Roman Flag system

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Roman Flag system

Postby Marcus Pomponius Lupus on Mon Jun 14, 2004 11:51 am

Salvete, here's a little text I found on a site :

The Romans had clever signalling systems. On Hadrian's Wall an alphabetic system was used based on two groups of five flags, which allowed them to send messages letter by letter, and was similar to the system developed in England at the end of the eighteenth century. (The Irishman Richard Lovell Edgeworth is supposed to have invented a telegraph system in order to get the racing results from Newmarket before his bookmaker - but he never developed it!)

The Romans also had a coded system, with which they could send only one of a dozen fixed messages, depending on the time for which they showed a flag. The sender and receiver would have the same code book and identical water clocks, marked perhaps with numbers. To send message VI in the book, raise your flag (or flaming torch at night), wait until the receiver raises a flag to acknowledge, then lower your flag, and raise it again, starting your clock as you raise the flag. When your flag points to VI, lower your flag again. The receiver should have started the clock when the flag went up for the second time, and stopped it when the flag went down; the number VI will reveal the message.


On the website there a two small illustrations as well : http://groups.msn.com/romeinen/romeinscodesysteem.msnw

Does anyone have more information about this ? It looks interesting, and I had never heard of this system before.

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Postby Quintus Marius Primus on Mon Jun 14, 2004 2:12 pm

Salve Lupe

All I know is that the link you had was originally from the BBC's website based on a BBC TV programme called "What the Romans Did For Us" (paying homage to Monty Python and the Life of Brian!). If you want to see the original, here's the link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/ro ... h_03.shtml

From here you can also access other parts of the BBC's history section on Rome - not very exhaustive but interesting all the same. If you have access to BBC TV at all it's often repeated (typical BBC!) so you may be lucky and catch it some time.

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Postby Aulus Dionysius Mencius on Mon Jun 14, 2004 4:14 pm

Salvete omnes

The Romans were not the only ones who used flag signalling.
* Since this is me, the following comment is not a surpise*

Indeed, so did the Chinese. They used it on the Great Wall, to make sure that even the smallest problem was immediatelly passed on to the next garrison...

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Postby Gnaeus Dionysius Draco on Mon Jun 14, 2004 7:13 pm

Now that we're talking about flags and the Far East, is it true that Japanese samuari used flags on their back to show to which clan or group they belonged?

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Postby Aulus Dionysius Mencius on Tue Jun 15, 2004 8:26 am

Have yoiu seen this in The Last samurai, mi Draco? :wink:

'Tis true, they did that for quite a long time, but for the life of me, I dunno who came up with it. But it is accurate.

Sidenote: I loved the movie, and, coincidentally, so did the Japanese.
Ok, it might seems strange that a nationalist rebellion allows a foreigner in their ranks, but perhaps not totally impossible. Many of the nationalist leaders of that time had been abroad and others had relations with Westerners in Japan. Although they started as restorers, though thier interacaction with Westerners, they became aware of the superiority of the West, something that was aknowledged and acted upon by all Meiji leaders. And so they moved from restoration to reform...

The revolt in the movie is, in fact, three historical revolt of that time thrown together, but still, good movie. Omura Masujiro (1824-1869) was a major player indeed, as Minister of the War cabinet. I could add more, but I will restrain myself...

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Postby Gnaeus Dionysius Draco on Tue Jun 15, 2004 10:49 am

Aulus Dionysius Mencius wrote:Have yoiu seen this in The Last samurai, mi Draco? :wink:


No :). It's from video gaming.

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Postby Aulus Dionysius Mencius on Tue Jun 15, 2004 4:48 pm

I was not far off, then. :lol:

The reason for those flags? Easy enough, recognition for superiors on one hand, but also, it was even an advantage for the enemy, since they could clearly estimate what kind of troops they would be marching against, and act accordingly.

Also, in large coalition armies, they represented the daimyo whom the warriors who carried them served.

mi Draco, at a guess, I'd say Shogun: Total War.... Right?

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Postby Gnaeus Dionysius Draco on Tue Jun 15, 2004 6:24 pm

No, it's Mortal Kombat: Deception :lol:

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Postby Marcus Pomponius Lupus on Tue Jun 15, 2004 7:13 pm

Salve Prime

An even better site, many thanks, but there's something I don't really understand about the second system :

The Romans also had a coded system, with which they could send only one of a dozen fixed messages, depending on the time for which they showed a flag. The sender and receiver would have the same code book and identical water clocks, marked perhaps with numbers. To send message VI in the book, raise your flag (or flaming torch at night), wait until the receiver raises a flag to acknowledge, then lower your flag, and raise it again, starting your clock as you raise the flag. When your flag points to VI, lower your flag again. The receiver should have started the clock when the flag went up for the second time, and stopped it when the flag went down; the number VI will reveal the message.


So the sender raises his flag to indicate that he has a message, the receiver raises his as well to indicate that he's watching and ready to receive. The sender raises his flag again and starts his clock, the receiver starts his clock as soon as the flag goes up and watches. The way I figure it should go from then is that the sender leaves his flag up for a certain amount of time (for example 1 minute) and then take it down again. As his flag goes down, the receiver looks at the clock, sees that a minute went by, takes a look at the code book and sees that 1 minute equals "enemy advancing" or something like that.

But the quote says "When your flag points to VI", I'm not sure what this means, I thought the flag had to remain still and that it was the time the flag was up that was important, not some sort of pattern. Any ideas ?

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Postby Tiberius Dionysius Draco on Tue Jun 15, 2004 10:27 pm

Marcus Pomponius Lupus wrote:But the quote says "When your flag points to VI", I'm not sure what this means, I thought the flag had to remain still and that it was the time the flag was up that was important, not some sort of pattern. Any ideas ?


Perhaps they use the same system we use nowadays (e.g incoming UFO at 2 o'clock). So the VI would mean that they would hold it in a certain way.

Still, I find this method of signaling very slow and complicated. If something unexpected happens they must be able to react quickly and I don't think they will wave flags at each other while waiting a few minutes.

Wouldn't coloured flags be a better idea? (e.g attack,pull back,stand ground)

Oh, by the way, Draco, I knew you were going to answer that :lol: well, either that or Soul Calibur (Yoshimitsu).

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Postby Marcus Pomponius Lupus on Tue Jun 15, 2004 10:56 pm

Salve Tiberi,

Perhaps they use the same system we use nowadays (e.g incoming UFO at 2 o'clock). So the VI would mean that they would hold it in a certain way.


Could be but then there would be no need for any clocks from the sender and receiver, the receiver would just have to look at the position of the flag.

As the article says : "Starting your clock as you raise the flag" would be pointless if it's the position of the flag that bears meaning, likewise, the receiver stopping his clock when the flag goes down wouldn't have any meaning as well.

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