In the writings of Luke, that is the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, Luke introduces us to three Centurions of the Roman Army. Each of these Centurions tells us something important about the spread of Christianity in Judea and each shows us a different facet of how a Gentile approached Christianity. To understand why these Centurions are important, one has to know what a Centurion was, and how the men who held this rank thought and lived.
Some Background on Being a Centurion
A Centurion was a professional soldier. Centurions had to be literate, have connections (letters of recommendation), be at least 30 years of age, and had already served about 10 years in the military.
There appear to have been some gradations of being a Centurion. The lowest level Centurion led a century of men. Under the system put in place by Marius, the uncle by marriage of Gaius Julius Caesar, in about 107 BC, a Centurion led a century of about 80 men.
Centurions led from the front. They were distinguishable from the ordinary legionary by the traverse red horsehair crest on their helmets, their sword hanging from their left hip, and their vine stick-called a vitis (with which they beat men who did not obey orders promptly).
In The Annals, Tacitus tells the story of one known as ‘Cedo Alteram’ – which roughly translates to ‘Gimme Another’: “The mutinous soldiers thrust out the tribunes and the camp-prefect; they plundered the baggage of the fugitives, and then killed a centurion, Lucilius, to whom, with soldier’s humor, they had given the nickname ‘Gimme Another’, because when he had broken one vine-stick across a soldier’s back, he would call in a loud voice for another… and another.”
The Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius a centurion in the 18th legion who was killed at Teutoburg Forest. His vitis is displayed prominently.
Usually, a legion was composed of 10 cohorts, with each cohort consisting of 6 centuries. After about 50 AD, the first cohort was composed of 5 double sized companies. Thus, after about 50AD, there were 59 centurions to a legion. The most senior centurion leading the first double strength century of the first cohort being called primus pilus (first spear). The primus pilus was included in the war councils.
The hierarchy of the legion was thus:
1 legate commanding the legion (legatus legionis)
1 senior tribune (tribunus laticlavus) who was second in command of the legion
1 Camp Prefect (Praefectus Castrorum)
5 other tribunes (tribuni augusticlavii)
Thus the Primus Pilus was under eight other officers. It should be noted that the Primus Pilus was a position which was reached after the man had served 30 to 40 years in the Legions, according to Vegetius. The position of Primus Pilus was usually held for only one year, and then the centurion was promoted to Praefectus Castrorum, that is third in command of the legion. The Praefectus Castrorum administered the supplies, weapons, armor, oversaw construction of camps and forts, and supervised training and discipline.
Why did the Centurion have to be literate? He had to be able to read the orders given him on the wax tables and make a written reply. He also administered the burial fund and the welfare funds for the century. He thus had to have good mathematical skills.
The second in command of a century was the optio, who had a tall staff-about 5 or 6 feet, which was his mark of rank. He stood behind the century and herded the men forward in battle with his staff. He too had to be literate and have math skills as he administered the pay for the century.
Centurions were paid more than the usual legionary. The ordinary legionary received about 300 denarii a year. The lowest level Centurion received about 3,750 denarii a year. A Primus Pilus might receive 15,000 denarii a year and the Praefectus Castrorum might receive 20,000 denarii a year.
Let’s put that into perspective. A denarius is equal to four sesterii. 400,000 sesterii or 100,000 denarii were needed at the beginning of the Principate of Augustus to become a Senator.
Centurions could become very wealthy men, if they saved or invested their money.
Upon retirement, legionaries were entitled to a significant discharge bonus to assist them with reintegration into society. A retiring legionary could expect to receive 3,800 denarii on discharge.
Under Augustus, veterans would spend their last four years of service in a state of “inactive reserve” until finally discharged from their unit. Although foundation of veteran colonies continued throughout the Principate, the practice lost popularity following the massive resettlement efforts after the civil war.
Centurions received 38,000 denarii upon retirement. Again the average person earned about 200 denarii a year.
What makes centurions distinct from other ranks is the fact that they became equestrians upon retirement. This meant that their sons would be able to pursue an equestrian career, opening up a massive portion of Roman society normally closed to ordinary citizens.
We know a lot about the lives of individual Centurions from their tombstones, called cenotaphs.