The Double-headed Eagle

The Double-Headed Eagle was the emblem of the Byzantine Empire. The one head looked to the right, and the other looked to the left. It symbolized the authority and power that the Byzantine Empire had from the west to east. Many flags and currency still use the double-headed eagle on it.

The double-headed eagle was the symbol of the Paleologoi, the last Greek-speaking “Roman” (i.e. Byzantine) dynasty to rule from Constantinople. The Emperor Michael VIII Paleologos recaptured Constantinople from the Crusaders in 1261, from a state based in Asia Minor; the double-headed eagle symbolized the dynasty’s interests in both Asia and Europe, and was kept despite the fact that virtually all of the Asian possessions were gobbled up by the Ottomans within a generation of the recapture of the City. Emperor Michael’s descendants stayed on the Byzantine throne until the City and the Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

The double-headed eagle had in the two centuries of Paleologan rule become identified not just with the dynasty but with the Empire itself and, more generally, with institutions and cultural ideas outside the Byzantine Empire that still remained centred on Constantinople.

Most obvious of these is the Greek Orthodox Church, centred in theory in Istanbul to this day, and so it is not surprising that the Church would use the flag.

Later on, as a permanent design on the church’s floor, which presented the double-headed eagle with outstretched wings soaring over a city. It signified the watchfulness and authority of the bishop over his diocese.

The Greek Orthodox Flag