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August 20, 2019 2 min read

Of all the officers and ranks of the ancient Roman Army, the centurion is probably the most famous. When did centurions first appear, how were they chosen and how many were there and who was at their command?

Legends tells us that Romulus led the first army of Rome in the mid-8th century BC. His army was made up of 3000 men, with 30 centurions each commanding a 100 man infantry troop. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus (now Bodrum, Turkey), however, the Romans actually adopted the centurion rank from the Etruscans. The Etruscan civilisation flourished in central Italy between the 8th and 3rd century BC. It was renounced for its mineral resources and was a major Mediterranean trading power. Dionysius stated that it was the Etruscan king of Rome, Servius Tullius (c. 579-534 BC) who incorporated the centurion system into the Roman army. By the late 6th century BC, the Roman army had two legions, each made up of 3000 heavy hoplite infantry, 1200 light infantry and 300 cavalry. As it was conquered by Rome in the 3rd century, Etruscan culture was either ruthlessly obliterated, or assimilated.

Centurions were chosen from the army ranks after experience on the battlefield and valour shown. They had a key role in maintaining order and ensuring military success. They commanded units of around 100 legionaries, known as a maniple (Latin manipulus, meaning a handful). Each maniple had its own military insignia, or standard, also called a maniple. Although it varied over time, 60 groups of maniples made up a legion of around 6000. The most senior centurion in each legion was the primus pilus, who had a seat on the military council. Centurions bravely took their position in the front line of their troops during battle, which meant they had a high fatality rate. 

The Roman army became more professional over time and centurions were no longer chosen from the lower plebian class and, by the 1st century BC, were from the higher equestrian class. Centurions were promoted from the ranks, elected or chosen by the Senate, and in some cases even appointed by the Emperor of Rome. They also had more administrative duties, so had to have appropriate education. Senior centurions rose to the higher ranks and even became members of the Senate. The centurion mentioned most often in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars is P. Sextius Baculus, who saved Caesar’s life on the battlefield. This is just one of many experienced veterans, who commanded fear and respect from both Romans and enemy troops.

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