The IMPERIAL EAGLE of FRANCE
By: Jean Pierre Driessen
Napoleon Bonaparte had a problem. Following his proclamation as Emperor of the French on 28 Floréal, AN XII (18 May 1804), what would be the symbols of his regime and dynasty? Symbols which would personify the new political order and his subjects could identify with and rally around.
At a counsel of state on 23 Prairial, AN XII (12 June 1804), the topic of the main symbol of state was hotly debated. It had to be distinct, clear and powerful. In Napoleon’s case, it also had to be very different from those of the Bourbon monarchy of the Ancien Régime and any competing European power.
The suggestions ranged from an eagle, a lion, an elephant, the bee, an oak, the cockerel and the fleur de lys to name the most notable. All were suggested for sound reasons. The lion because it would be more powerful than and distinct from the English leopard. The elephant because it is the most powerful animal in nature. The fleur de lys, because it signified France, not the Bourbons. The bee because France was a republic with a head, like a bee hive. The oak because it grows strong, straight and is almost eternal.
Finally the counsel decided upon the cockerel, because it stood for vigilance and had been associated since mediaeval times with France. Napoleon preferred the lion however, stating: “the cockerel has no strength, in no way can it stand as the image of an empire such as France.” However, on 21 Messidor, AN XII (10 July 1804), when preparing to sign the decree establishing the Imperial seal and coat of arms, Napoleon crossed out the lion and substituted the eagle.
The Imperial French eagle, with wings displayed, facing left, resting with its right talon on a thunderbolt against a field of azure. It formed part of the official Imperial code of arms and was the symbol of the French First Empire and largely unchanged, also of the Second Empire.
NAPOLÉON IER, DRAPEAUX DONNÉS À L’ARMÉE PAR NAPOLÉON IER, MÉDAILLE
english (NAPOLEON I, FLAGS GIVEN TO THE ARMY BY NAPOLEON I, MEDAL)
bronzed copper medal, 27mm, commemorating the personal distribution of the new imperial standards/flags surmounted with the imperial eagle to army units by Napoleon, 5 December 1804, on the Field of Mars outside Paris.
obverse: Napoleon I as ‘imperator’ (victorious Roman general)
legend: Napoleon Empereur.
engraver: Jean Pierre Droz (1746 – 1823)
reverse: Napoleon distributing the new imperial standards/flags surmounted by the imperial eagle to the various branches of the French army, and the army swearing their oath of allegiance.
legend: Drapeaux donnes a l’armee par Napoleon Ier (flags/standards given to the army by Napoleon Ist)
exergue: au champ de Mars / le 14 Frim[aire] AN XIII
engraver: Romain Vincent Jeuffroy (1749 – 1826)
The design and character of this medal was executed under the supervision of Vivant Dominique Denon (1747 – 1825), Directeur de la Monnaie de Médailles à Paris and Directeur général des Muséees Impériaux.
attribution: Bramsen 357, Essling 1040, Zeitz 45, Laskey XLV, Millin 90.
The eagle was not chosen on a whim. Rather it was a calculated and brilliant political and propaganda choice. A symbol of great antiquity, imbued with a rich and powerful mythology, it fit perfectly with the power, style and prestige the new regime wished to project. It linked Napoleon and his dynasty with the ancient glorious past, particularly ancient Greece and Rome. It also provided a symbolic link with France’s more recent history, the Franks and the Carolingian empire. The Christian religious overtones were also unmistakable.
In Greek mythology, the eagle was sacred to Zeus, his sceptre being surmounted with an eagle. It was this bird which sustained him by bringing nectar while he, as an infant, was hiding from his father Cronus.
In Roman mythology the eagle was associated with Jupiter. Its use and political symbolism goes back to the very founding of the Republic. According to one version of the founding legend, Romulus claimed to have seen the omen of the eagle overhead first, signifying Jupiter’s approval and allowing Romulus to claim the right to found the city. Eventually the eagle became the official insignia of the Roman state and its legions marched under its protection. During the Imperial period, the eagle also became associated with the divinity of the Emperor as the Creator of the Cosmos.
In Hebrew mythology, the eagle was equated with divinity as it was the bird which comes from above and soars above the clouds.
In Christian mythology the eagle is symbolic of the Fourth Gospel and associated with its author Saint John the Evangelist. It represents Jesus’ Ascension and Christ’s divine nature. As the eagle was believed to have the ability to look straight into the sun, its use extols Christians to look directly onto eternity. Many ancient beliefs and associations surrounding the eagle were absorbed and usurped by the early Christians, with note the Roman emperor’s role as Creator of the Cosmos was transferred to Christ.
During the Middle Ages, the iconography of the eagle was prominent in religious texts and buildings. Early medieval sources record that a bronze eagle stood on top of Charlemagne’s chapel at Achen. Even today many lecterns found in churches are in the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings.
The thunderbolt, Zeus/Jupiter favorite weapon, upon which the eagle rests its right talon warns all of the ferocity with which enemies of the regime and the French Empire will be attacked.
As an emblem, the eagle provided the new regime the aura of legitimacy, stability and power. Its use associated Napoleon with the prestige of past empires and advertised he was laying claim to their legacy.
reproduction of the French Imperial eagle which topped the regimental standards. This particular example is modeled after the post-1814 eagle, which can be seen from its closed legs, pre-1814 models had open legs.
This was of particular importance in reference to his pan-European aspirations, which were to echo the territorial expanses of the Roman and Carolingian Empires. The assumption of this legacy can be seen in the style of the period, known as ‘Empire’, which was an 18th century interpretation of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman culture and motifs.
The power of the symbolism of the eagle was most dramatically employed in the French army. When deciding to issue the new standards to the troops, Napoleon had initially wanted to make the eagle part of the overall design of the colours. Then he changed his mind and decided to make the eagle itself the standard. He wrote to his chief of staff Berthier: “The Eagle with wings outspread, as on the Imperial Seal, will be at the head of the standard staves, as was the practice in the Roman army. The flag will be attached at the same distance beneath the Eagle as was the Labarum.” This reduced the flag from being the regimental colour to a mere ornamental ancillary to the eagle.8 This can be seen on the reverse of the medal on the previous page.
The eagle was made of gilded copper and placed atop a staff painted imperial blue, 240cm in length. The importance attached to these was evidenced by the fact that Napoleon issued every eagle personally. Initially each battalion was issued one. In 1808 this was changed to one per regiment, with detailed regulations for its carrying and protection in battle. Soldiers who carried the eagles were especially selected and given special rank. They were appointed and dismissed by Napoleon himself.
Due to its personal connection with Napoleon, the eagle standard was an important prize in battle. This caused Napoleon to gradually restrict their issuance to line (regular) regiments and their carrying into battle to units which could give proper protection to them. Eventually regiments of hussars, chasseurs à cheval, dragoons and light infantry, although issued eagles, no longer carried them into battle.
A good example of the use of Roman motifs for propaganda purposes by the Napoleonic regime is illustrated by the similarities between the Napoleon medal shown on the first page and the sestertius of Trajan depicted here. The obverse of both depict the truncated bust of a Roman imperator, the victorious field commander entitled to wear the laurel wreath. The reverse of the Napoleon medal shows Napoleon dressed as a Roman emperor standing on a ‘suggestum’ or platform, like that on the sestersius. The attendant behind Napoleon is also clothed as a Roman. On both reverses can be found the folding campaign chair in the Roman style and military standards figure prominently. There is one important departure from the Roman motif however. This departure makes the motives of the Napoleonic regime for issuing the medal clear.
At first sight it would seem that the medal was merely issued for commemorative purposes. Upon closer inspection however, you can see that the soldiers receiving the new imperial eagle standards from Napoleon are clothed in 19th century French military uniforms, not in Roman legionary attire. This detail symbolically brought together the present and the past. It shows Napoleon laying claim to Europe’s heritage and assuming the mantle as the legitimate heir of Rome’s emperors and all those who, throughout history have done the same, such as Charlemagne.
Napoleon is literally bringing forth the grandeur, power and majesty from the past to a new and invigorated nation of the French. Through Napoleon, France would assume its rightful place of pre-eminence on the European continent and in the world. The age old dream of a pan-European empire could finally be realized, under French dominance. The foremost symbol of which would be the French imperial eagle.
Sestersius of Roman Emperor Trajan (shown above) struck between 114/116 AD. Showing the Trajan being acclaimed by legionnaries as emperor. Trajan is seated on a suggestum. Note the similaries of the scene on the reverse with that of the Napoleonic medal feature at the beginning of this article. The driving force behind the development of the Empire Style of the Napoleonic period, for both state and personal purposes was Vivant Diminique Denon, a cultured and talented man, whom was known as the “eye of Napoleon”.
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Magazine Vol-56 Issue-03