What Is a Centurion?

Trace these battle-proven Roman commanders in the Bible

Roman Centurion
Giorgio Cosulich / Stringer / Getty Images

A centurion (pronounced cen-TU-ri-un) was an officer in the army of ancient Rome. Centurions got their name because they commanded 100 men (centuria = 100 in Latin).

Various paths led to becoming a centurion. Some were appointed by the Senate or emperor or elected by their comrades, but most were enlisted men promoted through the ranks after 15 to 20 years of service.

As company commanders, they held important responsibilities, including training, giving out assignments, and maintaining discipline in the ranks. When the army encamped, centurions supervised the building of fortifications, a crucial duty in enemy territory. They also escorted prisoners and procured food and supplies when the army was on the move.

Discipline was harsh in the ancient Roman army. A centurion might carry a cane or cudgel made from a hardened vine, as a symbol of rank. One centurion named Lucilius was nicknamed Cedo Alteram, which means “Fetch me another,” because he was fond of breaking his cane over soldiers’ backs. They paid him back during a mutiny by murdering him.

Some centurions took bribes to give their subordinates easier duties. They frequently sought honor and promotions; a few even became senators. Centurions wore the military decorations they had received as necklaces and bracelets and earned pay anywhere from five to 15 times that of an ordinary soldier.

Centurions Led the Way

The Roman army was an efficient killing machine, with centurions leading the way. Like other troops, they wore breastplates or chain mail armor, shin protectors called greaves, and a distinctive helmet so their subordinates could see them in the heat of the fight. At the time of Christ, most carried a gladius, a  sword 18 to 24 inches long with a cup-shaped pommel. It was double-edged but specially designed for thrusting and stabbing because such wounds were more deadly than cuts.

In battle, centurions stood on the front line, leading their men. They were expected to be courageous, rallying the troops during the tough fighting. Cowards could be executed. Julius Caesar considered these officers so vital to his success that he included them in his strategy sessions.

Later in the empire, as the army was spread too thin, a centurion’s command dwindled to 80 or fewer men. Ex-centurions were sometimes recruited to command auxiliary or mercenary troops in the various lands Rome had conquered. In the early years of the Roman Republic, centurions might be rewarded with a tract of land in Italy when their term of service was finished, but over the centuries, as the best land had all been parceled out, some received only worthless, rocky plots on hillsides. The danger, lousy food, and brutal discipline led to dissent in the army. 

Centurions in the Bible

A number of Roman centurions are mentioned in the New Testament, including one who came to Jesus Christ for help when his servant was paralyzed and in pain. That man's faith in Christ was so strong that Jesus healed the servant from a great distance (Matthew 8:5–13).

Another centurion, also unnamed, was in charge of the execution detail that crucified Jesus, acting under orders of the governor, Pontius Pilate. Under Roman rule, the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, did not have the authority to carry out a death sentence. Pilate, going along with Jewish tradition, offered to free one of the two prisoners. The people chose a prisoner named Barabbas and shouted for Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified. Pilate symbolically washed his hands of the matter and handed Jesus over to the centurion and his soldiers to be executed. While Jesus was on the cross, the centurion ordered his soldiers to break the legs of the men being crucified, to hasten their deaths.

"And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, 'Surely this man was the Son of God!'" (Mark 15:39 NIV)

Later, that same centurion verified to Pilate that Jesus was, in fact, dead. Pilate then released Jesus' body to Joseph of Arimathea for burial.

Yet another centurion is mentioned in Acts 10. A righteous centurion named Cornelius and his entire family were baptized by Peter and were some of the first Gentiles to become Christians.

The final mention of a centurion occurs in Acts 27, where the apostle Paul and some other prisoners are put under the charge of a man named Julius, of the Augustan Cohort. A cohort was 1/10th part of a Roman legion, typically 600 men under the command of six centurions.

Bible scholars speculate Julius may have been a member of the emperor Augustus Caesar’s Praetorian Guard, or bodyguard cohort, on special assignment to bring these prisoners back.

When their ship struck a reef and was sinking, the soldiers wanted to kill all the prisoners, because the soldiers would pay with their lives for any who escaped.

“But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan.” (Acts 27:43 ESV)

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