Legion Organization and Ranks
From the Legio XX Website
ORGANIZATION OF THE LEGION
page copied from the website of Legio XX by Matt Amt.
For the Imperial legion, say from Julius
Caesar onwards, the basic organization is like this:
8 men=1 contubernium (mess unit/tentful), probably led by a file leader
contubernia=1 centuria (century), commanded by the centurion
6 centuriae=1 cohors (cohort), probably commanded by its
10 cohortes=1 legio (legion), commanded by the legatus
is more information about the organization of the legion, Republican and Imperial, on Sander van Dorst's Roman Army Page,
http://members.tripod.com/~S_van_Dorst/legio.html. For in-depth analysis of how the legion
functioned in battle, see Gary Bruggeman's website of Models of the Roman Legion, http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Oracle/6622.
the Republic the centuries had been paired into maniples, each with a "front" and "rear" century. These terms survive
into later times, and that leads into all kinds of arguments about how the units were arranged in battle. But in the
Empire the maniple is apparently no longer used, the cohort being the basic tactical unit.
By the Empire all the troops are armed
and armored pretty much the same way (we think!), and the century is a standard 80 men, all Roman citizens. In the mid-first
century AD most legions changed their first cohort to 5 double-sized centuries, so it had 800 men but only 5 centurions, for
a full legion strength of 5120. (But remember that units are ALWAYS under strength!) There is also a cavalry contingent
of about 120 men, though they are apparently still listed as members of the centuries from which they were chosen, so the
total number of troops in the legion is not necessarily increased. These troops, organized in four turmae of 30 men
each, could serve as scouts and messengers, but definitely fought as regular cavalry in battle, being brigaded with the auxiliary
The Legatus was typically a senator
in his 30s who had been a senatorial tribune and then gone through the civilian government posts in Rome. He was appointed
by the emperor and held command for 3 or 4 years, although some became very good generals and served much longer. In
a province with only one legion, the legatus also serves as governor; in provinces with multiple legions, each legion has
a legatus and the provincial governor has command of all of them.
Second in command of the legion was
the tribunus laticlavus or senatorial tribune, a fresh-faced young man on his first job away from home. He probably
relied heavily on the next man down, the praefectus castrorum or camp prefect, a grizzled veteran who had been promoted
up through the centurionate. Then came the five tribuni angusticlavi or equestrian tribunes, appointed from the
wealthy class (just below senators). These men actually had more experience than the higher-ranking senatorial tribune,
having just served about three years as independent commanders of auxiliary cohorts. (Auxiliaries were enlisted from
the provinces, and some of them were pretty barbaric. I wonder if they ever ate their commanders?) It used to
be said that the tribunes just held administrative posts and did not actually lead troops, but now we think that each equestrian
tribune commanded two cohorts of legionaries. This would be a logical step up in status from commanding one cohort of
auxiliaries. After a term as legionary tribune, an equestrian tribune could be promoted to command of an auxiliary cavalry
ala ("wing", 24 turmae totalling c. 512 men).
Then come the centurions, 59
or 60 to a legion. They have their own very confusing hierarchy: There are six distinct steps of seniority in each cohort,
from lowest to highest: hastatus posterior, hastatus prior, princeps posterior, princeps prior,
pilus posterior, pilus prior. (Note that "pilus" means "file", NOT the same word as "pilum". In
the Republic the triarii were sometimes referred to as "pilani".) The cohorts themselves are ranked from the First (highest)
to the Tenth (lowest). In theory a centurion would start in the lowest spot in the Tenth cohort, rise to the top of
that, then move to the lowest spot in the Ninth cohort, etc. Probably it never really happened that slowly. The
centurions of the first cohort were called the primi ordines, and were headed by the primus pilus ("first
FILE"!), the senior centurion in the whole legion. From there a man could rise to praefectus castrorum, third
in command of the whole legion, and after a year in that post he'd retire in fabulous wealth and glory.
Many centurions, probably most (and
probably the best), rose from the ranks by merit (and connections, very important in the Roman world!). Some centurions,
however, were directly appointed by provincial governors from members of the equestrian class. These were wealthy men
who decided to join the army as centurions in order to gain advantages and status, and they were apparently "fast-tracked"
for promotion, rising quickly to the highest ranks over the heads of the men of lower social status who had risen from the
The centurions formed the backbone of
the army's professional officer corps. It is difficult to draw an exact parallel to modern ranks, but they can be thought
of as sort of a cross between a company first sergeant and a captain, and holding ranks as high as a colonel. While
the legatus and tribunes were political appointees, assuring that the army was controlled by men trusted by the Emperor, the
centurions were the skilled professional soldiers who would be relied on to run a legion on campaign and in battle.
At the bottom end of the scale are the
milites gregarii, the common soldiers. After enlistment they spend a couple months in boot camp, then get posted
to a legion and spend their first six months rated as recruits (tirones). The first step up a soldier could make
was to immunis, meaning he was posted to some more skilled task (clerical, craftsman, etc.) and was generally "immune"
from the usual hard labor and dirty jobs such as road building. The first real promotion was to pay-and-a-half (sesquiplicarius),
such as the tesserarius (guard sergeant), cornicen (horn player), etc. Next come the double-pay posts
(duplicarii), such as optio (second in command of a century), signifer (or is he a sesquiplicarius?),
and aquilifer (the Legion's eagle-bearer, a VERY prestigious post!). Then, hopefully, would come the big step
up to centurion.
|EQUIPMENT OF THE CENTURION
centurio or centurion commanded a centuria (century, like a company), which numbered about 80 men during the
Empire. Both words come from the Latin word for "hundred", but in the army the century had ceased to contain 100 men
several hundred years before. Centurions were generally well-respected by their men, if not loved. They played
a crucial role in maintaining the army's strict and often harsh discipline.
The equipment of a centurion
was distinctly different from that of his men. Notably, he wore a transverse crest, meaning that it ran from side to side across his
helmet. It is believed that centurions still wore these crests in battle during the early Empire, while the rest of
the troops did not (reserving them for parade wear). This served as a visual reference and rallying point for their
men. There is little evidence about how colors of crests might have varied according to rank, though there is evidence
that either feathers or horsehair were used.
Armor was also different, there
being no good evidence that centurions wore the lorica segmentata. Instead, they wore mail (lorica hamata) or scale armor (lorica squamata), generally about waist length with a curved
lower edge in imitation of the classic bronze muscled cuirass. The historian Vegetius notes that the armor of a centurion
was silvered, as well, though it is not likely that mail could be silvered. Attached to the subarmalis were the rows of flaps called pteruges, generally
two rows at the bottom and one or two rows at the shoulder. It is not known if the pteruges were made of leather or
fabric, or what color they might have been, though they are sometimes shown with fringed ends. The helmet seems to have been of the same general types worn
by legionaries, except for the crest and its attachments, and it would probably have been of the highest quality and latest
style, and silver-plated like the armor.
Another distinction was the wearing
of greaves, often ornate. They covered the front of the leg from the ankle to above the knee, and were held on by straps
and buckles. The centurion generally wore his sword on the left and dagger on the right, the reverse of most legionaries, though again these weapons
would simply be more ornate versions of what the common soldiers carried. The belt did not have the hanging studded apron in the front.
The final indication of rank was the vitis or vine staff, a swagger stick about three feet long tyically made of grape
vine. It is known to have been used for whacking miscreant soldiers!
Our Legio XX does not yet have a centurion, so the picture at right was borrowed from VRoma.org. (Yes, it is the same one as
shown in Connolly's Greece and Rome at War, but VRoma says that the images from their site may be used non-commercially.) Dan Peterson, centurion of Legio XIIII
Gemina Martia Victrix in Germany, is shown on the cover of his book, Roman Legions Reconstructed in Colour Photographs.
Chris Haines of the Ermine Street Guard is shown on the Officers page of their site, http://www.ESG.ndirect.co.uk/officers.htm, and Legio XV Apollinaris in Austria
shows a good-looking centurion on their front page, too, http://berg.heim.at/anden/420204/.
EQUIPMENT OF THE LEGATUS AND TRIBUNES
dress and armor of the senior officers of the Imperial Roman army was completely different from that of the centurions and
troops. It was based heavily on Hellenistic tradition, and our knowledge of it comes mainly from sculpture and other
artwork since very little archeological evidence has survived. Although the legatus and tribunes were different military
ranks, they were all aristocrats, drawn from the same upper social class. So they wore the same basic equipment, though
it is likely that the higher ranks had more heavily decorated armor. There may also have been differences in the color
of certain garments.
The legatus and the tribunus
laticlavus, being of senatorial rank, most likely wore the white tunic with the wide purple vertical stripes called clavi
which were the symbol of their social status. The legion's five tribuni angusticlavi would then wear the narrow purple
clavi of the equestrian order. Shoes may have been the traditional
senatorial or equestrian calcei, as appropriate, or an ornate boot decorated with flaps in the form of lions' heads.
A large rectangular cloak called the paludamentum was typically pinned or fixed to one shoulder and often draped or wrapped
around the left arm.
Body armor was the classic lorica
musculata or muscled cuirass. It was made of hammered bronze, formed to resemble the muscles of a man's chest.
There were long and short versions of it (the latter much better for riding on horseback!), and some were heavily decorated
with embossed designs, and likely silvered or even gilded. Contrary to Hollywood, there is no reason to believe that
the muscled cuirass was ever made of leather! The men wearing it were very wealthy and the strong fasions of the day
dictated conspicuous color and shine. There are no known surviving muscle cuirasses from the Imperial period, but those
from the early Republic or pre-Republican eras are strong and functional, not very heavy but very rigid.
Officers are frequently shown
bare-headed, but it is safe to assume that they all wore helmets in battle. The Hellenistic "Attic" helmet was typical,
and though its general form was similar to what is usually seen in movies, it was also made of polished metal. Like
the muscled cuirass, these helmets were not as evolved and efficient as those worn by the men in the ranks, but would certainly
protect if necessary. The crest was generally mounted directly on the skull of the helmet, not raised up on a knob or
support as legionary crests were, and it often seems to be made of rather plumy feathers, as if from an ostrich.
Instead of the gladius, senior officers
are often shown with a weapon called the parazonium, the hilt of which could be in the form of an eagle head, or lobed.
It can be slung on a narrow shoulder baldric but is more often simply cradled in the left arm, and the fingers of the left
hand can be forked over the lobed pommel. The plated military balteus was not worn with a muscled cuirass, but there
could be a fabric belt or sash with fringed ends, worn rather high, which was tied in a square knot at the front and the ends
tucked up in short loops. Like much of the rest of the officer's gear, this belt is a Hellenistic tradition. The
few depictions of officers with shields show a large round or oval shield. It is probably safe to speculate that these
officers would have their shields carried by a servant in a normal battle, since they were safe behind the lines directing
the action. Only in an emergency would they need to use their shields for personal defence. Greaves do not seem
to have been part of the traditional officer's dress, but no doubt they could be worn in battle if desired.
That's Gaius Julius Caesar himself above,
also from the VRoma.org site. He wears an ornate long muscled
cuirass with the distinctive Roman shoulder flaps (fastened at or above the nipples) and two rows of rounded tabs at the bottom.
Below these and at the shoulders are the pteruges with large twisted fringes. Also note the tied sash, and the lack
of helmet and greaves.
TERMS OF SERVICE
the beginning of the Republic in 506 BC until about 100 BC, Roman legionaries were supposed to be landowners. This meant
that they had enough income to equip themselves properly, and that they had a vested interest in fighting for Rome.
Equipment was not supplied by the state, so any man who could not afford a certain minimum of gear was exempt from military
service. Eligible men were drafted for service in the spring, and in the fall the army was disbanded and the men sent
home. Any particular man might or might not serve in successive years, and he was required to serve in a total of ten
campaigns before reaching the maximum age of enlistment. This made for a citizen army with no permanent units.
By c. 100 BC, though, Rome's foreign holdings had spread, while the number of small farms (and their owners) had declined.
In order to make up for the resulting shortage in manpower, Rome began to recruit non-landed and poor men into the army, equipping
them at government expense, increasing their pay, and often promising them a land grant upon discharge. This marked
the beginning of a change from a part-time citizen army to the full-time volunteer professional army of the Empire.
All legionaries were required to be
Roman citizens, though this did not mean that they were of Italian ancestry. Citizenship was spreading through the provinces
during the late Republic, and this accelerated in the early Empire as discharged auxiliary troops were often granted citizenship,
which they passed on to their children. By the middle of the first century AD, nearly half of all legionaries were non-Italian,
though the proportion may have been higher in the East, where it was common to grant citizenship to potential recruits upon
enlistment. By the reign of Hadrian, Italians made up only about 5 percent of all legionaries.
At the beginning of the Empire, the
term of enlistment was supposed to be 16 years, though there was no regular system of discharges and men were often kept beyond
their nominal retirement point. This rose to 20 years, plus five years in the reserves, by the time of Claudius.
Vespasian made the term of service a flat 25 years, though discharges still seem to be given only every other year.
Soldiers were forbidden to be legally married while serving, though of course many had local girlfriends, common-law wives,
and children. Upon discharge, a soldier's "marriage" was recognized as legal, and any children he had were recognized
as legitimate and Roman citizens. This is not only a nice "perk", since illegitimate children of civilians generally
could not become citizens, but it also made a growing recruiting pool for the legions. A steadily increasing number
of recruits listed their place of origin as "in castris", "in the camp", meaning their fathers had been soldiers (not necessarily
that they had actually been born and raised in a military fortress!).
auxiliae or auxiliary troops, usually non-citizens enlisted from the provinces, were organized in their own units.
Infantry cohorts had 480 men in 6 centuries, as in a legion, and in fact many of the centurions were transferred legionary
centurions. The commander was a praefectus, a young man of equestrian rank appointed by a provincial governor.
A cohors sagittaria was made of archers rather than regular infantry. A cavalry wing or ala was 512 men,
made of 16 turmae (squadrons) of c. 32 men and a decurion. Roughly half of all auxiliary units were alae, and
in addition nearly half of the infantry cohorts were cohortes equitatae or "part horsed". A cohors equitata had
the usual six centuries of infantry plus four turmae of cavalry, for a total compliment of about 600 men. This shows
that cavalry formed a very significant portion of the Roman army and was highly regarded.
In the second half of the first century
AD, a few auxiliary units were increased in size to become milliaria, or "thousand-strong". The exact organization
is unclear, and the name may not have been an exact indication of the unit's size. A cohors milliaria is thought
to have had 10 centuries (or five double-strength centuries), similar to an enlarged legionary first cohort, and totalling
800 men. An ala milliaria may have had 24 turmae for a total of 768 men--very few of these units are known to
have existed, and command of one was considered a very prestigious post. There was also the cohors equitata milliaria,
composed of 10 centuries of infantry and 8 turmae of cavalry, for a total of 1056 men. The normal auxiliary units became
known as quingenaria or five-hundred-strong to differentiate them.