Comparative culture

Silk Road



Symbolism of the Eagle and the Dragon


The Eagle and the Dragon have become emblematic of the Roman and Chinese Empires. They had contemporary significances.



The Roman Eagle

The eagle standard was adopted by the Roman legions since the 104 BCE reform of Marius.  It was made of gold, and, as a cult symbol, regularly worshiped by the army during the year. A legion’s standard never left camp unless the whole legion was on the move. Carried by a standard bearer at the forefront of every battle, the eagle was widely recognized as the symbol of Roman might and dominance.

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The top of an eagle standard. (Museum of Roman Civilization, Rome.)





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The Chinese Dragon

The dragon is the first of four intelligent mythical creatures in Chinese tradition, often symbolic of the four cardinal directions. The blue dragon stands for the East, the white tiger the West, the red bird the South, and the black tortoise the North.



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Rubbing of relief on the eastern side of the sarcophagus of Wang Hui, interred in 221 CE.  (Lushan County Museum, Sichuan.)


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Augustus’ breastplate doubled as a propaganda billboard. Its center shows Parthia returning the eagle standard captured from Crassus at the battle of Carrhae, a symbol of Roman honor redeemed. (Detail of marble statue, Vatican Museum, Rome).


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Notice the eagle standards in this scene of an emperor addressing his troops. (Detail from the arch of Constantine, Rome.)




Being a powerful and versatile creature that can dive in the sea, fly in the sky, and intermediate between worlds, the dragon features in many Chinese myths. 


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The funeral banner of Lady Dai (died 168 BCE) features four dragons. Two appear in the upper, celestial ream, one underneath the sun on the right side, the other under the moon on the left. In the lower, vertical part of the banner that illustrates the human world, two intertwining dragons soar upward, bringing the spirit of the deceased with them. (Excavated from tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan.)


The eagle is the bird of Jupiter. As the Romans deified their emperors, the eagle, together with Jupiter’s staff, became symbolic of imperial divinity.


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The Gemma Augusta shows Augustus in the guise of Jupiter sharing the throne with Goddess Roma while being crowned by Oikoumene. At his feet is the divine eagle. (Detail, onyx cameo, Kunsthistorriches Museim, Vienna, Austria).


Confucians associate the dragon with virtue and strength, particularly that of the sage or the ruler. From the sixth century Tang Dynasty onward, the dragon becomes an imperial symbol.


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The center embrodery of an eighteenth century silk robe of the emperor. Its five claws identify it to be an imperial dragon. (Shenyang Palace Museum, Liaoning).




Because of their significances, the eagle and the dragon often find their way into artwork and jewelry..




First century onyx cameo (Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna).



Jade pendent, third or fourth century BCE (Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum, Kansas City).