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The long history of the double-headed eagle

Eagles are common and popular symbols of power – considered the “kings of the sky”, ruling families have long appropriated the symbolism of the free and mighty eagle as a projection of their own power, reach, and strength. However, the Austrian-Hungarian eagle that we are so familiar with in Vienna is unique in that somewhere over the course of time, it grew a second head. The obvious assumption for this doubled-headed eagle is as a representation of the dual Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. While it has certainly come to have this association, the actual origin of the double-headed eagle goes much further back in time.

The Romans already used the eagle as a symbol of their power in Antiquity, albeit with one head. When the western Roman Empire collapsed, the remaining Byzantine Empire adopted the image of the eagle, but added another head to it. The two heads were meant as a symbol of the physical and spiritual power of the Byzantine Emperor on the one hand, and as an aspirational claim to power in both the East and the West on the other hand. Later, the Holy Roman Empire also used an eagle as a heraldic animal, but again only with 1 head. The double-headed eagle appears again in the late Middle Ages, with the two heads denoting the difference between the royal (königliche) and the imperial (kaiserliche) status. After the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, the Habsburgs continued to use the double-headed eagle (with some small modifications) for the Austrian empire, thus solidifying the link between themselves and the former Holy Roman Empire. After the establishment of the dual monarchy in 1867, it became common to claim that the two heads symbolized the two halves of the empire despite the fact that the symbol had been in use long before this time! (C.G)

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