Roman centurions not only commanded soldiers in battle but also enjoyed a position of respect in Roman society. So why were they called centurions?
Centurions are named after the units they commanded, with units of soldiers grouped into a centuria or a century. While the name of a centuria and indeed centurion comes from the Latin centum meaning one hundred, after the Marian reforms, a centurion typically commanded around 80 legionaries.
To find out more about the history of centurions in the Roman army and the role they played in society, read on.
What Is a Centurion?
Centurions acted as ancient Roman military officers and were named as such due to their role of commanding a centuria. For military command purposes, a centuria was the smallest unit within a Roman legion, although a centuria would be composed of a series of smaller contubernia, which were groups of eight legionaries who lived together as a unit commanded by a decanus (coming from the Latin for ten).
Following the Marian reforms of 107 BC, the Roman army was divided into legions, which, in turn, were generally divided into ten cohorts, which were then divided into six centuriae, each commanded by a centurion. Each centuria would have around 80 heavy infantry legionaries, with additional auxiliary troops performing other roles to get to around 100 soldiers, with 60 centurions in a Roman legion.
These centurions would themselves be organized by rank, with Primus pilus being the title given to the senior centurion from the senior cohort in a legion. These would be involved with more senior legion command decisions, while most centurions would not be involved.
Centurions and the Roman Army
Each centurion would have an optio and tesserarius to assist them, acting in roles similar to a lieutenant and sergeant. The optio would stand at the back of the centuria to help in communication and prevent troops from routing, while the centurion would stand at the right of the first row of men next to a banner carrier called a signifier, and the tesserarius would be assigned with keeping watch at night.
Centurions were instrumental in the Roman army for not only making sure orders were followed but also in maintaining discipline. Centurions could be notorious for their punishments and would carry vine staffs as symbols of their authority, which they could use to beat soldiers or sailors as punishment.
Like the legionaries under their command, they would also carry a pugio (dagger) and gladius (sword), but they would wear them on the opposite sides of their body to distinguish their rank.
They were also generally much better paid than the average Roman soldier and carried a great deal of respect in Roman society. A soldier could be promoted to the role of a centurion for a variety of reasons, including as a reward for valor, performing well in battle, and even for political reasons, with centurions typically being from a plebian background.
History of Centurions
Roman tradition maintains that centurions emerged with the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, in the 8th century BC. He divided his 3,000 soldiers into 100-man units called a manipulus commanded by a centurion.
By the middle of the 2nd century BC, legions were divided into 30 manipuli with 60 centuriae, each commanded by a centurion. Following the Marian reforms in 107 BC, cohorts were introduced instead, with each cohort consisting of six centuriae, meaning there were still 60 centurions to a legion.
Centurions remained significant figures in military and social life in the centuries to follow, with the tradition continuing in the Byzantine Empire where a centurion was called a kentarch.
As officers in the Roman army, centurions were given a number of important duties, including training their subordinates, leading by example in battle, and enforcing strict discipline. They would be expected to stand firm in battle even if it were to mean their deaths, and as such, typically, the bravest soldiers would be made centurions.
They were not just important in battle but also in all other aspects of military life for legionaries, such as building camps, managing logistics and communications, and helping to procure supplies.
Centurions were initially chosen from the lower plebian class, but after the 1st century BC, more and more higher-class soldiers served in the role. Considering the importance of the role, there were many requirements, including literacy to be able to read orders, good references, experience in the military, and an ability to maintain discipline.
In short, centurions were named after the centuriae that they commanded and had an important role in the organization of the Roman military for hundreds of years.