What was a Centurion in Ancient Rome?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Roman military was complex and well organized. In this lesson, we'll examine the centurion and see what his role was in helping to maintain the Roman military machine.

The Centurion

The Romans were great at a lot of things, but they were especially skilled at war. The Roman military was one of the most polished and well organized in history, and was carefully managed down to the soldier. At its heart was the centurion, a Roman officer who commanded his men directly on the battlefield. Not only serving as commanders, centurions also engaged in combat and were tremendously respected for their bravery, valor, and leadership. They were heroes to the Roman people, and key figures in one of the most successful militaries of all time.

The Roman military was a formidable force in the ancient world

The Centurion and the Military

To understand the role of the centurion, we can first look to its origins. An ancient historian (Dionysius of Halicarnassus) records that the rank of centurion was first developed by the Etruscans, the native people of central Italy, and brought into the Roman military system by Servius Tullius, an Estrucan king of Rome. However, Roman legends tell a different story: they hold that the mythical founder of Rome, Romulus, had used 30 centurions in his armies since Rome's beginning.

In any case, centurions became important officers in the Roman Republic. As Rome grew, the army became larger and more organized, and centurions took on more defined roles. During the time of the early Roman Empire, following military reforms by the consul Gaius Marius in 107 BC, the Roman military was divided into legions, which were units of roughly 6,000 soldiers. Each legion was broken into units of around 600 men called cohorts. Within each cohort were six centuries (centuriae in Latin), which was a unit of around 100 soldiers (this number varied as the military developed, but at this point in time, and most famously, it was 80 soldiers). The officer in charge of a century (centuria, the Latin singular) was a centurion. (Both words come from the Latin centum, which means 'hundred.') Altogether, there were six centurions in a cohort, and sixty in a legion.

Centurions had a large degree of authority over their unit, and were responsible for its training, discipline, and maintenance. They were also the role model of the unit, expected to stay strong and dedicated in the harshest and most impossible of circumstances. With this system, each centurion operated his centuria as both an independent unit and as part of the larger operations of the cohort or legion. The centurions were responsible for putting the orders of the legion directly into effect on the battlefield.

Role in Roman Society

Being a centurion was dangerous work with a high fatality rate, so why do it? Throughout Roman history, military service was one of the most successful paths to power for those born without it. Originally, all centurions were selected from the plebeian (lower) class. Later, non-Romans in the army were granted the right to serve as centurions as well.

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