Looking for the dragon standard

It’s funny how ideas persist.

A mention of the word “Dracula” led me to think of the historical Rumanian noble who adopted the title, which means “little dragon”, and is the diminutive of the Latin “draco” or “dragon”.  He did so,* because the “draco” was the standard of the late Roman armies, and so it was a symbol of imperial power and authority.

I don’t know whether the armies of Byzantium continued to use the “draco” standard into the dark ages, such that the Rumanians were familiar with it into the middle ages.  How long had it been, I wonder, since an emperor had despatched an army in the east under that standard?

The last Roman army in the west was defeated by the Franks in 484 AD.  Yet the golden dragon was the symbol of the kingdom of Wessex, and later of England, as it resisted the Vikings, and it flew in the wind at Hastings in 1066.

After the fall of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the dragon was still seen in Wales, where the Red Dragon is still the symbol of the principality.

How many, of those who see the heraldic medieval image below, think of the reality behind it, a last memory of the power, might and majesty of Valentinian and Theodosius?

* Postscript: I have received various emails pointing out that Dracul had various immediate reasons to use the title.  I was thinking, rather, of how the “draco” symbol attracted a desirable status in the first place: from ancient Rome.

14 thoughts on “Looking for the dragon standard

  1. Of course, I need to stress that the Romans didn’t create the draco standard – just as the fectio.org.uk link indicates. It’s quite ironic that Vlad Dracul (his son, Vlad the Impaler, is usually associated with Stoker’s Dracula) ruled over the same lands inhabited almost 1500 years earlier by the Dacians, who are depicted on Trajan’s Column as bearing the draco before the Romans adopted it.

  2. Thank you for these details! Yes, I thought the fectio site was rather good, and it was great to see the literary sources given verbatim.

    It is ironic, isn’t it, that he lived in the ghost of Dacia!

  3. Vlad Ţepeş’s father was called “Draculea” because he was member of the Order of the Dragon . It has nothing to do neither with the Dacian draco nor with the Roman one.

  4. There’s a good deal of argument about why, in many areas in the West, the procession of beating the bounds and blessing the land inside the parish in the summer Rogation Days, should have included a dragon banner (later a float or giant puppet, often with working flame, like Snap the Dragon). In later times he was usually identified with the power of the Devil, watching but being unable to prevent the blessing. But there’s some evidence that he was originally a sign of the presence of the Imperial cavalry. (And one of the names for the crucifer job of an acolyte was “draconifer”, just like the cavalry standardbearer.)

    I keep trying to persuade people that my parish needs a Rogation Days procession and a dragon banner, but nobody listens. Sigh. Someplace out west and south, though, I understand that in at least one parish, Father beats the bounds from the back of a pickup truck, with a procession of other trucks behind him. (It’s a big parish you get, out west.)

  5. An email from a correspondent adds:

    Dracula is a germanised form of “Draculea”, a word which might be translated “the son of Dracul”, meaning “the son of the dragon / demon”. The Rumanian word “drac” means today “demon”, but in the 14th-15th centuries had also the meaning of “dragon”, resembling the Greek “δρακον”. The rest of the story can be found at this link:

    http://www.dunwich.org/draculea/draculea.html

  6. @Maureen: in this weather here, no-one is processing anywhere unless it’s indoors!

    “Draconifer” … what a lovely title! Beats “programmer/analyst” eh? Or “business consultant”!

  7. That’s why Rogation Day was a summer thing. 🙂 And it was big for the English local parish officials until pretty lately, albeit not as big as for the French who made more of a party of it. (Yeah, probably better weather made the difference.)

    Being “the youngest boy in the parish whose head got bounced against all the boundary markers” would be sort of a dubious honor, of course…. I think I’d rather stick with carrying the dragon. 🙂

  8. Is that the one where they were whipped around the parish boundaries, the better to inculcate in ignorant minds the structure of the local society?

    Sounds like something we should reintroduce. Who can say that it was less healthy than encouraging them to drink themselves insensible and swap diseases with each other?

  9. Just off the top of my head here: I’ve often wondered if there might be some tenuous connection between the draco of the late-Roman armies and the dragon-shaped war trumpet (carnyx) of the Celts both in Gaul and in Dacia.

    The most famous representation of a carnyx on Roman coin is on the rather common denarius of Caesar where the carnyx is shown as being trampled by an elephant (representing Caesar himself).

  10. Dracula was indeed Draculea in old Romanian, “the son of Dracu”, so translated by the ottoman Turkish documents with Dracoğlu “son of Dracu”.

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