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 a 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 always consisted of a hundred soldiers, meaning that sixty centuries formed a combined legion of six thousand troops.
In the Roman army, the office of centurion was the highest rank an ordinary soldier could achieve. The position was similar to what we know as a company commander. 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 transferred to positions of increasing responsibility.
The centurion typically earned his rank the hard way, and it was a position of prestige and honor, commanding the respect of others. Centurions received substantial pensions at retirement and were viewed as notables in the towns where they lived. The centurions mentioned in Luke 7 and Acts 10 were men of financial means who contributed to their communities and 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 and some were appointed because they were favored by higher ranking officers or Roman officials, most centurions were appointed by the tribunes over them. These promotions were almost always based on a soldier’s merit, with good conduct being a key consideration.
A centurion’s tasks fell into two basic areas. In combat, the centurion was responsible for implementing military strategy. He would almost always be on point, 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 police actions in occupied areas, and, most notably for our purposes, oversaw executions. As a general rule, these executions were done by the sword for Roman citizens (Romans 13) and by crucifixion for non-Romans (Harper’s Bible Dictionary).