Traditionally, it has been defended that few Mediterranean cultures developed in ancient times are the cradle of modern civilization. The idea of the Athenian “democracy”, the heritage of the latin language, etc., are some of the most recurrent elements in this reasoning. However, we should give less importance to this affirmation. Current society presents a set of general characteristics configured after many centuries of history; moreover, regional and local variations must be added. Each period of the past has influenced, in one way or another, the fate of our civilization, and because of that it should be avoided to take into account only cultures and peoples that we consider the main ones. On the other hand, there are some cases, in which a deliberate act of recovery of elements of ancient times, specially Greek culture and the Roman Empire, took place. A good example is the iconography of Catholic Monarchs.

Yoke and arrows. Image taken from

Isabella, sister in law of Henry IV of Castilla, officially reached the throne in 1479, after a civil war that carried on few years against the king’s daughter, Juana, known by her enemies as “la Beltraneja”. Shortly later, John II of Aragón died; the monarchical succession did not present any difficulty, and his son Ferdinand became the new king. Isabella and Ferdinand, married since 1469, had to reinforce their political position by means of using different mechanisms, among them the iconography. This was more urgent in the case of the queen of Castilla, owing to the fact that she had participated in a civil war.

The use of different ideological instruments for the exaltation of the power is something that can be observed in several cases of the ancient times. Surely, the most paradigmatic case was August. Since immemorial times, in order to preserve theirposition the upper classes had used different resources. Becoming related to divine dynasties, the representation of themselves with attributes of gods,or the exaltation of their military victories, are some examples. August knew how to use all the possible mechanisms and, with his wife Livia, created a new and wide iconographic program that was brought to all the regions of the Roman Empire.

The monarchies of Castilla and Aragón used several medieval and christian elements in order to reinforce their power. The figure of Don Pelayo and The Eagle of Saint John are both clear examples. Nevertheless, with Isabella and Ferdinand, many more appeared, among them the yoke and the arrows, which already existed in ancient times. Why did they choose these symbols? The answer can be found in the historical context of the period: Renaissance ideas that defended a return to Roman and Greek values and ideas (which could be probably found by several Castilian and Aragonese people that travelled to Italy in those years). Among them, there was a person who obtained a great fame, Antonio de Nebrija, whose main achievement was the establishment of the First Latin Castilian Grammar.

Ferdinand II of Aragón, the yoke and “monta tanto

According to some documents, it was Nebrija who created the icon that would become the main emblem of Ferdinand II. The yoke is directly related to an episode of Alexander Magnus, one of the most important conquerors of the history, and because of that, a reference for most of the medieval and modern monarchs:

When Alexander arrived at Gordium, he was seized with an ardent desire to go up into the citadel, which contained the palace of Gordius and his son Midas. He was also desirous of seeing the wagon of Gordius and the cord of the yoke of this wagon. There was a great deal of talk about this wagon among the neighbouring population. It was said that Gordius was a poor man among the ancient Phrygians, who had a small piece of land to till, and two yoke of oxen. He used one of these in ploughing and the other to draw the wagon. On one occasion, while he was ploughing, an eagle settled upon the yoke, and remained sitting there until the time came for unyoking the oxen. Being alarmed at the sight, he went to the Telmissian soothsayers to consult them about the sign from the deity (…) whosoever could loosen the cord of the yoke of this wagon, was destined to gain the rule of Asia. The cord was made of cornel bark, and neither end nor beginning to it could be seen. It is said by some that when Alexander could find out no way to loosen the cord and yet was unwilling to allow it to remain unloosened, lest this should exercise some disturbing influence upon the multitude, he struck it with his sword and cutting it through, said that it had been loosened.

Arrian, Anabasis, II.3

With this story Ferdinand II tried to emulate the Macedonian sovereign. Due to this fact, the famous motto “tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando” is an erroneous variation from the original version, related to the Gordian episode: “tanto monta”, in other words, it doesn’t matter how the knot is untied.

Isabella I of Castilla and the arrows

With no doubt the principal emblem of Isabella were the arrows. With them she tried to to give a image of strength, representing the union of the different kingdoms which formed the Castilian crown. In the iconography, that appears in several documents and numismatic (and sculptural) representations; sometimes the number of arrows and their distribution (in groups or all together) varies. Without giving so much importance to this fact, surely the idea of this emblem has its roots in two ancient references. Plutarch relates an interesting story:

Scilurus, on his death-bed, being about to leave eighty sons surviving, offered a bundle of darts to each of them, and bade them break them. When all refused, drawing out one by one, he easily broke them; thus teaching them that, if they held together, they would continue strong, but if they fell out and were divided, they would become weak.

Plutarch, Moralia, “On talkativeness”, 511C

The second one is a Babrius’ fable, titled “The old farmer and his sons”, whichshows us a different tale but still a similar idea:

Among old worthies lived an ancient man with many sons: and since his life began to wane at last, that truth might so be taught, he bade that there should be before him brought a bundle of thin rods. ‘Twas soon at hand. “Now use”, said he, “the strength you each command, to break the sticks, my sons, thus closely bound”. “Well”, he rejoined, when force in vain was found, then take them one by one”. Each broke with ease. “Even thus”, he cried, “my children, to live in union, none have power to mar your bond of strength, even though superior far. But if ‘twixt brothers’ hearts exists a breach, the single rod portrays the fate of each”.

Ferdinand and Isabella knew how to use some of the iconographic elements of the ancient times for their own benefit. If the arrows were used to symbolize the union of the kingdoms that made up Castilla, the same purpose had the yoke for Ferdinand. Unfortunately or not, both emblems are closely linked to the Spanish Phalanx as they are represented in its flag. Nevertheless, as occurs with the swastika in the nazism, we must not forget that both of them are symbols that were used centuries ago with different meanings, so we should not get confused with later utilizations.

Diego Chapinal