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Roman command

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Centurions usually became the most experienced and distinguished soldiers in the legion.
By MatthiasKabel | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

During the period of the republic, the commander-in-chief of the army was usually the consul. The army led by one consul was at least 2 legions. In particularly difficult times for the state, the consul could receive dictatorial power for six months, with the right to appoint a deputy with the title of cavalry commander (magister equitum). At that time, only and exclusively, all the armies of Rome were concentrated in his hands.

The commander-in-chief was distinguished from other officers by his outfit. He had a red cloak (paludamentum). He was accompanied by lictors with a bundle of rods and axes, as well as bodyguards (cohors pretoria).
He was assisted by legates (legati), 6 military tribunes (tribuni militi) and military prefects who together formed the military staff. The chief of the legates was personally selected from among the most eminent senators. Each of them commanded one legion, however, in exceptional situations, such as the death or illness of the commander, they took command in place of the commander-in-chief. Then they commanded the entire army (legati pro praetore).
The military tribunes, in turn, were partly elected to the Tribe Assembly, and like legates by the commander, but with the difference that he appointed them from among the distinguished centurions. The tribunes took command in pairs alternately, every other day one pair commanded the legion while the others served with the commander-in-chief.
Military prefects headed special troops, originally from the Italian allies (praefectus sociorum), and later auxiliary troops provided by the allied countries (praefectus auxiliorum). They could also perform the following functions: praefectus fabrum (management of craftsmen) or praefectus alarum (direction of cavalry).

The aforementioned centurions formed the non-commissioned officer corps. Each maniple was headed by two centurions, one in charge of the right centuria (prior) and the other of the left centuria (posterior). The centurion of the right manipule commanded the entire manipulator, while the centurion of the first manipulator in the cohort commanded the entire cohort. Centurions were distinguished by scale armour (sometimes silver-plated and richly decorated) or chain mail, transverse kite (horsehair or feathers) on helmet (crista transversa) and the rod (virga) with which he administered flogging. The cavalry equivalent of a centurion was the decurion.

As a result of Marius’s reforms, centurions were no longer elected, as they became career officers. Their importance grew even under Caesar, when they actually commanded the troops, while the tribunes, young and inexperienced, though nominally their superiors, held staff functions. During the imperial era, the legion had 59 centurions, 5 in the first cohort and 54 in the others. Those in cohorts two through ten were equal in rank, differing only in the number of years of service. Above them were the senior centurions (primi ordines), each of whom commanded twice the size of the first cohort’s centuria. Such organization of the first cohort has been done since the time of Caesar because he mentions a senior centurion commanding a double century. Caesar often wrote about primi ordines. Caesar’s respect for his centurions is evidenced by many remarks about their courage and exemplary leadership. A centurion’s rank was marked by a crosswise comb or “staff” sometimes used for corporal punishment.

Subordinated to the centurions were the lower non-commissioned officers (principes), as well as the centurion’s deputies (optiones), standard-bearers (signifieri), buglers (tubicines) and longer-serving soldiers (veterani). At the decurion was a man called curator, probably the next senior in each turmae, and responsible for the horses and their grooming. Officers and non-commissioned officers differed in both armament, dress and insignia.
All officers could only come from aristocratic families, while any soldier who distinguished himself in battle could become a centurion. There were 59 centurions in one legion, with the commander of the first centuria (primipilus) being the most important.

The Consilium, or council of war, was always convened by the commander of the legion (he also chaired it). In addition to the commander of the legion, six military tribunes and the same number of centurions of the first cohort (primorum ordinum centuriones) participated in it.

Questor dealt with treasury matters, whose tasks included: the distribution of loot, payment of salary, and taking care of the adequate supply of food to the army.

Roman army ranks

Miles classicus

Roman War Soldier Naval Fleet.

Miles gregarius

Literally “common soldier” of the legion. When he joined the army, he committed himself to serve for 20 years (in Caesar’s time – 16 years).


The Signifer was the most common ensign of the Roman legions. It carried signum, i.e. a military banner with the emblem of a given cohort or century.

Signifer was easily recognizable during the battle. Over the open helmet was a wolf, bear (signifer legionaries) or lion (signifer praetorian) pelt, with paws bound across his chest.
Signifer auxiliares, i.e. auxiliary troops, put on a bear skin, but without a muzzle. Trumpeters equipped with trumpets and horns performed similarly. These skins, combined with the eternal magic associated with animals and totemism, were of course supposed to be a source of power.

Legion Bannerman (Aquilifier)

The Aquilifer was the chief standard bearer bearing the symbol of the Roman legion. The name was taken from a type of symbol – aquila, meaning “eagle”. This type of banner was used from 104 BCE, and it replaced the previous designations: wolf, bull and horse. The legion’s eagle was the legion’s most important possession, and its loss was a great disgrace.

Aquilifer possessed great prestige, and his rank was just below centurion and optio. He received a large pay, twice as much as an ordinary legionary. Unlike the signifer, the aquilifer probably did not wear animal skins and had a bare head without a cap. For defence, he had a small circular shield, called parma, which was attached when he held the legionary insignia and weapons in his hands.


By: Loth | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Deputy commander of the centuria (optio centuriae) and cavalry squadron, responsible for training,
administration and archives of the unit. His task was to uphold the orders of the commander of the century, to take control of the century in the event of death or the order of the centurion. Optio was paid double the standard legionary’s pay and was also the most frequently selected to become a centurion in the event of death or other circumstances necessitating the replacement of a centurion-in-chief.

Unlike the centurion, optio didn’t have much of an outfit to stand out. The characteristic element was a helmet with a crest or a plume (either made of horsehair or feathers). The optio armour was similar to that of a typical legionary. He carried either lorica segmentata or lorica hamata, and the sword was on his right (not left) side. He had a cane (called a hastile) which he used to keep his legionaries in line. It had a length similar to optio‘s height. In addition, the optiones carried wax tablets on which they wrote down the orders of the day.

Types of optio:

  • Optio ad carcerem – chosen to guard prison cells.
  • Optio ad spem ordinisoptio being prepared to become a centurion.
  • Optio candidatusoptio being prepared to become a centurion.
  • Optio carceris – responsible for prison cells.
  • Optio centuriae – “chosen man of the century”; the second commander of the century.
  • Optio centurionis “the centurion’s chosen man”; same rank as optio centuriae.
  • Optio custodiarum – a soldier who manages observation posts.
  • Optio draconarius – “a chosen man among the banner bearers of draco”.
  • Optio equitumoptio in legionary or praetorian cavalry.
  • Optio fabricae – a soldier supervising the workshop.
  • Optio navaliorum – a soldier managing boats.
  • Optio praetoria – a soldier attached to the general staff.
  • Optio principalisoptio with extraordinary privileges.
  • Optio speculatorumoptio in elite guard cavalry.
  • Optio speioptio being prepared to become a centurion.
  • Optio statorumoptio of the military police.
  • Optio tribuni – assistant to the tribune.
  • Optio valetudinarii – looking after hospital matters.


The commander is responsible for assigning and controlling the guard (vigiles) and issuing the daily code (tessera; this was also the name of the piece of wood on which the password was written; hence the name of the commander). Tesserarius counted among the pay-and-a-half (sesquiplicarii) like veterans and other ranks among the group of privates and corporals. Each century had one tesserarius. He had a rank similar to today’s non-commissioned officer and was the most important after optio in the century.

Decurion (Decurio)

A cavalry officer commanding a legion cavalry squadron. Several degrees depend on the length of service.

Centurion (Centurio)

Legio XXX Ulpia Victrix Centurion.
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A lower officer, the commander of a centuria (centuriae), the smallest tactical unit of the legion, in other words – a centurion, because initially, the centuria consisted of 100 soldiers. Later it had (sometimes from 60 to) 80 men in 10 contubernia ‘s – 8 soldiers each. Centuries were created during the reforms of King Servius Tullius (578-534 BCE) and ranged from 200 to 1000 people. Later commanders and Caesars manipulated the number of troops, often even doubling it. For example, Julius Caesar made the first century the strongest and doubled its number.

Centurions earned significantly more than the average legionary, two or more times (possibly as much as 17 times). It is worth adding that veterans often worked as mercenaries for centurions.

Centurion after the reform of Marius in 107 BCE. became a professional soldier. Most of the centurions commanded 80 men, while the senior centurions commanded entire cohorts or assumed functions assigned to higher ranks.

In imperial times, centurions gradually moved up the military career ladder, taking command of successive (more prestigious) centuries, eventually including the most experienced century in the cohort, and thus the entire cohort. The best centurions were promoted to Primi Ordines in the first cohort and held one of the ten centuries, taking up the functions of senior military officers. The highest-ranking centurion was Primus Pilus, who commanded the first century and had the right to attend staff meetings.

The cenotaph of Centurion Marcus Caelius of the XVIII legion, killed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

Centurions were appointed by the senate or promoted by the command in various cases. Julius Caesar, for example, was appointed a soldier who showed particular bravery as a centurion. Legionnaires were also promoted to this function when a soldier was the first to cross the fortifications or get onto the enemy’s walls.
There were also certain requirements for centurions: they had to be literate, have contacts (letters of recommendation), be at least 30 years of age and have several years of military service behind them.

Centurions usually fought in the front line, and thus often suffered heavy losses. They commanded the very front, to the right of the centuria. They were easily identifiable by their helmets, which had a crosswise horsehair crest on the helmet, metal greaves, and a sword on the left side (like all senior officers). The task of the centurions during the fight was to lead, motivate the soldiers and lead by example. Often their courage and skills led to the aforementioned large losses in the commanding staff. In fact, the centurions during the battle had the main responsibility for the course of the fight, because they directly implemented the intentions of the command.

Centurions were also responsible for the training and discipline of the legionaries. They were respected and had a strong reputation among their subordinates. Strict discipline was maintained by a system of penalties for any misconduct. Centurions had special vine sticks that emphasized their authority.

It is confirmed that the centurions had a very respected status in Roman society. After finishing their service and retiring, they could work as lictors.

Centurions were hierarchized depending on which centuria in the legion they commanded. The chief centurion of the legion was the commander of the 1st century of the 1st cohort – primus pilus/primipilus. The second century was commanded by princeps, the third century – hastatus, 4th century – princeps posterior, and 5th century – hastatus posterior.

Centurions also performed in the naval fleet.
The centurion’s deputy was optio.

Primi ordines

The six most senior centurions in the legion, all serving in the first,
double cohort.

Primus pilus

Primus pilus

Literally “first spear”, the most senior centurion in the legion, one of primi ordines. Also called primipilus. He commanded the 1st cohort of the legion. While the normal cohort consisted of 5 to 8 centuries (usually 6), the first cohort consisted of 10, i.e. 800 people and additional services (cooks, priests). The name primus pilus comes from the position of the centurion’s own centuria in the first rank (pilus) of the first cohort during the march.
Among the officers in the legion, only eight ranked above primus pilus:

  • legate – commander of the legion
  • senior tribune (tribunus laticlavus)
  • camp prefect (praefectus castrorum)
  • five junior tribunes (tribuni angusticlavii)

Today we can compare him with a lieutenant colonel.

Camp prefect (Praefectus castorium)

Former centurion, third in command of the legion,
quartermaster and officer in charge of the main troops separate from the legion.

Tribunus angusticlavius

Narrow belt tribune, staff officer after six months of cadet training.


Commander of a warship of the Roman Navy.


The commander of an auxiliary cohort or wing.

Tribunus laticavius

Tribune of the “broad stripe”, deputy commander of the legion.

Praefectus praetoria

One of the two equal commanders of the Praetorian Guard. Although the prefect of the guard was officially a colonel, some of them were former centurions and others were ex-generals who sometimes commanded armies.

Prefectus classis

Commander of a squadron or fleet of the Roman navy. Often a former or active general, sometimes a freedman with no military experience to be desired.


Under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Originally an envoy, a person entrusted by a superior with a mission to perform in his own stead, e.g. ambassador, general-adjutant.
In the Roman army, a legate was a high-ranking officer appointed by his superiors (chief, provincial governor, consul, senate, emperor) to command a single legion, but they could also command the entire army in the absence of the commander (legati pro praetore). Legatus legionis was the deputy praetor and commanded one of the elite legions, and legati pro praetore was the deputy consul and governed the Roman province with the powers of a praetor. With such powers, he often had four or more legions under his control. The legate’s symbol of power was the five lictors (ligare) with rods and axes (fasces).
Legatus was chosen by the chief from among the senators. Legates often won high honours after successful military campaigns, which led to the situation that this rank began to enjoy great interest among Roman politicians and even consuls (e.g. Lucius Julius Caesar – consul of 64 BCE – took part in the later Gallic War as legate). In exceptional cases, the legate was awarded the highest distinction – holding triumph.
The legate was also simply a commander. In the time of the empire, he was appointed by the emperor. The person appointed to this position had usually previously held the position of a tribune. Octavian Augustus set the maximum term of office at two years, only to be extended to three or four by subsequent emperors. However, it happened that the legate served for a longer time.
The Legate was easily recognized on the battlefield by his ornate helmet and cuirass, scarlet wool cloak (paludamentum) and cincticulus (crimson belt tied around the waist).
In administration, a legate was an imperial envoy, exercising administrative and military authority over a larger region, reporting directly to the emperor.

Praetor, propretor

The praetor was a senior judge in Rome. Former praetors, i.e. propraetors, could govern smaller provinces and command a legion and an army.

Consul, proconsul

The consul was the highest-ranking official in Rome after the emperor. Two consuls presided over the senate for a year and their names were included in the name of the year. Former consuls and proconsuls could become governors of the largest provinces and command all the military forces of their province. Roman armies were usually led by men with the rank of consul.

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