Through the ages, many civilizations have left their mark upon the pages of history. Among them are the armies of ancient Rome, proving to be powerful and effective in numerous military conquests. A variety of factors contributed to their success including the Roman soldier armor they wore and their battle strategies. However, a large component of their strength came from the role of Roman centurions who led their troops from victory to victory. As common characters in movies and other media, centurions are the most famous officers to emerge from the Roman military. But what did they actually do and what makes them worthy of such great acclaim?
More than a cool guy in Roman soldier armor, the job of a centurion was no easy task. He was in charge of managing a cohort of 80 to 100 men and was responsible for keeping order on the battlefield, attending to administrative work, giving out punishments, hiring new officers, and delegating duties to his unit. Essentially, he served as a sort of father figure and boss to those he was leading. As a result, all eyes were on him to set an example of upstanding character and true bravery, especially in battle. There is no doubt he felt a great deal of pressure in his position.
Centurions were generally selected from the plebian class and then promoted. As time went on, they also began to emerge from the higher equestrian class. They were nominated by the Senate and sometimes even directly appointed by the emperor. To be among the chosen, qualities of leadership and fearless valor had to be demonstrated. Most centurions stayed in their position for the duration of their career, but it was possible to advance to a higher rank, such as prefect, tribune, or member of the Senate. Perks for centurions were more pay than the standard soldier and riding on horseback rather than marching on foot.
The attire of a centurion was distinguished from the standard Roman soldier armor and consisted of a leather arming doublet with a mail shirt over it, a helmet with a sideways horsehair crest, a cloak of lavish material, a sword worn on the left side with a dagger on the right, and medals adorning the chest. Centurions also wore typical pieces of Roman soldier armor such as greaves, which covered the ankle to above the knee and a cuirass, which covered the torso with an attached skirt to protect the lower region of the body. In addition, centurions were known to carry a special stick, called a vine staff, to help establish their rank. They would use it to discipline any soldier who was out of line.
The line of centurions is long in Rome’s history and there have been quite a few that have left a lasting legacy. One that stands out is Lucius Siccius Dentatus of the 5th century BCE. His accomplishments include engagement in at least 120 battles and 8 single combat duels. Another of the greats was Spurius Ligustinus of the 2nd century BCE. Spanning 22 years in rank, he exhibited the highest level of courage and thus received 34 separate awards for it. And known for saving Julius Caesar’s life on the battlefield is the valiant P. Sextius Baculus. The centurions mentions here represent only a miniscule portion of those who are worthy of being in the Roman Hall of Fame.
The Roman Empire was indeed a thriving one for centuries and it wouldn’t have been what it was without the integral presence of centurions. These men were more than just average guys in Roman soldier armor – they were pillars who laid a foundation to make a civilization great!