The wide variety of designs, colors, and styles of our nation’s state flags is stunning. Every state has a banner that flies over state buildings, in schools and in many homes of proud residents. The Commonwealth of Virginia is no exception. While it is like many other state flags that feature the state seal on a blue field, the Virginia flag is the omnipresent symbol of a great state with a long and interesting history.
Evolution of the Flag
Though Virginia was among the original 13 colonies to declare their independence from Great Britain, the flag appeared much later. Virginia went without an official state flag until February 1, 1950, when the flag we recognize today was adopted by the state General Assembly.
The design of the flag, though, dates to the American Civil War. In 1861, a flag was created as a rallying symbol for militia groups from the state of Virginia. This flag is nearly identical to the modern flag that was adopted 90 years later.
The state seal, however, has a long history in the state symbolism. Just weeks after declaring their independence from Great Britain, the Virginia government appointed a committee to create an official state seal.
The seal that is featured on the flag varies only slightly from the seal that was approved by the Virginia government on July 5, 1776. The original seal featured a woman representing the Roman value Virtus, or virtue. She held a long spear and rested her foot on the prostrate form of Tyranny, though they both wore similar uniforms of a Roman soldier. The Roman figures were chosen by the committee to differentiate the seal from any British heraldry and as a sign of respect of the Roman Republic and way of government.
In the modern Virginia state seal, the only true difference is the dress of the two figures featured. Virtus appears in a blue Roman costume, with her left breast bared, as is traditional in Roman imagery. This flag is the only example of nudity in any American state symbol. Tyranny appears in a purple costume, which is representative of Julius Caesar.
The new seal also features two more symbols appearing in the hands of Tyranny—a scourge, or whip, and a broken chain. These slight changes simply add to the rich symbolism of the state seal which graces the beautiful blue Virginia flag.
Symbolism of the State Seal
The state seal of Virginia features different images on each side. The image that appears on the state flag is on the obverse or front. The symbolism of the two figures is easy to understand—Virtue triumphs over Tyranny. There are a few details about the figures that show that the battle is already won rather than ongoing. First, the spear in Virtue’s hand has the tip pointed down. Her other weapon is called a parazonium and is a sword of authority, not of battle.
Tyranny’s crown has fallen to the ground beside him, which is a symbol of the state’s release from the control of the British monarchy. The broken chain he holds symbolizes the freedom from British trade and land acquisition restrictions. The whip is a symbol of the punitive acts, such as the Intolerable Acts, that were the motivating factor behind the colonists’ rebellion against British control. The words featured on the seal are “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” which means “Thus always to tyrants.” This seal is also derived from Roman lore—a quote often attributed to Brutus after Caesar’s murder.
On the reverse side of the seal, there are three Roman goddesses that represent the values of the state of Virginia. In the middle is Libertas, the goddess of individual liberties. To her left is Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, who holds an overflowing cornucopia and a large stalk of wheat, one of Virginia’s leading crops. On the right of Libertas is Aeternitas, the goddess of immortality. She represents the eternity of the state of Virginia and holds a golden ball that is the symbol of authority.
There is a phoenix perched on the ball, which represents Virginia’s strong and efficient government. The motto, “Perseverando,” appears above the goddesses. It means “persevering” and is a reminder to continue the fight against tyranny to enjoy the blessings of liberty.
While the Virginia flag may not be a bright, flashy banner that catches every eye, it features some incredibly detailed and thoughtful symbols. Every aspect of the flag is a tribute to the Virginians’ struggle to overthrow the stifling rule of the British monarchy, and it is a celebration of their victory. Although it was not the official flag until the mid-20th century, residents of Virginia have long hailed the flag as a proud symbol of their great state.