The signifer is the soldier that bears the signum, a typical Roman symbol.
Its origin was a simple tuft of grass tied on a stick. In time it was gradually adorned with solar and Lunar emblems in metal and then later with symbols of glory and victory.
The exact symbolic is not known, even so, some signs speak for themselves. The signum is the sacred emblem of a legion unit to which a cult is dedicated. Legionaries would prefer sacrificing their lives rather than to suffer the humiliation of having their signum taken by the enemy. There are several examples in Roman history and especially in the Republic or an officer casting the signum in opposing lines, or even throwing himself with the signum in hands, in the middle of its opponents. His unit which was retreating, or refusing to advance any further, then furiously went into the enemy lines to save its honor, and finally winning an engagement that seemed already lost.
One immediately recognizes the signifer from the wild beast skin he wears on his helmet. Its meaning is unknown but one can be permitted to think that the great hunters, and heroes in antiquity have often covered head in this way. The most famous being Hercules almost always represented with a lion skin on his head.
It is a known fact that Romans attributed magical virtues and protection powers to certain type of skins as explained clearly by Mrs Leguilloux in her book on Roman leather. It seems then a quite educated guess, that the person bearing the signum that represents the honor and the symbol of its unity is thus protected. But make no mistake; this is the signum that is sacred and important in the eyes of the soldiers, not those who carry it! Having précised this point, the signifer who is given the honor of wearing the symbol of his unit must still be a man out of the ordinary. Junior officer he must demonstrate courage and perfect loyalty.
The signifer tactical role
Statistics carried out by archaeologists a few years ago have demonstrated that there were as many signifers killed in action as centurions (that were fighting on the front line). There is debate of experts today about its place in the battle formation. I favor the idea that the signifer place is at the middle of the battle line and on the third line in depth. Texts indeed mention ‘’ante signani’’troops, proving that there were a few men before him and the enemy. This hypothesis seems perfectly plausible. It is not illogical to think that the centurion standing at the right side of the century, and the optio in the back of his unit, with its center front positioning, the signifer can see and analyze fully the action.
More than a mere NCO he is a junior officer in charge with its responsibilities. With its signum he makes visual signs to direct the pressure on such specific point of the contact line. His tactical role is thus very important and there is still considerable work and hypotheses to test concerning his role in combat. The centurion from his position will give the orders of orientation to the unit. The signifer by its placement will be able to ensure that this order can be executed, while the optio in the back can make sure of the consistency and the unity of the rest of the century.
The signifer strategic role
The signifer also has a strategic role on the battlefield, in the sense where it allows the commander and the chain of command to distinguish his own unit from the others on the grand chessboard as one could call a large battle.
The signifer other functions
In non combat situation he carries other responsibilities. It is him that men will follow during marches, he will orient them visually by moving his signum. Don't the officers call "ad signa" to bring together men before departure?
Under the Republic, Polybius tell us that they are appointed by the centurions and that there are two by centuries. The first one is the holder of the post, while his second is there to replace him in case of injury. Not much is known about their other duties at this time in history. We know however that with the professional army they became the bankers of their unit. They were the ones who were in charge of the retirement pension fund for each soldier as well as money for a decent funeral for the fallen.
Signifer is a position of trust and high responsibilities. It required all together very strong physical, moral, and intellectual capacities plus an extraordinary courage.