We know of the centurions of the Roman army a number of important and interesting things. We know that they were the most experienced and, in Caesar’s often implied opinion, the most efficient and reliable officers in the army. We know the names of many of them-Baculus, Pulio, Vorenus, Scaeva. For the army in the generations immediately after Caesar, we have inscriptions in such great quantities that a complete examination of them is hardly a feasible undertaking. But one thing we do not know, either for Caesar’s army or for that of the early Empire, and that is the way they were promoted-what might be called their cursus honorum. We know that there was such a thing; that the order in which these officers advanced from the least honourable to the most honourable of their charges was governed by fixed rules, but we do not know what these rules were.
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.Vegetius. De Re Militari, II, 14
Centurions in the Republic
During the mid-late Republic, centurions were not appointed as permanent officers, but were chosen together with their soldiers for Rome’s army through the annual levy (dilectus).
The military tribunes would assign soldiers according to their four classes of age and wealth (velites, hastati, principes, triarii). The latter three classes each elected twenty centurions, each pair of whom led maniples of 60 to 120 men, while the most prestigious of all centurions, the primuspilus, joined the commander’s body of advisors (officium).
Military experience and a reputation for personal bravery are cited by ancient authors as the primary factors in the selection of centurions in the Republican period.
The Principes, Hastati, and Triarii, each elect ten Election of Centurions. centurions according to merit, and then a second ten each. All these sixty have the title of centurion alike, of whom the first man chosen is a member of the council of war.Polybius, Histories, Book VI
Centurions within the Structure of a Legion
There were sixty centurions in each legion, two connected with each maniple, as senior and junior captain respectively (centurio prior et posterior), of this, the tactical unit of the Roman army.” Every cohort, accordingly, had six. In Caesar’s army, the ten cohorts were numbered consecutively, from prima to decima. The three maniples of each cohort were not numbered but named, according to what were once the three fundamental divisions of the army-triarii, principes, and hastati. In Caesar’s time these names had lost most of their meaning but still probably implied a real gradation in experience and efficiency, in the order named.
The maniple was arranged in two rows, each of which was properly called an ordo, and somewhat less properly, a centuria. The maniple of triarii was known simply as the pilus; while the words hastatus and princeps were applied as adjectives directly to the word manipulus as often as they were to the soldiers. In every cohort there was, therefore, a pilus, a manipulus princeps, a manipulus hastatus, and these divided into two ordines, a prior and a posterior ordo.
The name primus pilus, then, denotes the first maniple of the first cohort, primus hastatus (manipulus), the second, etc. The name secundus pilus refers to the first maniple of the second cohort, and so on, till we reach the decimus hastatus, the third maniple of the tenth cohort. The centurions themselves might be known with their maniple in the genitive case after their title, i.e., centurio primi pili, (?) centurio primi principis, etc. But they were most commonly known briefly by the name of their maniple, which is, the centurion of the second maniple of the sixth cohort would be called sixtus princeps. The senior captain (centurio prior) commanded the maniple, so that the phrase primum pilum ducere means exactly what it says.
The term centuriones ordinarii was applied to centurions actually in command of centuries, as opposed to those detailed for detached service – e.g. on the staff of a governor, in the Praetorian Guard, or commanding independent, non-legionary units.
How did you become a Centurion?
Promotion from the junior officers in the legion (the principales), the approach most often associated with Centurions. Extensive experience, daring acts of courage, or service in a more junior command post could earn an ordinary legionary the chance to become a Centurion. The position became a reward for those who had served well. This ensured that most units were led by men with the skills, experience, and courage the Roman Army wanted from its battlefield commanders.
Ordinary soldiers would need to go through one or two of the junior principalships, being promoted to senior principal, and serving in that capacity for at least ten years. Most often, a soldier of the legion was promoted to centurion from the post of cornicular, if he served in the office of the governor, aquilifer, or, less often, signifer – if he served in the centurion.
This path required from the applicant long years of service. Such soldiers received the centurionate most often as veterans who became evocates after they retired. On average, veteran soldiers became centurions closer to the age of 50, which by the standards of that time was already quite an advanced age. Many by that time had behind them service experience that significantly exceeded the prescribed 25-year term. According to the inscriptions, at least 18 centurions are known who served for more than 40 years, and four of them managed to rise to the highest rank of primipil. Lucius Maximus Getulicus, who was awarded the title of Primipil of the I Italian Legion, served 57 years, and Aelius Silvanus of the II Auxiliary Legion spent 61 years in the service.
The passage of a career could be accelerated by moving from the legion to the auxiliary units. Often, centurions for auxiliary cohorts were appointed from among the senior principals of the legions, who commanded the units entrusted to them, without losing contact with the “native” legion. After several years of service in this position, they acquired the opportunity to transfer back to the legion with a promotion to the centurion of the legion. The same transfer from the post of principal to the post of centurion of the auxiliary unit, and from there to the centurions of the legion, occurs from time to time in the careers of people from the Praetorian Guard. Preposite officers who led the small garrisons of the limes fortifications, as well as commanded the numbers of scouts recruited from the border barbarians ( numer iexploratorum ), were also often recruited from the principals of the legion. The corresponding position for them became a stage on the way to obtaining a centurionate.
Status and salary
Firstly, there were direct commissions. Some men from the equestrian class, unable to gain another military post, took this option, as did wealthy men who had served as local magistrates.
Augustus raised the salaries of the centurions, created new posts for them, and paved the way for a career in equestrianism . During the era of the Civil Wars, the salary of a centurion exceeded the income of ordinary soldiers by about five times. At the beginning of the 1st century AD. legionnaires received 225 denarii per year, and the salary of the centurion II-X cohorts (3750 denarii) exceeded this amount by more than 16 times. Centurions-ordinaries had a double salary, amounting to 7,500 denarii per year, and legions received even 15,000 denarii per year. In addition, the centurions received generous gifts from the emperor. Upon retirement, they were entitled to a bonus of 100,000 denarii.
Thus, a retired veteran could live as a wealthy retired man or continue down the honour road in imperial service as a camp prefect or even a military tribune. The career ceiling for them was the equestrian prefecture, obtaining the position of procurator in one of the small provinces, the position of the prefect of Egypt or the prefect of the praetorium. Augustus’ successors sought to continue his policies. For example, the emperor Domitian raised the rate of a soldier’s salary by a third, while proportionally increasing the income of the centurions.
Metilius Crispus, a fellow-townsman of mine. I had obtained for him a military appointment, and on his departure had presented him with 40,000 sesterces towards the purchase of his arms and accoutrementsPliny, Letters Book 6, To Hispanus 25
L. Decrius Longinus, for example, was appointed centurion through the influence of his senatorial patron (Notizie degli Scavi 1913, 22)
Promotion from the Praetorian guards
The post of centurion looked very attractive to the soldiers of the Praetorian cohorts. For service in the guard, mainly Italian youth were selected from Latium, Etruria and Umbria, as well as the old Roman colonies. Proximity to the imperial court and the opportunity to acquire useful connections opened up excellent career opportunities for ambitious and motivated young people.
Those of them who, after 16 years of service, retired from one of the senior principal positions in the guard, could receive a position as a centurion in the legion or in one of the city cohorts, enrolling in long-term service as an evocatus ( evocatus Augusti). Further, they, by choice, could, remaining in the army, gradually rise up the career of a centurion, aiming for the post of primipil; or, after several years of service in the legion or in the city cohorts, transfer back to the guards and receive the post of centurion here. Finally, another opportunity opened up for the centurions of the guard: after several years of service, they could again transfer to the legion or city cohorts with a promotion in rank to take the position of one of the centurions-ordinaries or, which was much less common, immediately receive the position of primipil. In general terms, the corresponding structure of the career of a centurion arose already under the Flavius, but it finally took shape only after the reign of Hadrian.
Eric Birley analyzed the careers of the Praetorians known from the inscriptions and came to the conclusion that the path of most of them was by no means strewn with roses. Of the approximately 280 evocates known from the inscriptions, only 36 applicants received a promotion, which many of them had to wait for many years. Fifteen of these last managed to successfully continue their careers and eventually rise to the position of primipil, and six of them were able to advance even further in the service. Also known from inscriptions are 29 centurions of the Praetorian cohorts, who were transferred from the guards to the legions with a promotion to the centurion of one of the primi ordines : 11 of them were able to rise to the rank of primipil, and two managed to continue their careers as prefects and procurators.
This statistic shows that those who came from the guard had a good chance of further promotion, but only after they became centurions. It is believed that in the middle of the 2nd century, about 30% of the centurions in the legions were from the Praetorian guard, and another 10% were from the equestrian class. This retained the distinctly Italian character of the officer corps of the provincial legions, right up to the era of the Severs.
How are Centurions Promoted?
During the early Empire, legionary centurions gradually rose in seniority within their cohort, commanding centuries with successively higher precedence, until they commanded the senior centuria and therefore the whole cohort. Most centurions of the Second to Tenth cohorts seem not to have advanced beyond this level.
Vegetius describes a highly complex hierarchy in which when promoted, a soldier is positioned in the
tenth cohort and has to work his way up to the first cohort through a series of promotions; this may have involved moving up century by century in each cohort, so it would take 59 steps to reach the position of primus pilus, or more simply, moving up cohort by cohort, taking ten steps to becoming chief centurion.
A soldier, as he advances in rank, proceeds as it were by rotation through the different degrees of the several cohorts in such a manner that one who is promoted passes from the first cohort to the tenth, and returns again regularly through all the others with a continual increase of rank and pay to the first.Vegetius. De Re Militari, II, 21
Only the very best were then promoted to become primi ordines, commanding the five
doubled centuriae of the First Cohort, and also taking on staff roles within the legion. Such
promotion was initially to Hastatus Posterior of the First Cohort, and thence in four steps to
This rank was the most coveted and the most difficult to reach, because it demanded considerable education, administrative talent, and the support of an influential patron. The appointment as primus pilus or ‘first javelin’ in a legion could only be held for one year, after which he either retired (rarely), or moved on in his career. All those who had occupied the position of primus pilus formed a class or order called primipilares, and enjoyed special rewards and privileges.
On reaching his camp, to show his vigilance and strictness as a commander, he dismissed in disgrace the generals who were late in bringing in the auxiliaries from various places, and in reviewing his troops he deprived many of the chief centurions who were well on in years of their rank, in some cases only a few days before they would have served their time, giving as a reason their age and infirmity; then railing at the rest for their avarice, he reduced the rewards given on completion of full military service to six thousand sesterces.The Life of Caligula, 44
Those who continued in the army thereafter might be appointed for a time to the staffs of commanding officers, or were at the emperor’s disposal for temporary duties and extra legionary commands.
A small number of men held the position for a second time, in two different legions, sometimes consecutively (primus pilus bis), sometimes with one or more other posts intervening (primus pilus iterum). This was normally followed by appointment to more senior positions on the equestrian career ladder.
How long did the Centurions serve?
An excellent example of the career of a centurion of the Republican era is Spurius Ligustinus, known to us from the story of Titus Livy (Livy, Book 42 Paragraph 34). In 171 BC. Spurius Ligustin volunteered for the army intended for the war against the Macedonian king Perseus. Livy reports that there were so many volunteers that many veteran centurions, including Spurius Ligustin, had to take positions below those for which they applied. From his speech addressed to the people’s assembly, we learn that out of his 50-something years of life, Spurius Ligustin served 22 years: first, three years as a soldier, and then as a centurion. At the same time, in each subsequent campaign, he received an increasingly higher rank until he rose to the position of the first centurion of the first century. Then he was primipil (the highest-ranking centurion) four more times in different legions, received 34 awards for bravery and six wreaths for saving the life of a Roman citizen.
Epigraphic evidence indicates that an important criterion for promotion to primuspilus was seniority through length of service. Unlike the equestrian and senatorial officers above them, as well as the milites below, there was no limit to the centurions’ term of service in the Principate. A miles enlisted in the ranks for up to twenty-five years of service before honourable discharge (honesta missio).
Many were definitely not discharged after twenty-five years, but served well beyond that duration. Men such as Titus Flavius Virilis, still serving as a centurion at the age of 70 and Petronius Fortunatus until 80!
CIL-VIII-2877 - T. Flavius Virilis CIL VIII 2877 ILS 2653
D(is) M(anibus) T. Fl(avius) Virilis, (centurion) of the legion(ion) II Aug(ustae),
(centurion) leg(ionis) XX V(aleriae) V(ictricis), (centurio) leg(ionis) VI
Vic(tricis), (centurion) XX V(aleriae) V(ictricus), (centurion) leg(ion) III
Aug(ustae), (centurion) legion(ion) III Parth(icae) Sever(ianae) (in cohort)
(ninth) hast(atus) poster(ior) lived 70 years, stip(endiae) 35, Lollia
Bodicca the spouse and heirs of Flavi(us) Victor and Victorinus son —
CIL-VIII-217 - Petronius Fortunatus
he served for 50 years, 4th in the 1st Italian legion, librar(ius) tesser(arius), option,
a standard-bearer, having been made by the vote of his legion [them] served as a (centurion) of legion I
Ital(ica), (centurion) leg(ion) VI[F]erratae, (centurion) leg(ion) I Min(erviae),
(centurion) leg(ion) X Gem(inae), (centurion) leg(ion) II A[ug(ustae)1,
(centurion) leg(ion) III Aug(ustae), (centurion) leg(ion) II [I]Gall(icae),
(centurion) leg(ion) 30 U[l]p(iae), (centurion) leg(ion) 6 Vic(tricis),
(centurion) leg(ion) III Cyr(enaica), (centurion) leg(ion) XV Apol(linaris)
(centurion) leg(ion) II of Par(thica), (centurion) leg(ion) I Adiutricus, obtained
for his valor in the Parthian campaign a mural crown, a vallar collar, and
harnesses, acts on the opening day of the completed 80 years, for himself and Claudia Marcia
Capitoline Koniugi lcarissima that acts on the day of the opening completed 65 years and
M. Petronius the son of Fortunatus served in the year(s) of the sixth (century) of the legion(ion) X X II
Primitive, (centurion) leg(ion) 2 Aug(ustae) lived 35 year(s) to whom
Fortunatus and Marcia have made a dear memory of their parents.
According to the author of the Historia Augusta, Hadrian felt compelled to issue an edict concerning the length of service in the legions:
Furthermore, with regard to the length of military service, he issued an order that no one should violate ancient usage by being in service at an earlier age than his strength warranted, or at a more advanced one than common humanity permitted.Historia Augusta – The Life of Hadrian, Chapter 10
Career progression after being a Centurion
The primipilate became the chief gateway by which men of modest background and fortune might gain admission to positions usually reserved for members of the privileged classes. All primipilares or ex-primipili were granted by the emperor a sum of money sufficient to qualify them for admission to the equestrian order, thus opening the way to possible appointments as tribunes and prefects.
Centurions fell into two distinct groups: those who were promoted from the ranks; and those who began their military careers with ‘direct commissions’ into the centurionate – significant numbers of whom were already of the equestrian class.
The Equestrian Centurions
Most of those who advanced beyond primus pilus had begun their careers as ‘directly commissioned’ centurions, or, in exceptional cases, were ex-soldiers of the Praetorian cohorts who had been promoted centurion.
The prefects and tribunes who were former centurions – usually called viri militares – probably became more numerous as the higher social classes gradually withdrew from military service during the 3rd century. We find in this period examples of legionary principales who rose to become primi pili, and finally attained the equestrian positions.
In most cases – particularly after the period of the Flavian emperors – the first primipilate was followed by appointment as a tribune in the city of Rome, and a second primipilate by the tribunate of a Praetorian cohort. hypothesis will seem intensified by the fact that one of these theories is supported by both Mommsen and v. Domaszewski.
Uniform & Armour of a Centurion
A Centurion’s Helmet
Besides the centurions, now called centenarii, were distinguished by different crests on their helmets, to be more easily known by the soldiers of their respective centuries.Vegetius. De Re Militari, II, 13
Centurions often wore a helmet (galea), with a distinctive transverse crest (crista transversa) to allow his men to recognize him easily in battle, made from died hair or feather plume, typically ostrich or peacock feathers. In the later Roman Empire, centurion helmets carried insignia in silver.
Evidence from the gravestones of two centurions from the 1st century AD show the crest was often the crista transversa, i.e. it ran across the helmet from side to side , with the crest of M. Petronius Classicus made of feathers (right) and that of arcus Petronius Classicus (left) apparently made from horse hair.
As shown below, from the centurion on the Arc d’Orange, the horsehair crest could also be positioned front to back and ending in a horse-tail.
Early centurion helmets could also have a faceguard or mask sculpted into the form of, for example, a horned Silenus.
The Armor of a Centurion
But the centurions had complete cuirasses, shields, and helmets of iron, the crest of which, placed transversely thereon, were ornamented with silver that they might be more easily distinguished by their respective soldiers.Vegetius. De Re Militari, II, 16
His armour included greaves (ocreae), which usually had engraved decoration, and a bronze cuirass (thorax stadios) chest plate, either belly-shaped or sculpted to replicate muscles or incorporating scaled armour (lorica squamata). Alternatively, he could wear a leather version or lighter stiffened linen cuirass (linothorax). Chest (and back) armour could also have shoulder guards (humeralia) and protective hanging strips (pteryges) for the upper arms and groin and even a neck protector at the back.
In the 1st century CE, a short-sleeved ringmail armour vest was also common amongst centurions. A tunic was worn under the armour, which for centurions was either white, off-white, or various shades of red. A cloak (sagulum) could be worn, which was typically blue or green with a yellow border and tied at the front using a brooch or fibula.
Centurions Vine Stick – Vitis latina
A centurion also carried a 90 cm vine-stick cudgel (vitis latina) as a measure of his rank. It was little more than a hardened vine-sapling, waist-high, and held by hand at the knobbed end. It was wielded like a cane or switch by centurions, who had the authority to inflict corporal punishment on citizen-soldiers.
By the first century AD at the latest, the vitis clearly identified a centurion and was used like an insignia.
Seeking to become a centurion was described as ‘to petition for the vitis‘ (vitem poscere), while a centurion at the end of his military service was said to ‘lay down his vitis‘ (vitem ponere).
Tacitus’ tells us of a centurion who was a famous abuser of his position whose disciplinary excesses probably led to the outbreak of the revolt in the legions on the death of Augustus.
and they killed a centurion, Lucilius, to whom, with soldiers’ humour, they had given the name “Bring another,” because when he had broken one vine-stick on a man’s back, he would call in a loud voice for another and another.Cornelius Tacitus – The Annals, Book One Chapter 23
Centurion Minucius Lorarius
The Tomb of Minucius Lorarius depicts him holding a Vitis. Lorarius actually translates as ‘flogger‘ or ‘the thrasher‘. He was centurion of the legio Martia and was probably killed at Forum Gallorum in 43BC or the crossing of the Adriatic in 42BC.
Centurion Marcus Favonius
Below is the tombstone of Centurion Marcus Favonius Facilis from Colchester Castle Museum. It shows the costume of a Roman Centurion. The vine stick (vitis latina) tells that he is a centurion. He is wearing a dagger, body and leg armour. The tomb would have originally be brightly painted. His tombstone gave his name, his tribe (Polian Voting Tribe) and that he was a centurion of the Twentieth Legion. (RIB 200)
Phalerae of the Centurion
On top of all this, centurions also wore the awards they had received for valour, which could include heavy necklaces (torques), bracelets (armillae), and medallions (phalerae), which were worn attached to a leather chest harness.
Tombstone of Marcus Caelius
Marcus Caelius (c. March 45 BC – c. September AD 9) was the senior centurion ( Primus pilus) in XVIII Roman Legion who was killed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Caelius is depicted wearing his military uniform, with phalerae (a type of military decoration), armillae (a type of bracelet), and a corona civica (an award for saving a fellow citizen’s life), while in his right hand, he holds a vitis (carried by all centurions). On either side of his image are his freedmen, Privatus and Thiaminus.
Tombstones of Sertorii Family
This can also be seen in the Gravestone of the Sertorii family, at the Archaeological Museum, Verona. Quintus Sertorius Festus (on the left) was a Centurion of legio XI Claudia Pia Fidelis in the mid-1st century AD. The rod in his right hand indicates that he was a centurion with the right to beat soldiers. Details of his nine phalerae are hardly discernible today, but can be partly reconstructed with the aid of a drawing made by the 19th century Italian archaeologist Orti Manara. The upper discs at left and right show eagle motifs, and between them is a pelta shield with five spreading vegetal designs. At centre is a gorgoneion; below this is a horse in right profile, flanked by two male faces – one of them bearded, and probably representing Neptune, tutelary god of the Legio XI Claudia. He is wearing lorica squamata covering shoulders, with pteryges; greaves (covering knees, embossed)
The Shield of a Centurion
In the Imperial Period, oval shields could be carried, but generally the centurions seem to have used the same shield type as the troops under their command. The typical shield in the Roman Republic was either the circular clipeus or the rectangular scutum.
In the early Republic, weaponry for centurions varied, often depending on their rank and personal preference. They could carry a spear (hasta) and sword (ensis), the latter being worn on the left side, which was in contrast to the legionaries who wore theirs on the right hip.
The legionary gladius is generally thought to have been worn on the right by gregales, and the centurion had his on his left hip.
Different swords were used, but the most favoured was the straight double-edged xiphos or the curved machaira. From the 2nd century BCE, the gladius hispaniensis became the sword of choice. With a length around 65 cm, it usually had a trilobate or hemispherical pommel and was carried in a silver scabbard hung either on a balteus strap hanging over the shoulder and across the chest or from a belt (cingulum). A dagger (pugio) around 25 cm long could also be worn, often hanging horizontally from the belt.