The Beginning of Military Awards can be traced to the ancient Egyptians and the Greeks, but the Roman Legions were the first to organize an award system honoring their soldiers for bravery and service. Once recognized, Roman soldiers wore these decorations in battle, parades, and displayed them in their homes after their military service. If an entire Roman legion was cited for valor a decoration was added to the Legion’s eagle standard.
Two thousand years ago the Greek historian Polybius wrote: “If there was any fight, and some soldiers distinguish themselves by bravery, the legion commander would bring his troops together and call forward those to be decorated. The Roman commander would call out the merits, deeds, and heroic actions for which the Roman soldier was to be decorated and present the legionnaire with a necklace, armbands, or set of disks. During the ceremony, the commander would often tie the item to Legionnaires armor.” (Just as today’s commander pins a military medal on the chest of a marine.)
During the time of the Roman Empire, the Roman army established a series of decorations for military bravery. The most common decoration for bravery was a golden circle necklet called a Torques. Torques were worn around the necks of Celtic Warriors, and their award originally represented the defeat of an enemy in single combat. Over time the Torques became an award for bravery. The second type of valor award for all ranks were embossed or plain armbands called Armillae. Another highly coveted award was an embossed disc called a Phalerae which were sometimes awarded in sets and worn on a leather harness over the legionnaire’s armor. These discs were presented in bronze, silver, and gold, and there was no limit to the number a soldier could be awarded.
Above these three awards were various crowns such as the Corona Aurea (Golden Crown) presented to Centurions for victorious personal combat and the Corona Vallaris (Fortification) crown awarded to the first legionaries or centurion over the walls of an enemy fortification. A very high honor was the Corona Civia, a crown of Oak leaves for saving the life of a fellow Roman citizen during battle. Eventually, the Corona Civia allowed recipients to serve as Senators in the Roman Senate. The one distinction between Roman army awards and today is the Romans only decorated living soldiers. There were no posthumous honors for the fallen.
The symbols from the Roman standard pictured can be seen in the decorations and awards of Napoleon, United States Army insignia as early as 1812 and the Third Reich, to name a few. So as we begin the history of United States decorations and awards, it is clear our early designs of the eagle, lightning, victory wreaths of laurel and oak came from ancient Roman Legions.
After the fall of Rome, the custom of awarding medals for military service probably owes its origin to the badges used within the armies of England after the decline of armor and before the introduction of distinctive uniforms. The badges themselves, of course, grew out of the coats of arms which emblazon retainer’s liveries. There are several instances of record where commanders rewarded men on the battlefield by giving them badges struck in some valuable metal or perhaps embossed with precious stones. Heroes, who were decorated in this way remove the ordinary metal insignia from their coats or hats and, instead, would wear the much prize emblem. This was probably the beginning of medal granting and wearing as it is in the Armed Forces of today