All Work and No Play The Roman Centurion

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    Oct 20, 2012
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With every successful army comes a successful leader.  The Roman military is no exception to this statement.  In fact, from the Romans came one of the most courageous and respectable of leaders…the centurion.

A centurion was a highly regarded officer of the Roman army, and sometimes the Roman navy, whose role developed following the Marian reforms of 107 BC.  Centurions were in charge of a centuria (meaning hundred) or a “century”.  Though a century is representative of 100, it is widely agreed upon that a smaller number of men were in these groups.  Developed from the Roman tribal system, these cohorts could contain 60-80 men.  Needless to say, a centurion had his hands full!  As with any position of power and prestige, not just anyone could step into this role.  Requirements for being a centurion included previous Roman military experience, being at least 30 years old, having an education and being literate, and coming highly recommended.  Same as in today’s culture where it’s all about who you know, such was the case with the men of the Roman army.  To get a foot in the door, a man needed connections. 

Late Roman Empire writer, Vegetius, described the qualities of a centurion in this way:

The centurion in the infantry is chosen for his size, strength and dexterity in throwing his missile weapons and for his skill in the use of his sword and shield; in short for his expertness in all the exercises. He is to be vigilant, temperate, active and readier to execute the orders he receives than to talk; Strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers, in obliging them to appear clean and well-dressed and to have their arms constantly rubbed and bright.” 

As you can see, the position of centurion came with great expectation and diligent discipline.  On the plus side, these men were compensated with the highest pay, often double that of the average legionaire. 

Centurions were courageous and honorable, as they inspired their men by example in battle.  They demonstrated their sharp skill and confidence, proving their worth and showing that no mistake was made in giving them the esteemed position.  Centurions boldly fought alongside their legionaries, usually going in front and choosing a position to the front right of the century formation.  However, as masterful a fighter as a centurion was, casualties of war were inevitable. 

In addition to a centurion maintaining himself, he was also personally responsible for the men in his century.  He was given the task of training and disciplining them.  Due to this fact, centurions were known for being extremely strict and administering harsh punishments.  I would imagine that they would resemble boot camp officers of today.  As a symbol of authority, centurions carried a stick known as a “vitus”, which they would use for punishment such as striking their men’s backs.

The duties and lifestyle of centurions were no doubt grueling, but they played a huge part in bringing order and success to the Roman army.  These men have even been the subject of fictional works, going to show that their honor has not been forgotten.

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