Flag (from a root signifying to hang down or droop, kindred with Lat. flaccus, flabby, or drooping), a piece of stuff or cloth intended to be displayed so as to indicate, by shape, color, or symbols, nationality, rank, party, or opinion. In common speech the word is synonymous with standard, banner, ensign, or colors. The most ancient standards were probably symbols borne upon a pole. Among the Egyptians each battalion had a distinguishing emblem representing some sacred object, such as an animal or bird, or a tablet bearing a king's name or other device. The Assyrians, according to the Ninevite sculptures, had two standards, one a figure of a man standing upon a running bull and drawing a bow, the other two bulls running in opposite directions. They are supposed to have been the symbols respectively of peace and of war. The Persians in the time of Cyrus adopted a white flag with a golden eagle displayed for their standard. The Greeks bore divers symbols: sometimes a piece of armor elevated upon a spear, sometimes the emblem of a divinity, sometimes an initial letter. According to Homer, Agamemnon used a purple veil to rally his men. The Romans had many standards. In the most primitive times each company bore a bundle of hay tied to a pole.
Afterward the figure of an open hand, a wolf, a bear, a horse, or other animal, was substituted. In the time of Marius a silver eagle, with expanded wings and holding the thunderbolts of Jove in its talons, was adopted as the standard of the legion. The different eagles, white, black, and red, with single or with double heads, borne by countries of modern Europe, are imitations of this. The Roman standards changed with their conquests, and succeeding emperors displayed new forms and new emblems. Augustus used a globe to symbolize his empire over the world, and Constantine adopted the cross to commemorate his vision. (See Labarum.)
Standards are mentioned frequently in the Bible. The Hebrews who went up out of Egypt were marshalled under distinctive banners. According to tradition, the four leading tribes, Reuben, Ephraim, Judah, and Dan, bore as devices respectively a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle. From the most ancient times the dragon has been the chief symbol of China, Japan, and other eastern nations. It was also a prominent device among the Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Slavic tribes. At first, like many other emblems used for standards, it was of metal or carved wood, but in time was displayed upon a banner. It was the device on the banner of Harold at the battle of Hastings, and was borne by several other English mon-archs.-The earliest flags proper were probably square cloths of a single color; but as nations multiplied parti-colors and different combinations were adopted to secure variety, and finally the devices or bearings of chieftains or of tribes were added. In modern times flags of a single color have generally a universally accepted meaning: thus, a white flag is a token of peace, a red of defiance; a black flag denotes piracy, or is sometimes hoisted to indicate that no quarter will be given or taken; a yellow denotes quarantine.
Ancient standards were of many shapes, some square, some long and pointed, some swallow-tailed, and some ending in many points. The banner which Charlemagne received from the pope was oblong and split into three points; the oriflamme of France was of the same shape with five points. The standards of Henry VIII. of England were long pointed streamers rather than flags. Nearly all the standards and ensigns of modern nations are rectangular, but there are some exceptions. The naval flag of Sweden has three points, that of Denmark two, and the flag of China is triangular. Some of the principal European nations have each two or more flags, a royal or imperial standard, a national ensign, a naval ensign, and a flag for merchantmen. Royal and imperial standards are never hoisted except on occasions of great ceremony, when the sovereign or some member of the royal family is present, or on the sovereign's birthdays.-The royal standard of Great Britain displays the heraldic insignia of England, Scotland, and Ireland, quartered, the field of the first and fourth quarters red, the second yellow, and the third blue.
The national flag, called the "union jack," is blue, charged with the three crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick. The cross of St. George is red on a white field, of St. Andrew a white saltier (diagonal cross) on a blue field, and of St. Patrick a red saltier on a white field. The union jack adopted by James I. in 1G06 combined only the first two, but on the union with Ireland in 1800 the cross of St. Patrick was added. This is the union jack which forms the canton in the British naval and commercial flags. The word jack is derived by some from the jacque or surcoat charged with St. George's cross, worn in the crusades by English soldiers, which name became in time transferred to the cross itself, and finally to the flag bearing the cross. Others derive it from Jac, the abbreviation of Jacobus, the Latin form of James. -In the 12th century the standard of France was white, sprinkled with golden fleurs de lis. Henry IV., the founder of the house of Bourbon, adopted the white flag charged with the escutcheon of his family, three golden fleurs de lis on a blue shield.
This is the flag contended for so earnestly by the count de Chambord. It was succeeded early in the revolution by the tricolor, which was constituted the national standard by law in 1792. This is generally said to be the union of the blue banner of St. Martin, the red oriflamme of St. Denis, and the cornette blanche which succeeded the latter; but it is probable that its adoption was accidental. The red and blue, the colors of the city of Paris, were chosen first, and the white of the royal standard was added afterward. When this flag was first displayed there was no accord in the arrangement of the colors, and the stripes were sometimes placed horizontally instead of vertically. The present mode was prescribed finally by law. Napoleon adopted for the imperial standard the tricolor sprinkled with golden bees and charged with the eagle of France. At the restoration the white flag returned with royalty. The hundred days brought back the tricolor, but the white flag again succeeded it in 1815, and on April 18, 1816, it was decreed to be the national standard of France. The revolution of 1830 restored the tricolor, and it has since remained the national flag.-The imperial standard of Germany is white charged with a black cross, with the black eagle of the empire at its intersection.