AskDefine | Define centurion

Dictionary Definition

centurion n : (ancient Rome) the leader of 100 soldiers

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  • a UK /sɛnˈtjʊɹ.i.ən/ /sEn"tjUr.i.@n/


  1. An officer of the ancient Roman army, in command of a century of soldiers.


commander of a century of soldiers

Extensive Definition

Centurion redirects here. This article is about the Roman soldier. For other meanings, see Centurion (disambiguation).
A centurion (Latin: centurio; Greek: εκατόνταρχος (hekatontarchos), κεντούριων (kentūriōn)) was a professional officer of the Roman army after the Marian reforms of 107 BC. Most centurions commanded a century (centuria) of 80 men, but senior centurions commanded cohorts, or took senior staff roles in their legion.
Centurions took their title from the fact that they commanded a century. Centuries were so-called because they originally numbered roughly 100 men. Just after that they numbered 60 men each and were paired into maniples, one with greater authority. After the Marian reforms, however, the standard establishment was set at 80 men.


In the Roman infantry, centurions initially commanded a centuria or "century" of 100 men, then 60 and finally 80. During the Imperial era Centurions gradually rose in seniority in their cohort, commanding centuries with higher precedence, until commanding the senior century and therefore the whole cohort. The very best centurions were then promoted to become centurions in the First Cohort, called Primi Ordines, commanding one of the ten centuries and also taking on a staff role. The most senior centurion of the legion was the Primus Pilus who commanded the first century.
All centurions, however senior, had their own allocated century.
The Primus Pilus was so called because his own century was the first file (primus pilus) of the first (rightmost) cohort. Only eight officers in a fully officered legion outranked the Primus Pilus: The legate (legatus legionis), commanding the legion; the senior tribune (tribunus laticlavus); the Camp Prefect (praefectus castrorum); and the six tribunes (tribuni angusticlavii) who had a greater rank in the praetorian guard as they commanded a whole cohort.
In comparison to a modern military organization, centurions covered a whole range of ranks. Ordinary century commanders would be equivalent to a modern army lieutenants or captains. The senior centurions leading cohorts would be equivalent to lieutenant colonels. The Primus Pilus with his senior staff role might be considered equivalent for a modern colonel.
Centurions often suffered heavy casualties in battle, generally fighting alongside the legionaries they commanded. They usually led from the front, occupying a position at the front right of the century formation. They led and inspired their men by example. They also sought to display the skill and courage that got them to their rank in the first place. It is for these reasons that they often suffered a disproportionate number of casualties.
Below the centurions were the optiones, seconds-in-command of centuries.


Each century had a precedence within the cohort. Centurions' seniority within the cohort and legion depended on their century. Centurions begun by leading junior centuries before being promoted to leading more senior ones. Centurions were referred to by the name of their century.
The precedence during the times of manipular legion commanded sixty men and were organized like this: Hastati: Ten junior and Ten senior.
Principes: Ten junior and Ten senior.
Triarii: Five junior and Five senior.
For the imperial legion they were organized (in order of who advanced first); 1st cohort. 2nd cohort 3rd cohort and so on
There were eight centuries in the first cohort. All first cohort centurions outranked all centurions from other cohorts.


The Roman centurion was distinguished by his uniform: his armor was silvered, he wore his sword on his left side rather than his right, he wore greaves on his legs, and the crest of his helmet was distinctively turned perpendicular to the front. As the well known lōrīca segmentāta armor came into use, Centurions continued to wear chain mail armor. It is believed that he also wore his decorations and awards prominently on his torso in battle, to show his bravery to friend and foe alike. He also carried a short staff (stick) - usually a vine stave, called vītis - as a symbol of his authority. One infamous centurion was nicknamed "Cedo Alteram" ("Give me another") because of his habit of breaking his staff across the backs of his men. He was eventually killed in a mutiny.


The centurion was in charge of his century/cohort. Centurions were also tasked with the training of the legionaries. They could often be merciless in their handling of this task, and were known for dealing out brutal punishments. While the Roman army was known for these harsh conditions, it paid off during battle when strict order and discipline could decide the outcome. This often allowed the Legions to succeed in battles where they faced a numerically superior army.
As commander, the centurion had the right to give awards to the men in his cohort, as well as to punish them, whenever necessary. The centurion's punishments could be very severe, and could include execution.
However, centurions could be punished by their own superiors. Examples of behavior warranting punishment of a centurion are sleeping on the job, or failing to train legionaries sufficiently. Like any other soldier, a centurion caught guilty of such discretions could be sentenced to death just as easily as the soldiers under his command.

Qualifications for becoming a Centurion

A man in the Roman army who wanted to become a Centurion had to meet many qualifications. First, the man had to have several letters of recommendation from important people. Therefore, it would help if one trying for the position was befriended to several important senators, or even the consuls/emperor themselves/himself (depending on the time period).

Age Requirements

A man who desired to be a Centurion would have had to have been at least thirty years of age. Therefore, if he had entered the army at age 16, he would have spent almost half his life in the military, giving him the experience he needed so that he would know how to sufficiently command his cohort.

Social Status

As stated above, the aspiring centurion needed good connections to be recommended for the post. These connections might have been easier to achieve if the centurion was of a higher class.


One of the tasks of the centurion was to relate his superior officers' written commands to the men in his cohort. Therefore, he had to be able to read. In order to do this, he needed at least enough education to be literate. Also, the more educated one was, the better chance he had of becoming centurion.

Benefits and Hazards of being a Centurion


Centurions had the privilege of riding on horseback during marches and, if they had been given permission to marry, to live with their family while in garrison.


These officers were responsible for their men during battle, and led from the front, fighting alongside their soldiers. Their increased prominence put them at higher risk, and casualty levels for centurions were correspondingly high.

Vegetius about the qualities necessary for the Сenturion

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 (Vegetius.De Re Militari, II, 14)


centurion in Bulgarian: Центурион
centurion in Catalan: Centurió
centurion in Welsh: Canwriad
centurion in German: Centurio
centurion in Spanish: Centurión
centurion in Esperanto: Centestro
centurion in French: Centurion
centurion in Galician: Centurión
centurion in Icelandic: Hundraðshöfðingi
centurion in Italian: Centurione
centurion in Hebrew: קנטוריון
centurion in Georgian: ცენტურიონი
centurion in Lithuanian: Centurionas
centurion in Hungarian: Centurio
centurion in Dutch: Centurio (Romeins leger)
centurion in Japanese: ケントゥリオ
centurion in Norwegian: Centurion
centurion in Polish: Centurion (Rzym)
centurion in Portuguese: Centúria
centurion in Russian: Центурион
centurion in Finnish: Centurio
centurion in Swedish: Centurion
centurion in Ukrainian: Центуріон

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

C, NCO, acting corporal, acting sergeant, bicentenary, bicentennial, cental, centare, centenarian, centenary, centennial, centennium, centigram, centimeter, centipede, centistere, centred, centref, centrev, centumvir, centumvirate, century, chief warrant officer, color sergeant, corporal, cwt, first sergeant, gross, havildar, hecatomb, hundred, hundredweight, lance corporal, lance sergeant, long hundred, master sergeant, mess sergeant, naik, noncom, noncommissioned officer, one C, platoon sergeant, sarge, sergeant, sergeant first class, sergeant major, sesquicentenary, sesquicentennial, staff sergeant, technical sergeant, tercentenary, tercentennial, top sergeant, topkick, warrant officer
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