How to become a Roman centurion

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
The officers known as centurions (Latin centuriones, singular centurio) formed the backbone of the Roman Army of Antiquity, very possibly from its conception straight up to its fall in the West. The word 'centurio' itself denotes a commander of one-hundred, though the number of troops actually commanded by a centurion varied, depending on the time period as well as his rank. In the typical late Republic-early Imperial legion, he commanded 80 soldiers (milites) and 20 military servants (calones).

Centurions are conspicuous in Roman military history from the early days of the Republic. Their role was not merely administrative, but very much tactical - they played an active role in combat, leading their men from a front and suffering a worryingly high casualty rate accordingly. In battle, the centurion was easily identified by the transverse crest on his helmet, and the vine-staff (vitis) he carried as a symbol of his authority and enforcer of discipline. Tacitus tells us of the centurion Lucilius who was nicknamed "Fetch Another" by his soldiers because he would break a staff over an unruly soldier's back and then call for a replacement.

But what kind of men became centurions? Vegetius, writing from the 4th Century CE, lists these requirements:

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.

Basic literacy and at least several years' previous service also seem to have been required of centurions, but not all the men who attained these rank were seasoned military men. Some were civilians who received this well-paying rank thanks to the support of wealthy patrons - for example, the 18 year-old Equestrian-turned-centurion mentioned in an inscription.

Even with the power of patronage and influence in Roman society, such a young and inexperienced centurion was probably a rarity. Most were veterans, having enlisted as private legionaries in their youth and achieved the centurionate at some point in their 30s or 40s.

Supposedly, the emperor personally approved every appointee to a legionary centurionate. The modern historians Campbell and Dobson have calculated that, one average, 90 new centurions would have been appointed across the Empire every year - it is certainly within the realm of feasibility that the Emperor could have had a hand in their selection. This tradition was a survival of one of Julius Caesar's customs; he was fond of promoting centurions on the spot after a battle as a reward for bravery.
 

Frank81

Ad Honorem
Feb 2010
5,127
Canary Islands-Spain
I considered the 90 men yearly to be wrong (low) but it's certainly not. If there were 25 legions for most of the 1st cenury, 60 centurions each, 1500 centurions, 90 centurions yearly means a replacement rate of 6%. A service of 20 years means 75 men yearly, add some more due to casualties of any kind and you get 90.
 

Belgarion

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,751
Australia
The Centurion seems roughly equivalent to todays senior sergeant or warrant officer. A man of proven ability and experience who forms the backbone of the military.
 
Jun 2010
159
Aedes Iovis Optimi Maximi Capitolini
Great article!

I assume one can very easily draw parallels between promotion to centurion in an ancient army, and promotion in armies of today. You do your job well, show some talent, you get promoted based on your merits. For a time, the higher ranks would have been closed to many centurions, i assume, but the later empire would see more merit-based (or maybe vice-based) promotion. I think it was Maximinus Thrax who Septimius Severus found as a wrestler who worked his way up through the ranks to eventually become emperor (albeit, not in any legal sort of way...)
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,325
Please be aware that advancement in rank in a Roman legion was an alien concept. Mosty legionaries were simply soldiers and would remain so for their entire twenty five service. It was due to the roman class system that they were not expected to rise above their station (though we do know of one or two that did)

Centurions were an essential part of legion practice. Rather like an alpha male of a pack, they were resonsible not only for leading their men into battle, but also to discipline their men. Julius Caesar for instance noted in Gaul that his centurions were debating strategy - he soon put a stop to that, making it clear that their job was to lead men and to leave strategy to him, which as a senior roman in command of a military expedition would almost certainly be seen as thieir prerogative.

it is very important that the legions must be seen in context of their period and culture, not as a modern organisation in period dress.

Adrian Goldsworthy has written that a man might not expect to reach the centurionate for at least ten or fifteen years. We might speculate then that...

1 - Long experience of military life was desirable
2 - Personality was important. You needed to be seen as a strong and able leader of men liable to mutiny, rout, or engage in larceny up to and including banditry.
3 - The aspiring centurion face must fit - he's joining a superior social organisation as much as a military one, with a possibility of territorial administration as one of his potential tasks - not for the common ruck as it were.
4 - The aspiring centurion will need patronage to get his name forwarded.
5 - Since many centurions were basically corrupt (they regularly took bribes from their men for avoidance of onerous duty) it follows then that corruption might also speed a man's advancement - this was typical of Roman culture anyway so a personality tending toward almost gang leader stereotypes shouldn't suprise us. I do concede however there is anecdotal evidence that some centurions at least were know as being honourable.