we don't know what happened to the Ninth Legion, we do have thorough records about the movement of Legions and Auxiliary units across the Roman province of Britannia. We know about these activities from inscriptions (like the Vindolanda tablets) and later histories.
To learn more about the Silchester Eagle and the astonishing history of the Roman town at Silchester, come and explore the Silchester Gallery at Reading Museum! The eagle stands proudly on exhibit, alongside many other artefacts and displays chronicling the history of the town and the wider context of Roman Britain in which it was so important.
The eagle was purchased by Reading Museum from the Duke of Wellington in 1980 with generous support from Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Art Fund. It is on display in the Silchester Gallery.
Toynbee, J.M.C. (1962) Art in Roman Britain