Ancient History & Civilisation

Other Officers: The Centurionate and Below

A considerable number of Roman army re-enactment groups have been formed in the last few decades These dedicated individuals both provide displays which bring to life the army to the general public, and have contributed a great deal to our knowledge of military equipment by their painstaking reconstruction and testing of armour, weapons and tools In this photograph we see members of the first serious group, the Ermine Street Guard, outside the reconstructed barrack block at Wallsend. In the centre is a centurion with his tall transverse crest. Over his mail armour he wears a harness bearing decorations including torques and the disclike phalerae. Beside him is a standard-bearer (signifer) and musician (cornucen).

There were many ranks below the levels exclusively held by senators or equestrians. The most important were the centurions, of whom there were 59 or 60 in each legion and altogether some 1,800 legionary and at least as many again auxiliary centurions throughout the Empire. The centurion commanding each century in a legion was assisted by an optio, signifer and tesserarius, who collectively were known as the principales. There were also a number of staff posts, such as librarius and cornicularius with the HQ of the legion or attached to the governor’s staff, as well as ranks such as beneficiarius, who usually served on detached duty. Many other posts, varying from weapons’ instructors to torturers, are attested, but it is difficult to know whether these appointments were associated with specific ranks. In addition a soldier could be rated as an immunis, which meant that he was exempt from many ordinary duties and fatigues. Otherwise immunes do not appear to have possessed any more authority than ordinary soldiers.

Many of these posts and grades, though by no means all, are attested under the same or an equivalent title in the auxilia.

The overwhelming mass of our evidence for understanding rank structure and careers at this level comes from the epigraphic record, since junior officers and ordinary soldiers have left little trace in the literary record. Histories were written by and for the elite in society, and present an often contemptuous, and always stereotyped, view of their social inferiors. The great dangers of reconstructing career patterns primarily from epigraphy are that we impose an artificial order on the evidence or force it to conform with our own preconceptions of what an army should be like. It was no coincidence that the German scholars who pioneered the reconstruction of the Roman army’s rank structure in the late 19th century created an image of a force that was remarkably similar to the Prussian and German armies of their own days, especially in the great variety of NCO ranks. Later, British scholars were inclined to see similarities to the British army, coming to view centurions as similar to the experienced warrant officers. We need to be both very careful of imposing anachronistic cultural assumptions on the Romans and aware that there are many things which our evidence cannot tell us.

Legionary centurions

Centurion is better thought of as a grade or type of officer, rather than a specific rank. The centurions of the first cohort, collectively known as the primi ordines, were certainly of higher status than the other centurions of the legion. The relationship between the centurions in the other nine cohorts of the legion is less clear. We know that the commander of each of the six centuries in a cohort had a different title and can infer that to some extent the differences in seniority between the three lines of the Republican army were preserved. Much administration was carried out at the level of the century, and soldiers were more likely to describe themselves as members of a particular century than a particular cohort. However, the cohort was the basic tactical unit, as well as playing a significant role in building projects, and cannot have functioned effectively without a commander. There is no evidence for any rank equivalent to the auxiliary prefect, and the conclusion must be that one of the centurions acted as cohort commander. The pilus prior, commander of the senior century, would seem the most probable candidate for this role, but it is also possible that seniority and hence command was instead based on length of service.

Caesar talks of promoting centurions from a lower grade in an experienced legion to a higher grade in a newly recruited unit, implying a rise in status, responsibility and perhaps pay, though not admission to the first cohort. The Late Roman theorist Vegetius claimed that promotion for centurions and all other ranks in the legion involved movement between cohorts as well as centuries. According to him the first cohort was senior, followed by the second, third and so on. On promotion a man was immediately posted to the tenth cohort and had to begin to work his way step by step back up the order of seniority. Therefore some scholars believed that a man would normally work his way from being hastatus posterior of the tenth cohort, and hence the junior centurion in the entire legion, stage by stage until he reached the post of primus pilus in the first. Yet it is very difficult to see how this system could possibly have worked. Unless such a process took an incredibly long time, then no one could have served for more than a few months in any of these capacities. An alternative view was to see the six century grades in cohorts two to ten as equal, so that promotion was either to a senior century in any cohort, or eventually into the privileged ranks of the primi ordines. Other commentators have gone further and denied that there was any distinction between centurions outside the first cohort. This seems too extreme, and whilst we must admit that we do not fully understand the system, it is clear that one existed.

Many legionaries identified strongly with their century and legion, but far less with their cohort. This altar from Chester was dedicated to the genius or protective spirit of his century by the optio Aelius Claudianus in fulfilment of a vote.

Re-enactors from the Ermine Street Guard representing some of the principales or junior officers/NCOs of a century. On the right is an optio holding his staff of office (hastile). It is not known whether distinctive crests and plumes were used as insignia of rank by optionee and tesserarii as was the case with centurions, but it seems plausible that they were.

Becoming a centurion

We know of three basic routes to appointment as a legionary centurion:

(i) After service in the ranks, as a principalis or in a junior staff post in the legion: it has been estimated that on average it took a man 15 to 20 years to become centurion in this way.

(ii) After or in the course of service in the praetorian guard: praetorians served for only 16 years, making their veterans somewhat younger than their legionary counterparts.

(iii) Direct commission: some equestrians were appointed in this way. Other men who were less wealthy, but still relatively well off, gained appointments after service as magistrates in their local city.

All three methods are reasonably well attested throughout the 1st and 2nd centuries. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to assess which method was most common. One of the first scholars to study promotion in any detail argued that most officers came from the ranks of the praetorian guard. This allowed the emperor to ensure that the bulk of the centurions in the legions were men promoted because of their loyalty to him. However, since a disproportionately large part of surviving inscriptions come from Italy - the main recruiting ground for the praetorians but not the legions - it is likely that Italian centurions, and therefore former praetorians, are too highly represented in the record. Few scholars now accept this view and most instead assume that the vast majority of legionary centurions were promoted from the ranks. Directly commissioned men are assumed to have been only a small proportion of the total even if, with their superior connections, they had a greater prospect of reaching the highest posts.

Yet, even though this view is now generally accepted, it rests on very slender evidence. The overwhelming majority of centurions attested make no mention of any service prior to that rank, as indeed many primi pilares fail to mention any more junior posts. It is conveniently assumed that this was because men wished to conceal service as ordinary soldiers once they had risen to higher station. Whilst this is possible, it is equally plausible to suggest that those men who specifically mentioned rising from the ranks did so because they were very proud of what was a rare and difficult achievement.

The 1st-century AD tombstone of the centurion Marcus Favonius Facilis from Colchester provides one of the best images of an officer of this rank. Facilis is shown in mail and holding his vine cane (vitis), which was both a mark of rank and a means of inflicting punishment. As a centurion Facilis wears his gladius sword on the left. As with most centurions’ memorials, this monument records very few details of Facilis' service or even age All we are told is that he was a centurion in Legio XX.

The status of centurions

Centurions were extremely important individuals who might be given positions of considerable responsibility. Some were appointed to administer regions of a province where they were the most senior representative of Roman rule. Such duties, as well as the routine administration required in the daily life of their unit, meant that centurions required a high level of literacy and numeracy. It is very hard to know just how high a proportion of ordinary recruits to the legions were sufficiently well educated. The most senior might have even greater responsibilities, and we know of at least one primus pilus who was sent as ambassador to Parthia. Retired centurions were also important men in their own cities, towns or villages.

Rates of pay for centurions, and indeed many other officers, are not known with certainty, but were clearly substantially more than those of the ordinary soldiers. Pliny the Younger, having secured a commission as a centurion - presumably directly from civilian life - for one of his clients, provided the man with 40,000 sesterces to provide himself with the necessary uniforms and equipment. At a time when ordinary legionaries received 1,200 sesterces a year, this was more than they would have earned in their entire 25 years of service. Centurions were clearly men of great status, even if they were still less influential than equestrian and senatorial officers. The sheer fact that some equestrians chose to become centurions is an indication of their importance and prestige. On the whole it seems more likely that most centurions were directly commissioned or promoted after a comparatively short time, probably having served as a principalis or in a junior staff post. We know of one centurion who was only 18 when he died, which suggests that patronage had secured his appointment. As with the more senior officers, connections probably did more to shape the speed and success of a man’s career than simple ability or experience. Yet, as with the higher posts, the system was not so rigid that able men could not make their way in spite of their lack of connections. Men were able to progress to become primi pilares, a few perhaps even of these having first joined in the ranks, and thus enter the equestrian order and hold some senior equestrian posts. Their sons were able to pursue a full equestrian career, in the same way that some equestrian families were eventually able to enter the Senate. Usually such advancement was spread over a generation or so, although in a few rare cases individuals were able to do this. Social mobility was always possible at Rome.

(Above) A 2nd-century AD relief from Turin appearing to show a centurion - note the sword worn on the left - and another soldier. His armour is either a traditional muscled cuirass or was originally painted silver to suggest mail He is carrying what appear to be writing tablets, which suggests he had an administrative role.

Two Examples of Centurions' Careers

A: The career of the centurion Petronius Fortunatus (late 1st/early 2nd century ad; died aged 80 years) as recorded on his tombstone found at Lambaesis in North Africa:

1 Enlisted in Legio I Italica (Lower Moesia). Over four years held in succession the posts of librarius, tesserarius, optio, and signifer.

2 Promoted to centurion in the same legion by the vote of his comrades.

3 The next 46 years spent as centurion with Legio VI Ferrata (in Syria), I Minervia (Lower Germany), X Gemina (Upper Pannonia), II Augusta (Britain), III Augusta (Numidia), III Gallica (Syria again), XXX Ulpia (Lower Germany again), VI Victrix (Britain again), III Cyrenaica (Arabia), XV Apollinaris (Cappadocia), II Parthica (probably Italy), I Aduitrix (either Upper or Lower Pannonia). During this time he was decorated with a mural crown (given to the first man over the wall of an enemy town), as well as other decorations including torques and phalerae.

4 His tombstone also mentioned a son, who died aged 35 and had served for six years as a centurion in the army (and was therefore probably directly commissioned), successively with Legio XXII Primigenia and Legio II Augusta.

B: The career of Caius Octavius Honoratus (1st/2nd century ad; age at death unknown) as recorded on his tombstone found in Thuburnica in Africa:

1 Directly commissioned as centurion from the equestrian order in Legio II Augusta (Britain).

2 Service successively in Legio VII Claudia pia fidelis (Upper Moesia), XVI Flavia firma (Syria), X Gemina (Upper Pannonia). Ended his service as a princeps posterior (the fourth senior grade of centurion in an ordinary cohort) in the fifth cohort of X Gemina. No details of age or length of service given on monument.

This memorial to the family of Voconius from the Colonia Augusta Emerita (modern- day Merida in Spain) makes no mention of any connection with the army. However, above the inscription there is a depiction of a centurion's harness and two types of military decoration - torques and armillae. It is therefore probable that someone in the family had served as a centurion.

Auxiliary centurions

Far less is known about centurions in the auxilia, although again it has often been assumed that they were promoted from the ranks and therefore usually of the same ethnic background as their men. There is some evidence from papyri to suggest that a man usually became a decurion in charge of a turma of cavalry after between eight and 25 years in the ranks. However, many centurions do appear to have been directly commissioned and to have come from the wealthier families and local aristocracies. This may well have been the most common practice. The evidence suggests that a significant proportion of auxiliary soldiers were illiterate, making them unsuitable for promotion. As far as we can tell none of the texts from Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall were written by anyone lower in rank than a principalis.

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