Ancient Warfare Special Issue 2010


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Ancient Warfare Special 2010 - Core of the legions: The Roman Imperial Centuria

84 pages

Paul McDonnell-Staff, 'Core of the legion - Historical introduction'

While some might assert that the eight-man contubernium was the basic building-block of the early Imperial legion, it was too small to be a tactical fighting unit of any practical use. Instead it was the centuria that provided the smallest tactical unit, the bricks that made up the formidable Roman legion, that remarkable instrument which consisted of professional soldiers who were also pioneers, engineers and specialists, to use modern terms.

Jona Lendering, 'Hadrian and his soldiers - The Lambaesis Inscription'

It has been called “the queen of African inscriptions” – which is exaggerated. But not very much: as the verbatim report of a Roman emperor’s addresses to his soldiers, the Lambaesis Inscription is a remarkable text indeed.

The legionary centurions were the repository of military knowledge in the legions. Successive emperors relied on these men to uphold the traditions of the Roman military and spread them throughout the army. Mostly long-service officers who had risen through the ranks or transferred from the Praetorian Guard, even after completing their service as centurions, they were often retained as members of a military elite.

Graham Sumner, 'The centurio from Colchester - Reconstructing Marcus Favonius Facilis'

Since its discovery in 1868 the sculpture of Marcus Favonius Facilis, centurion of the 20th legion has become one of the iconic images of the ancient world. There is hardly a book on Roman Britain which does not feature a photograph of his tombstone. He stands there for all eternity calmly holding his badge of office a simple vine stick in one hand, while the other rests almost casually on his sword pommel. Proud and aloof and visually embodying the power of Rome, it is no wonder then that during the revolt of Boudica it is believed that the monument was thrown to the ground in a symbolic gesture of defiance. Nevertheless, it was a gesture which ironically saved this relic from the ravages of time and helped preserve it.

Philip Matyszak, 'Learning on the job and in camp - Training the centuria'

Rather as 20th century doctors considered the human appendix, historians of the later Roman legions have considered the century as an evolutionary hangover that retained little practical purpose. And indeed, many books on Roman armies give the century barely a passing mention. However, just as the appendix is now revealed to be a quite useful organ, it may prove that the century has always been an essential part to the background functions of the imperial legions. The intention of this article is to show that these background functions also included a role in legionary training.

The ancient literary sources refer predominantly to legions and their cohorts, but the legionary cohort lacked a commanding officer and it is therefore difficult to understand how it operated in battle. However, the six centuries from which the cohort was composed did possess commanders and essential under officers that allowed them to function as tactical units. The centuriae were the real building blocks of the legions.

Michael J. Taylor, 'Records on bark, sherds and papyrus - Small unit administration in the Roman army'

A centuria in the imperial Roman Army consisted of eighty men, who all needed to be fed, supplied, paid, tasked and generally accounted for so they could be kept ready to fight the enemies of the empire. This required what we moderns dub 'paperwork'. Paperwork is an anachronistic term, however, as paper made from lint or wood pulp, would not reach Europe until the Middle Ages. Instead, records were kept on wood tablets, papyrus, animal-hide parchment and recycled pottery shards called ostraka.

Christian Koepfer, 'Keeping the legionaries clothed and fed - Logistics of the centuria'

Reconstructing the logistical requirements of a Roman Imperial centuria demands a broad interdisciplinary approach. Literary accounts, fragments of administrative records, and material evidence have to be combined to provide a complete image. First of all, we have to establish what this basic unit of the Roman army needed to keep it nourished, clothed and ready for war.

How can an army ensure that its soldiers have all the equipment they need? In the case of the Roman army, it was not just a matter of production or resupply, but was also dependent upon record keeping within the centuria. Moreover, how a soldier acquired, stored, and ultimately disposed of his arms and armour, as well as what he did with all the ‘stuff’ of his life, had an effect on his life and on those around him (mess-mates, family, and heirs).

Michael Thomas, 'With bodies completely protected - Roman armour of the 1st-2nd centuries AD'

When the Principate was formed in 27 B.C. under Augustus the military forces of the Roman state had long since left behind the concept of the ‘nation under arms’ in favour of a professional force established on a permanent basis with a proper career structure, ranks, fixed rates of pay and a common tactical doctrine, the latter coupled with a rigorous training régime and loyal only to the emperor, not the state. This led, perhaps inevitably, to a certain standardisation of equipment.

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