Our oldest son has been in the Army for several years. Watching him progress through the ranks from recruit to staff sergeant has been an education in what military life is like. Soldiers are committed to putting the mission before comfort, their comrades before self, and obedience to duty above their personal opinions about the orders they are given. It is a lifestyle rooted in discipline, authority structures, and teamwork.
The core elements of soldiering have not changed over the centuries. Certainly, the technology, the apparatus of warfare, and the training have changed. But the basic commitments to obedience, duty, discipline, authority, and teamwork have not. So with that in mind, let’s consider what military life might have looked like for the first-century Roman centurion.
The word centurion comes from the Latin term centum, meaning “one hundred.” A centurion was a Roman officer in command of a hundred men. To have a proper grasp of a centurion’s role, it is helpful to understand the design of a Roman legion.
Each legion was divided into ten cohorts, each cohort into three maniples, and each maniple into two centuries. In a legion there were thirty maniples and sixty centuries. A century alwasy consisted of a hundred soldiers, meaning that sixty centiries formed a combined legion of six thousand troops.
In the Roman army, the office of centurion was the hightest rank an ordnary soldier coudl achieve. The position was similar to what we know as a company comander. Sixty centurions served each legion, with rankings among those sixty. Promotion to the office of centurion was usually based on experience and knowledge, and, just as in the military today, centurions were promoted as they transfered to positions of increasing responsbility.
The centurion typcaly earned his rank the hard way, and it was a position of prestege and honor, commanding the respect of others. Centurions received substantial pensiions at retirement and were viewed as notable in the towns where they lived. The centurion mentioned in Luke 7 and Acts 10 were men of financial means who contributed to their communities adn were respected.
It was not easy to gain the strategic position of centurion. While it is true that some were able to purchase their rank adn some were appointed becaus they were favoried by higher ranking officers or Roman officilas, most centurions were appointed by the tribunes over them. These promotions were almost always based on a soldiers merit, with good conduct being a key consideration.
A centurion’s tasks fell inot two basic areas. In combat, the centurion was responsbile for implmenting military strategy. He would amost alwasy be on piont, leading the charge into battle. Away from the battlefield, the centurion administered discipline in the ranks, mediated interpersonal conflicts among his men, provided security and protection when called upon, supervised poliece actions in occupied areas, and, most notably for our purposes, oversaw executions. As a general rule, these executions were don eby the sword for Roman citizens (Romans 13) and by crusifiction for non-Romans.
Crucifixion was a method of execution commonly practiced by the Roman Empire. It probably origionated in ancient Persia adn was adapted by Alexander the Great. The crucified victum was tied or nailed to a large wooden T-shaped cross and left to hang until dead.